Monday, July 04, 2005

Oh, those gnostic Unitarians!

Folks who were surprised at the popularity of Elaine Pagels at the recent GA shouldn't have been. Unitarians apparently had discernable Gnostic leanings even before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls in 1945.

For example, there's an out-of-print book first published by Beacon Press in 1935 for use in children's services called The Beacon Song and Service Book for Children and Young People. It used to be common in Unitarian children's chapels; my church's library still has a bunch of copies, and on a recent visit to First Parish in Plymouth I noticed that they still had theirs in the pews of their Brewster Chapel. My church's copies are the Fourth Printing of November 1943, and include some additions that presumably were appended at the time they were first acquired. Pasted to the frontpapers of our copies is an order of service with "We Gather Together", the Lord's Prayer, and "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come", which places my church two generations ago squarely in the Yankee Congregational Christian tradition, and is interesting but not particularly unusual. However, the really eyebrow-raising bit is what is pasted to the endpapers of every copy:


[To those who insist we have always been creedless: neener, neener.]

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
And in Jesus Christ, His Son,
Who was born of Mary and Joseph,
Who lived in a Carpenter's Shop in Nazareth,
Who taught the Sermon on the Mount,
Who died in Jerusalem upon a Cross,
To make me good.

[No particular surprises here. It's more Christocentric than most UU congregations today would accept, but there's no overt supernaturalism, no deity of Christ, no overt confession of the Resurrection -- it's classic Unitarianism.)

I believe that I, too, am a Child of God
And a Citizen of Heaven.

[Again, classic Unitarianism -- with the emphasis on human worth and "likeness to God" rather than sin and separation.]

I believe that I must never, by thought, word or deed, be a traitor to my Heavenly Country; for by so being I should open the gates to those enemies of the Soul -- falsehood, ugliness and fear.

[So, we didn't speak of "sin" per se, but we did speak openly back then in a far more muscular moral and spiritual vocabulary than many UUs today would choose. This is, or at least once was, standard "salvation by character" talk. I presume the omission of the "Harvard commas" is inadvertent.]

I believe that I must live my life in my Earthly Country by the secret knowledge I have in my heart of my Heavenly Country where Truth and Beauty and Love abide.

[Emphasis added. Egad! Zounds! Defeat that demiurge!]

Now unto the King Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, the only Wise God, be honor and glory, forever. Amen.

[From I Timothy 1:17, this was a standard liturgical closing for many years in both Unitarian and Congregational churches.]

The Christocentrism and most of the theology may seem somewhat foreign to many contemporary UUs, but they aren't really out of place in historical Unitarian practice. However, this "secret knowledge" reference sounds strongly Gnostic, and is something I had never heard before in a Unitarian context! Can anybody out there with a firmer grounding in denominational history than I have shed any light on this creed and/or its "secret knowledge" doctrine that we evidently were teaching young Unitarians two generations ago, and where they came from?


At July 5, 2005 at 8:23:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jaume said...

I need some time to stop and listen to the streaming video of Pagels's speech at GA, but although there are some connections between Unitarians and old Gnostics, as you point out (particularly our elitism and our disdain for "gullible" people like regular Christians...), there are also many differences that seem impossible to reconcile: Gnostics rejected matter and felt like strangers in the world (we have rather naturalistic leanings); they were a select minority chosen before the Fall (we believe in salvation for all), they had very complex theologies and creation myths, our theology tends to be minimal... we could go on and on. Some New Age trends are much closer to Gnosticism than UUism will ever be.

At July 5, 2005 at 10:13:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Jaume, until I found this creed in an old book, I would have been predisposed to agree with you.

But when you correctly say that "Gnostics rejected matter and felt like strangers in the world", don't you see the same sensibilities in a creed that avows, "I believe that I, too, am a Child of God and a Citizen of Heaven....I believe that I must live my life in my Earthly Country by the secret knowledge I have in my heart of my Heavenly Country where Truth and Beauty and Love abide"?

"Secret knowledge" is the essence of Gnosticism, and evidently only two generations ago Unitarians were teaching it as a creed. Whassup with that? It's not the same non-creedal, naturalistic or monistic, rational orientation that you describe and that is usually presented in adult-RE "UU History for Dummies" classes today.

At July 7, 2005 at 12:09:00 AM EDT, Blogger Dan Harper said...

Re: the interest in Pagels -- I think there's two things going on. First, the anti-Christian ideology that was still strong ten years ago within UUism seems to be waning, which is probably healthy. Second, we have a long history of trying to get back to "primitive Christianity" before it got spoiled by all those creeds and doctrines, and we have a long history of interest in the higher criticism of the Bible, and Pagels addresses those interests.

Re: secret knowledge and all that stuff -- maybe it's Gnosticism, or maybe it's mysticism. It sounds more like good old Unitarian Transcendentalist mysticism to me, just put into kid language.

By the way, it would be really interesting if you could find out who wrote that little "Creed" that's pasted into the endpapers. Bet there's a story there....

At July 7, 2005 at 12:09:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Scott Wells said...

I'm getting more hints of "heavenly" sentimentalism and an appeal to capitol-E Experience than any kind of Gnostic claim. Christians of that vintage, for instance, approached "the throne of heavenly grace" with the regularity I approach the "10 items or less" line at Whole Foods.

Plus, despite the derivation of the word gnostic, such secret saving knowledge is associated with initiation, so the last place one would find reference to it would be in a children's liturgy.

That said, I think the Beacon Song and Service book is a great resource -- for adults.

At July 7, 2005 at 6:12:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jaume said...

Agreed, that that text has Gnostic leanings, but I do not find it representative of what Unitarians have believed and affirmed for centuries. As for "secret knowledge" that would belong to the Theosophical Society or some Hermetic order of that time rather than Unitarianism. Maybe the writer of that creed was a Theosophist without knowing it! ;-)

At July 7, 2005 at 8:15:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

By the way, it would be really interesting if you could find out who wrote that little "Creed" that's pasted into the endpapers. Bet there's a story there....

Yes, that's precisely what I was wondering. It's printed rather than typed, but it has the name of our church printed at the bottom, so it may have been a custom job just for us. If so, it's probably the work of our minister at the time, the Rev. Dr. Vivian Pomeroy, or his wife Dorothy who ran our children's church. Pomeroy was one of the founders of what is now the UUCF.


Post a Comment

<< Home