The following is a post I wrote as a reflection of my reading of The Gospel of Thomas. You can read it here. The following is my current reflection, and a criticism of Jordan B. Peterson:
As I’m reading The Gospel of Thomas, I’m struck by the way in which the “good news” becomes the “wisdom sayings.” In this way, it reads far more as if it is targeting the individual. For example, Jesus says at one point, by way of “advice,” that the disciples should not do what they hate to do, and before any allusion to the Old Testament is made, or a fulfillment act takes place, much like the Jesus of the Gospels, this “Jesus” talks about the fortune of a lion who is eaten by a human because he then becomes human (v. 7). While Jesus may have said things that were mysterious, they were also intelligible, especially to his hearers.
When Thomas says to Jesus that he is utterly unable to answer Jesus’ question – “what am I like” – and the text leaves it there, it seems to be a fitting summary: it is a de-judaized text. Meaning, it is a text robbed of its Jewish meaning and history. Whether this was intentional or not, I can tell it was not written around the same time as the original four gospels. So, why read it?
(There are reflections of the original four gospels in the text, with many references to cosmic seed upon the earth, and the reference to rock (v. 13) is there, but the revealing of Jesus’ identity is largely kept under-wraps.)
I believe that the purpose of the Gospel of Thomas is unclear. It is the “secret” saying; as the Gnostics would say, the “secret knowledge.” It is a gospel that is much more hostile to the “world,” which is in keeping with more heavily platonic or Gnostic forms of spirituality that see material as a lesser form of the invisible (v. 27-28). And no, I’m not saying Platonism is totally wrong. It is not, of course. In a sense, Platonic Christianity is what built the West and has given us a strong identity, taking us beyond a smaller sect of Second-Temple Judaism, and its many intertestimental expressions. St. Augustine himself said as much. But, in the end, I enjoyed the reading. It is still a gospel that needs to be read, studied, and debated. Not unlike how Plato deserves to be studied, debated, and explained by the church.
I was recently at an event in Houston, where professor Jordan Peterson was speaking. Right at the end, before he exited the stage, he quoted the Gospel of Thomas, making a note of the revealing of the Kingdom. He wanted people to “see it.” It was a comment met with a standing ovation! I must admit, I applauded as well. It was a powerful moment of clarity and unity. Nevertheless, I have a disagreement.
Peterson often talks at length about the value of religion, especially Christianity. Of course I appreciate this immensely. I even celebrate the fact that his Bible lectures sell out auditoriums, even though they have a Jungian edge to their interpretations. It is, as he said elsewhere, an attempt to give a “secular” treatment of the biblical texts. But Peterson often comes up short with the metaphysical aspects of Christianity, and in this way, he is not an orthodox Christian (or, you might say a “christian”). He is, however, something more akin to a Gnostic christian.
Quoting the Gospel of Thomas is perfect for Peterson. It is a text rife with wisdom sayings that are applicable, and can still make sense, apart from their source, Jesus. Even while reading 12 Rules For Life, I was struck by its fiery common grace. It was not the Gospel. It was something closer to, “the religious significance is that which affects you, personally, as an individual.” It is a very acceptable form of Gnosticism, which prizes the metaphorical, and not the transcendent; the personal above the powerful. It is “powerful,” Peterson might say, but not by its content, by its effects in the world.
For me, I’m grateful. Peterson has helped to open up a dialogue that simply was not possible before his work. It is pushing back against leftist authoritarianism and its many step-children. He has re-introduced the world to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and helped hundreds of thousands of individuals clean up their lives and be productive members of society. I like his approach. I just think that Christianity, robbed of its orthodox content, is still irrelevant on a broader scale. What I’m looking for is a move in which this vision of the individual once again grasps the eternal, beyond the characters of mythology, and our own projection.