Early Christian Controversies Conference

I just put together the poster for the research conference that has come out of the seminar I taught this semester on Early Christian Controversies.  We are looking forward to sharing our work.  I will be opening the conference with a paper I developed this semester called Traumatic Mysteries: Modes of Mysticism Among the Early Christians.  Franklin Trammell will be delivering his Rockwell Post-Doctoral Lecture, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Jerusalem Church.  Our Keynote Address will be delivered by Kelley Coblentz Bautch (St. Edward's University, Austin), Eve and the Feminine Mystique/Mystic.  Join us if you can.

Highlights from Gnostic CounterCultures Conference

I just posted HERE some photo highlights of the Gnostic CounterCultures conference that we hosted at Rice on March 26-28.  It was the most wonderful conference I have ever taken part in.  The papers were outstanding and the energy high.  Thank you all who attended and made this such a terrific and memorable event.  If you missed it, Miguel Connor created a live blog of the event, so check out his highlights HERE.  We will be publishing the papers.  I am aiming for next year.

 Conference Members, photo courtesy of Benjamin Brochstein

Conference Members, photo courtesy of Benjamin Brochstein

A beautiful Easter in Memory of Her

The performance 2015 of Easter in Memory of Her at Christ Church Cathedral was stunningly beautiful.  I don't think there was a dry eye in the congregation including my own.  The women soloists were outstanding yet again.  Every time I see this performance I am taken to the cross. It has become my Easter.

 Crew for Easter in Memory of Her 2015

Crew for Easter in Memory of Her 2015

Interview about the making of Easter in Memory of Her

Listen to internet radio with Teresa Maron on BlogTalkRadio

I was just interviewed for the audio-blog "Joyful Journeys" by Teresa Maron about the making of Easter in Memory of Her.  To listen, you can tune in on your computer at any time HERE

There is a 7-minute introduction with a GEM OF WISDOM offered by co-host Lauren Santerre.  Then Teresa asks me about my inspiration for the Easter play and and its future as a new tradition. 

Join us on Holy Saturday, April 4, at 4 pm, Christ Church Cathedral for an innovative Easter pageant that is becoming a Houston tradition.

Easter in Memory of Her 2015

 Mary the Mother, Easter in Memory of Her

Mary the Mother, Easter in Memory of Her

The Houston Chronicle did a very nice feature of the upcoming event, Easter In Memory of Her, on Holy Saturday at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston.  You might recall that this is an event that I wrote three years ago with Reverend Betty Adams to remember Jesus through the eyes of the women who were at his cross.  It has been set to an original music score and this is the third year in a row that it is being performed in the traditionally silent time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. 

"Easter in Memory of Her" is an innovative musical performance and meditation that imagines the thoughts and prayers of Mary the Mother, the woman at the well, the woman with nard, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as they remember their times with Jesus and endure the sorrow of the cross.

Performance starts at 4 pm, April 4th, 1117 Texas Ave. at Fannin in downtown Houston.   Please join us.

CNN, Finding Jesus, Gospel of Judas

I had hoped to be able to link to a streamed version of CNN's broadcast on the Gospel of Judas which aired Sunday evening.  But I have not had any luck discovering a link.  We went over to a friend's house to watch the episode (admitting we don't have cable).  It was the first time that I saw the episode so I was curious what they would do with the two days of filming that I alone was involved in.  We ate a fine dinner and sat back and enjoyed the show.

 A screen shot from CNN New Day Weekend, Sunday March 15, 2015

A screen shot from CNN New Day Weekend, Sunday March 15, 2015

For all of those who have been writing me, yes, there is much more to the Gospel of Judas then was put into the film (all these details are in my book, The Thirteenth Apostle, and on the rest of the footage they shot in Geneva but didn't use in the film itself). 

The analysis of the Gospel of Judas runs deep and has very significant ramifications for our understanding of early Christianity.  The person of Judas is only one issue and it is rather small compared to what else the Gospel of Judas tells us. 

My take away from the Gospel of Judas is that Christian Gnostics were a big part of the Christian movement and had developed sophisticated forms of Christianity that were at odds (even violently) with catholic or apostolic Christianity (precursor to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy).  The Gnostics who wrote the Gospel of Judas thought that the concept of Jesus' death as a sacrifice to God for the atonement of sins was horrid.  Absolutely and fundamentally wrong. 

These Gnostics thought that sacrifice to gods of any kind was sacrifice to demons.  So they were criticizing the catholics of their time for their central doctrine (atonement) and practice (eucharist or communion meal when Jesus' body and blood were sacrificed on the church altar weekly and eaten).  The demon Judas was responsible for this horrific act and the twelve disciples were responsible for teaching Christians to believe that this demonic act was really for the worship of God.  The Gnostics thought the true God hated sacrifices.

