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Ware Lecture by Dr. Elaine Pagels, General Assembly 2005

General Assembly 2005 Event 4073

Speaker: Dr. Elaine Pagels, Professor of History, Princeton University

For the first time, the same person was selected as the awardee for the Melcher Book Award and as the Ware lecturer. The program opened with the book award, as the Rev. Phyllis O'Connell read from the book award, citing how Dr. Elaine Pagels has "given clarion voice to long-lost and long-suppressed expressions of earliest Christianity" and has planted "whole new gardens of theological possibilities."

President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Dr. William G. Sinkford, introduced the evening's Ware lecture, which, he said, is a way to "provide a kind of outside view to our faith community," to be "outside our comfort zone" as Unitarian Universalists, but thereby to deepen our own faith understandings.

Referring to the discussions over the last two years responding to his call for a "language of reverence" for Unitarian Universalists, Sinkford suggested that he himself was "looking for some help from this Ware lecture."

William Sinkford

Tonight is, I believe, unprecedented. This is the first time that one individual has both received the Melcher Book Award and been the Ware Lecturer at our General Assembly.

That individual is Dr. Elaine Pagels.

Because this is extraordinary, we have some extraordinary business to do before the Lecture itself.

Let me first introduce Rev. Phyllis O'Connell, Chair of the Melcher Book Award Committee.

[Rev. O'Connell's remarks]

[Rev. Sinkford's remarks, continued]

Since 1922, the Ware Lecture has provided Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist leaders with thought-provoking, inspirational, and challenging words from prominent thinkers, activists and social leaders. Lecturers have given us the great gift of an outside view of what our faith should be paying attention to.

The list of Ware Lecturers is distinguished. Social worker Jane Addams and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr were among the first lecturers. In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the Ware Lecture crowd that when it does its job, the church is the "moral guardian of society." In more recent years, Rev. Jesse Jackson, May Sarton, Dr. Helen Caldicott, Norman Lear, and Morris Dees have graced the Ware Lecture stage.

This year, we turn again to theology. You know my long held and deeply felt believe that our faith needs to reclaim the use of traditional religious language and even re-engage with our very Christian roots. It will not surprise you that I'm looking for some help from this Ware Lecture on that issue.

But it is the current religious and political climate in this nation that makes our need urgent.

In these days when religious fundamentalism dominates the public square and threatens to breach the firewall created by our ancestors between church and state, religious freedom itself seems at risk.

But what we need to fear most is not the presence of faith in politics, but the dominance of a religious fundamentalism which proclaims that there is only one way to be religious, only one scripture worthy of being read and followed, only one way to be a family, only one way to lead a good life.

We know differently. We know that we are all on a religious journey. We know that our religious pluralism can be a blessing, not a curse. We know that our religious differences need not divide us.

But we have lacked capacity and resource to move beyond proclaiming that Good News to making it effective in the world. Dr. Pagels offers us the invaluable insight that the Christian tradition, which is being used in such a narrow and mean spirited way, has always been one of great theological diversity. Her work shows us that Christianity has always included the Gospel of Love which is at the heart of our faith.

Dr. Pagels, I know I've set you no small task.

It is my great pleasure to introduce the 2005 Ware Lecturer, Dr. Elaine Pagels.

Dr. Pagels began by describing her own upbringing: Protestant "in a tradition that's pretty boring." She fell, for a time, "in love with" evangelical Christianity, and then fell out of love with it.

An important influence on her work came in 1945 when not only the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, but another sealed jar with over 51 ancient writings, including the Gospel of Thomas, which was first published in 1959. The first reaction of scholars was to treat them as heretical, and project their assumptions about heresy onto the texts. By the time Pagels got to graduate school, she recounted, scholars were rethinking the place of these gospels, as well as the four canonical gospels.

Pagels described the gospels as "like listening in on an argument," where different communities asked "What's the good news about Jesus?" She outlined ways in which the gospels of Thomas and John are similar: each assumes familiarity with the stories such as are found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; each presents knowledge beyond that found in the public preachings of Jesus; each deals with the Kingdom of God as an "actual ongoing spiritual reality here and now"; each stresses a metaphor of light for God and for Jesus.

Yet they differ, too. In Thomas, the "good news is that Jesus manifests divine light—and so do we," Pagels said. The author of John "knows the kind of teaching in Thomas," Pagels added, and "writes a gospel to set people straight." In John's gospel, Jesus is the "only-begotten son" and Jesus is God incarnate, while the rest of us are nothing like God. John's gospel even turns Thomas into a character who has no faith, "missed the meeting" where Jesus was revealed after the crucifixion, and finally "gets it" that Jesus is Lord and God.

From the second through fourth century, the ideas in John are developed while those in Thomas are forgotten or suppressed, suggesting John's approach is "the only possible truth," which, Pagels said, "impoverishes Christianity."

Pagels, during her lecture, moved around the stage in an animated presentation, and occasionally called for specific slides of the sayings from the Gospel of Thomas to be displayed on the screen as she explained them. At the end of her talk, she asked that we "open our conversation" with some questions from the floor.

In that period, Pagels addressed such issues as Mary Magdalen and women in ancient Chrsitianity and the Trinity's history. "What's striking," she said in response to the latter topic, "is that there were Christians for 300 years before there was a 'doctrine of the Trinity'."

Sinkford came back on stage to thank Pagels for her "entirely engaging" talk, commenting that as far as he could see, "no one has left the hall." She remained after the talk to sign copies of her latest book.

Books by Elaine Pagels:

  • Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003)
  • The Origin of Satan (reprint: 1996)
  • The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (reprint: 1992)
  • The Gnostic Gospels (reissue: 1989)
  • Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988)

Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis; edited by Margy Levine Young.