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Celibacy, Christianity and Power : ADAM, EVE, AND THE SERPENT by Elaine Pagels (Random House: $17.95; 189 pp.)

September 18, 1988|Arthur Hertzberg | Hertzberg is professor of religion at Dartmouth College and senior research scholar at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He is a former president of the American Jewish Congress. His books include "The Zionist Idea" and "Being Jewish in America." and

"Adam, Eve, and the Serpent" is an astute work of scholarship about the first four centuries of the Christian faith. According to Elaine Pagels, Christianity was a pluralistic religion in its early years, characterized by a belief in human freedom, deep divisions about the most fundamental doctrines and, in some factions, no stigma attached to human sexuality.

The turn toward repression occurred when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. Since all human beings were fatefully tainted in their very nature (the doctrine of Original Sin in St. Augustine's writings), order had to be imposed by the state. Thus the Christian emperor launched his long career as the agent of the spiritual power, even as the supreme expression of Christian truth.

Elaine Pagels argues that this was not the teaching of the early church. On the contrary, the vision of the early Christians was of a world to come that would be founded on liberty and justice. The source of this vision was in an interpretation of Adam's rebellion: He had elected freedom of choice, and he had paid the price for it by being cast out of the Garden of Eden.

In the world after the Fall, Adam's descendants could maintain their individuality only if they were free to choose their values. "So long as Christianity remained a persecuted movement, the majority of Christian preachers proclaimed the plain and powerful message of freedom that appealed to so many people within the Roman world--perhaps especially to those who had never experienced freedom in their everyday lives."

Pagels learnedly discusses the dichotomous teachings of early Christianity about man's sexual role. Despite the Bible's teachings, both Jesus and Paul had preferred celibacy to the ties of marriage and family, for nothing should stand in the way of total dedication to helping to bring the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Within 100 years, this view was no longer tenable: Needless to say, the Second Coming was not immediately at hand. Christians did marry and have families, as the Bible taught them. Clement of Alexandria, however, severely narrowed marital relations to the minimum interaction necessary for the procreation of children; otherwise sex was essentially forbidden. Even "Christian marriage" remained inferior to chastity.

In the fourth century, Jovianian, a monk from Bethlehem, took the position that celibacy was no holier than marriage and that those who had attributed pro-celibacy views to Jesus and Paul had invented a "novel dogma against nature." Jovianian, as Pagels takes pains to point out, was denounced for this view by such eminent figures as Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine, and Jovianian was excommunicated. Thus the dominant view was established: that marriage is inferior to celibacy. Christianity recoiled from human sexuality, and soon from the freedom of thought.

Pagels regrets this historical turning. She knows the power of the doctrine of original sin as an explanation for the undeserved tragedies of life, and as invocation of divine help with which to bear the sorrows; but the main use of this doctrine has been repression.

Though Pagels is Christian, she is a staunch believer in freedom both of the mind and of the body. Her scholarship has enabled her to find the paradigms of her cherished values in the teachings of many of the early Christian figures. Thus modernity need not quail in shame before the stern finger of orthodox Christianity, for the theory descended from Augustine is not the sole Christian tradition.

Pagels is certainly right that the intellectual hinge on whom these great issues turned was St. Augustine. He looked back on his life before his conversion to Christianity as one of enslavement to the lusts of the flesh. All of mankind, as Tertullian had said two centuries before Augustine, was inevitably infected with Adam's sin--his rebellion against God's will. The taint of original sin passed through the very semen which gives life to human beings. The task of Christianity was repression: of heresy and of the flesh.

Though Pagels casts Rome as culprit for this change, her "absolution" of Christianity is not entirely convincing. Biblical religion did not need to react to state power by inventing original sin and suggesting that only the state and church together could curb it. The Rabbinic writers of those early centuries, those whose work is recorded in the Talmud and the midrashim, knew that man's nature was prone to wickedness and that civil power was required to curb his capacity to act badly. Much as the rabbis hated Rome, they found virtue in political order, for otherwise "man would eat his fellow man up alive." But this view did not push the rabbis to the doctrine of original sin, and to fear and hatred of sex. Monasticism remained always a sin for the rabbis, and they generally opposed systematic mortification of the flesh.

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