Whatever else we might take away from the Gospel of Judas, this I know.  The doctrine that Jesus' death was a good thing for humankind, a sacrifice that God wanted to atone for the sins of humankind, was not universal among the early Christians.  Some of them abhorred it.

New Day Weekend Interview: Gospel of Judas

Another early morning Sunday.  I went to Video Houston to be patched into CNN New Day Weekend edition.  While staring at a blue light ring around the lens of a camera, I spoke with Christi Paul about Judas' betrayal and the lost Gospel of Judas.  Here is a link to the interview.

CNN Special on the Gospel of Judas

Last October, I traveled to Geneva to the Bodmer Library where the Gospel of Judas is housed.  My purpose?  To take part in the filming of a new documentary about the recovery, conservation and interpretation of the Gospel of Judas. 

It was an absolute thrill to see the Gospel of Judas firsthand, rather than on my computer in photographs.  The manuscript, although grossly damaged, was quite beautiful in its script and legibility.  I was surprised given all the rumors I had heard about its physical state. 

The filming was exhausting but very productive.  I was asked to take the audience through the Coptic text and explain what I think is going on with its translation and interpretation.  Aside from my contribution, there is also comment from Elaine Pagels, Nicola Denzey-Lewis, and Stephen Emmel.  The series consultants are Mark Goodacre, Joshua Garroway, and Candida Moss.

The film is finished.  It will air on March 15th on CNN at 9 pm.  It is the third film in a 6-part series on ancient relics associated with Jesus.  “Finding Jesus. Faith. Fact. Forgery.”  The series blends science and archaeology to examine six Christian relics.  To retell “the greatest story ever told” using state-of-the-art scientific techniques and archaeological research, the series covers the Shroud of Turin, True Cross relics, the Gospel of Judas, John the Baptist relics, the ossuary of James Jesus’ brother, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  The first in the series premiers on March 1.  A companion book to the film, Finding Jesus. Faith. Fact. Forgery, written by David Gibson and Michael McKinley, will be released on February 24.

Sad News: Professor Borg passed away yesterday

I am so saddened to hear that Professor Borg passed away yesterday.  He was one of my heroes early on when he first started publishing his trade books.  I was so honored last fall to meet him for lunch when he came to Houston to speak at the Christ Church Cathedral. If found him to be a kind and soft-spoken person with a powerful message of love for all.

If you have never read his books, try Reading the Bible Again For the First Time.  It is a book I always assign my undergraduates who enroll in my introduction to biblical studies course.

He was inspirational with his message of a liberal Christianity of the heart.  He will be missed.  A tribute to him can be found in the Religious News Service.

Rasimus writes a book review on Apocalypse of An Alien God

Tuomas Rasimus has just published a book review on Dylan Burns, Apocalypse of An Alien God.  It is a well-written piece meant for the general public, so it is very accessible and gives a current state of affairs in terms of scholars' thinking about Gnosticism. 

I agree with Burns and Rasimus, that the Gnostic impulse reflects revelatory traditions frequently found in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought, although I don't confine this impulse to Sethian literature.  While Sethians were Gnostics, not all Gnostics were Sethians.

Here is the link to the book review published in Marginalia, Los Angeles Review of Books.

Book Note: The Open Mind (edited by Jonathan Knight and Kevin Sullivan)

A new edited volume has come out in the Library of New Testament Studies from T&T Clark.  It is a Festschrift for Professor Christopher Rowland (Emertius, Oxford University) put together by his students and friends.  The book is appropriately titled The Open Mind

Chris' work was mind-opening for me years ago when I first read his fabulous book The Open Heaven and then his follow up Christian Origins.  His books were revelations to me, putting me inside of apocalypticism and mysticism in ways I had never thought about before. 

Chris showed me that mysticism is the vertical form of apocalypticism, while eschatology the horizonal.  One dealt with the revelation of God in the present, via direct immediate experience.  The other dealt with the revelation of God at death and the end of time.  This simple breakdown ended up forming the basic structure of my understanding of the ancient mind, and has remained in place for me for the last twenty-five years, informing almost everything I have ever written.

Contributors to the volume include myself, Vicente Dobroruka, Jonathan Draper, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Paul Foster, Charles Gieschen, Andrew Gregory, Jonathan Knight, Philip Munoa, Tobias Nicklas, Andrei Orlov, J.W. Rogerson, and Kevin Sullivan.  Topics range from my own discussion of the cognitive basis for the "universal" structure of ascent narratives to antecedents for angelic incarnations to cosmic mysteries in the Didache

This book is a lovely tribute to the work of a giant in our field, and shows how deeply he has inspired us. 

