Sacred Dogfood: Humanism Goes Sour in America
Do not give what is sacred to dogs,
who will only discard it on a manure pile.
Logion 93, Gospel of Thomas
So I'm saying that this humanist tradition has always been around, astoundingly, side by side with religion, from the very beginning. Don't think we moderns invented it. Seems there have always been those who doubted, or at least resisted the shamans, the ever-present priests, those who claim to speak for the gods.
“Question Authority” was not a slogan originating in the sixties, somewhere in California…
I find this thrilling. Not that I'm a libertine, exactly. I respect tradition, but I've always been restless with the Establishment's version of things---because it's obvious that somewhere the damned human race blew it, took a wrong turn. Something's incomplete, something's missing. We're here, whether we like it or not, and there's no instruction book. Or there are too may of them, and upon close inspection they prove to be flawed, imperfect, incomplete, like everything else human. The books; empires and kings, all things human. Ideas, kingdoms, you and I. We struggle, crash and die. The books and us. We're still looking for it, some of us at least, and it comforts me to know that that has always been the case.
I'm calling this attitude an elementary, prototypical humanism… I mean to trace its trajectory here, through recent centuries at least, and in broad outline.
“Doubting Thomas” was to become, in time, Doubting Thomas Jefferson. Himself an intellectual, considered something of a snob by the “evangelicals” of his day (who no doubt doubted his salvation), he was concerned enough to produce his own edited version of the New Testament. (The Jefferson Bible…google it!). Doubting Thomas Jefferson doubted the authenticity of some of the reported opinions of such as the Apostle Paul, along with the rest of the Epistles, the Book of Revelation, some of the sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels, i.e. telling some of the Jews that their father was the devil and that they were thus heading for hell, the rants about the End of the World, the cursing of the fig tree, and the like. But the existence of Jesus he did not for a minute doubt: behind the garbled and twisted account he saw in the New Testament there must certainly have existed a giant of a man, the greatest of all the poets, an unforgettable human being, a Truly Enlightened One. So he took out his red pencil and deleted all the stuff he didn't like, leaving only the sublime residue: the parables, most of the Sermon on the Mount, the bare bones of the Passion narrative. To the corruptions of Christianity, he said, I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself…
What does all this have to do with the Gospel of Thomas?
I know what you're thinking. You expect me to draw up a comparison, to say that obviously the same sort of thing must have happened in the case of the Thomas of the past, the “Twin,” the other “humanist,”the unknown figure behind the GT. For obviously he too did some distillation---and was much more radical than Jefferson. He removed all traces of narrative: no birth stories, no miracles, no crucifixion, no resurrection, leaving only a collection of sayings. He too wanted a Jesus more palatable, more manageable, did he not? He too had a ready red pencil. And BTW, he too liked the Sermon on the Mount, for he left much of it in. He was surely an early Thomas Jefferson!
Not so. It was the other way around. The Gospel of Thomas represents a primitive sayings tradition, extant apparently before the story of Jesus was given a running narrative format. “Thomas” was not someone who sat down and set about cleaning up an already existing Jesus tradition… Evangelicals like to dismiss Thomas in that manner, saying smugly that “Thomas is second century,” or something of the kind. That won't work. First of all, so are the canonical gospels…! It now appears that there existed (at least) two traditions, at the end of the first century: the sayings tradition and the “resurrection” tradition. And secondly, there is mounting evidence that the sayings tradition is much more ancient than the narrative we know so well from the story in our Bibles. A teaser: in logion 12, Jesus' “brother” James the Just One, is seen to be still alive, and is named as the one second in command when it comes to Wisdom. We know that this James was killed in 62 a.d.--so this just might put Thomas way back! But seriously, a certain kind of common sense informs us that something as stupendous as the resurrection event (which produced the eventually triumphant Church and the four gospels we know) could hardly be completely ignored in a supposedly subsequent collection of Jesus material.
Jefferson was more correct than he could have imagined. He had tapped into the ancient humanist tradition of the real Jesus, who was himself concerned with what sort of developments might well ensue when the sacred Wisdom that he was seeking to impart would be thrown to the dogs in order to produce literalist religious systems for the masses, manipulated to mandate their dubious projects: war, greed, consumerism, the quest for power and glory.
A certain vital humanism, sacred indeed, may have motivated the original American experiment, but it's a long way from either of our Thomases to Donald J. Trump...