Weekly Apocryphote: June 8-14

Awaken your divine nature to God.  Strengthen your soul (to be) without evil...Seek what is permanent, what is not generated.  The Father of everything summons you...You have not come to suffer.  Rather you have come to escape from what binds you.  Release yourself, and what has bound you will be undone.  Save yourself, so that what is (in you) may be saved...Why are you hesitating?  Turn around when you are sought.  When you are summoned, listen.

Zostrianos 130.19-131.19; translation is mine

John's Gospel and Intimations of Apocalyptic, edited by Catrin Williams and Christopher Rowland

In July, four years ago (wow has it been that long ago?) a number of us met at Bangor University to discuss new directions in research on the Gospel of John and apocalypticism.  The conference was in response to John Aston's book Understanding the Fourth Gospel, and the fact that the apocalyptic dimensions had not received the kind of study that Aston suggested would be valuable.  How is the text pervaded with themes concerning the apocalyptic or revelation?  How does the Johannine narrative offer intimations of another world, another reality, without a direct theophany typical of so many apocalypses (p. ix)?

I dealt with centuries of mistranslations of John 8:44 and argue in my contribution to this book that this text reveals a long-kept secret that the early Johannine community believed that the devil had a Father who is the Jewish biblical god.  This god is not Jesus' Father.   "Why are the Heavens Closed? The Johannine Revelation of the Father in the Catholic-Gnostic Debate."  I also examine 1 John and show that this letter is written to domesticate the early community's original understanding of John 8:44.  This understanding of the Gospel of John forms now the basis of my understanding of Johannine Christianity, and will resurface in my chapter on the fourth gospel (John and the Dark Cosmos) in my book The Ancient New Age.

If you are interested in the Gospel of John and its intersection with revelation, this volume contains some really "new" ideas and I highly recommend it. 

Authors and Table of Contents:

  • Christopher Rowland and Catrin Williams, Introduction
  • John Ashton, Intimations of Apocalyptic: Looking Back and Looking Forward
  • Benjamin Reynolds, John and the Jewish Apocalypses: Rethinking the Genre of John's Gospel
  • Ian Boxall, From the Apocalypse of John to the Johannine "Apocalypse in Reverse": Intimations of Apocalyptic and the Quest for a Relationship
  • Jörg Frey, God's Dwelling on Earth: 'Shekhina-Theology' in Revelation 21 and in the Gospel of John
  • Catrin Williams, Unveiling Revelation: The Spirit-Paraclete and Apocalyptic Disclosure in the Gospel of John
  • Christopher Rowland, 'Intimations of Apocalyptic': The Perspective of the History of Interpretation
  • April DeConick, Why are the Heavens Closed? The Johannine Revelation of the Father
  • Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer, The Ruler of the World, Antichrists and Pseudo-Prophets: Johannine Variations on an Apocalyptic Motif
  • Loren Stuckenbruck, Evil in Johannine and Apocalyptic Perspective: Petition for Protection in John 17
  • Judith Lieu, Text and Authority in John and Apocalyptic
  • Robert G. Hall, The Reader as Apocalyptist in the Gospel of John
  • Robin Griffith-Jones, Apocalyptic Mystagogy: Rebirth-from-above in the Reception of John's Gospel
  • Adela Yarbro Collins, Epilogue


Transtheism or Numinalism

I am continuing to think about this word that we don't yet have to describe a religious point of view that sees all conventional religions as inadequate human constructions, that have not been able to communicate the experience of an ultimate reality that transcends us.

 Love this randomly generated abstract cloud of words associated with Transtheism!

Love this randomly generated abstract cloud of words associated with Transtheism!

While this must be enough already (I have published two recent blog posted on the subject), it isn't because it remains unresolved for me.  It is an important concept, and I need to be able to talk about it in a way that distinguishes it from other talk about religion. 

For instance, it is different from mysticism because mysticism is the practice of the mystical, when certain activities are undertaken to experience the divine directly.  It is different from perennialism because it doesn't advocate that the world's religions are expressions of the same reality.  In some ways we are dealing with the opposite position, that religions have done a poor job and have yet to express that reality in any really meaningful way.

I am thinking now about these possibilities:

1. Transtheism

The view that the ultimate reality is beyond the gods that the conventional religions advocate.

2. Numinalism

The view that the ultimate reality is the numinal, something that can't be captured by conventional religions.

Religion as timeless

I have been thinking quite a bit about the humanities lately, and what makes the humanities distinctive from other fields of knowledge and ways of knowing.  Why should we care about the humanities at all, since studying humanities' subjects can't create new technology, cure cancer, or build skyscrapers? 

There are two things that immediately come to my mind.  First the humanities is about history, it is about knowing our past, its impact on our present, and how it will shape our future.  The sciences and social sciences are not about our history.  It is not that they don't have a history, but the scientific method and most social scientific approaches are about observing our present and recording those observations.  While cultural anthropologists might be concerned about recording the past of a particular group under study, this is a very local project.  The humanities is about remembering and understanding our past with the distinct desire to apply what we have learned to our present situation, with the hope that we won't make the same mistakes over and over again.

Second the humanities is about knowledge that is "everlasting", rather than progressive knowledge.  Science knowledge improves with time.  As we learn more about the cosmos, physics changes, sometimes with knowledge that shifts the entire paradigm like the theory of relativity.  The same is true of social science, which improves upon itself constantly. 

But subjects in humanities don't really get out-dated nor are they improved upon in the same way as scientific knowledge.  Shakespeare is Shakespeare.  You like him or you don't.  I would make the same argument about philosophy which engages, for instance, logic and morality in only so many ways.  In this way, the knowledge of the humanities is like art.  It is what it is.  It tells us about ourselves.  It is ancient and modern at the same time.  Or timeless, whatever you prefer. Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, captures the essence of what I am saying.

To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world…this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone.”

Religion fits here.  Religion is not about progressing to the best religion.  Religions don't really replace each other (although some may suggest this like Christianity did when it advertised itself as Judaism's replacement).  While some religious ideas are certainly out-dated, by and large, religions today operate the same way they have since as far back as we can trace. 

Even before any sort of complex language, Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead with grave goods in fetal positions, and some people think that they piled up bear bones as religious offerings to powerful spirits.  These religious ideas and practices are as valid today as they were in prehistoric times.  We still concern ourselves with religious burials, and, while we don't pile bear bones up on altars, we certainly place other offerings there, like the body of Jesus.

So I want to spend some time thinking about religion as an art, as timeless.  What aspects have that timeless quality that mirrors our humanity no matter the age?  If we can get a grip on them, I think we come a long way to understanding why human beings are religious and why religion is not going away.

Graduation congratulations

Graduation was this past weekend at Rice.  Rice has a wonderful tradition of the new doctors being hooded by their mentors.  It was a very special ceremony for me, hooding my first too students, who are now on their way as new PhDs., Dr. Franklin Trammell 2007 and Dr. Grant Adamson 2008.

Here are some photos commemorating their graduation.  Photos were taken by various members of their families.

 Four of Rice Religious Studies PhD graduates: Dr. Jonathan Chism, Dr. Franklin Trammell, Dr. Daniel Brubaker, Dr. Grant Adamson, and me.

Four of Rice Religious Studies PhD graduates: Dr. Jonathan Chism, Dr. Franklin Trammell, Dr. Daniel Brubaker, Dr. Grant Adamson, and me.

What words do we have to describe transcendent religion?

I want to thank all of you who have responded to my request for a word to describe a particular worldview that sees all religions as inadequate human constructions of our experience of a transcendent sacred, rather than divine revelations of God to different local populations (pluralism/universalism/perennialism).  I need this word for a new book project (after The Ancient New Age) where I am describing three options that have been emerging in the modern world to deal with religious intolerance.  The third is the option without a name, at least yet!

Here are a few of the terms that have filtered up to the top for me in our blog chat:

1. transuniversalism

I like this option since it could be used to define a perspective that values a universal transcendence that is beyond all conventional religions.  It has the sense of something beyond/at odds with conventional religious universalism. It also has the feel of something transcending the universe.

2. transnuminalism

This option is beautiful, really stunning, since it indicates a transcendence of the numinous, that the numinal is beyond religious prescription. The problem here is that the word "numinal" is not accessible without knowing Otto's description of the sacred.  So the word is not going to be transparent to most readers.

3. transreligionism

This was favored by many of you, and I like it too.  There is one difficulty with the word and that is that it suggests a position that is against religion period.  While people who hold this position view conventional religions as inadequate, this doesn't mean that they are against religion altogether.  It means that they are against the view that religion is a sacred cow, and that scriptures are divine revelations.  Many people who hold this perspective still want to be part of religion, but not as it is conventionally done.

4. transcensionism

I like this word very much.  It captures the transcendent aspect really well since the word actually means the act, process or instance of transcending.  What I don't like is the sound of the word.  It is difficult to say, especially with the -ism on the end. 

Again, I encourage your comments, whether by post here or email, as I continue to try to find and then put into place, into the scholarly discourse, a word for this way of being religious.


I need some help with a word

I am in need of some feedback on the creation of a word to describe the view that conventional religions are inadequate human attempts to concretize our experiences of the sacred and holy, which transcends us all.  This perspective calls people to a universal spirituality that surpasses conventional religions.  

I don't want to use transcendentalism because it is used to describe a specific American literary and philosophical movement.  Neither do I want to use the word universalism because it is already in play to mean all sorts of things, and not this.

So what are the choices and what sounds the best? 

Please leave me a note with your preference or another idea that might work better.

1. transcendentism

2. transcensionism

3. transcendism

4. transcendalism

5. transreligionism