What If?

As a child I remember hearing a story about a couple of young time travelers. Two children take a trip thousands of years into the past. They are cautioned by their guide that they absolutely must not stray from the path they’re walking as they visit the ancient world. Of course one of them disregards the warning and goes exploring, in the process inadvertently stepping on a butterfly. When the children return to the present, they find a vastly different and now incomprehensible world.

I often wonder how things would be today if there had been a different turn of events somewhere along the way. What if Joseph Smith had lived a decade or two longer? What if Eliza R. Snow had never penned “Oh My Father”? What if Saul had never had his epiphany and written all those epistles? Do you ever wonder what the world would be like today if a different sect of Christianity had taken control back in those early days? I do. In the book I’m currently reading*, I’ve been introduced to an early Christian Gnostic named Valentinus.Called “The Almost Pope” by Stephan Hoeller, Valentinus was a candidate for the office of bishop of Rome. According to the writings of another powerful church father, Tertullian, he lost the election by a rather narrow margin. What if he had won?

On the nature of God, Valentinus taught that the deity was a dyad consisting of God the Father and God the Mother. He based his teaching on Genesis (1:26) And God said let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .” All humankind, according to Valentinus, was the conjugal offspring of the masculine mind (nous) and the feminine wisdom (epinoia). He called this couple the “Primal Father” and the “Mother of All”.

Valentinian practice was radically egalitarian; in fact, he allowed women priests to baptize. Women were drawn to his sect in large numbers. So much so that Irenaeus, the Orthodox bishop of Lyon, accused the male Valentinian leaders of resorting to aphrodisiacs and seduction as recruitment methods.

In addition to a theology that equally recognized the masculine and feminine aspects of God, the Valentinans provided a less damning interpretation of the Adam and Eve story. To them, the Fall from the Garden of Eden describes humanity’s “fall” into consciousness. Perhaps in this story the serpent—which until the Old Testament was viewed as a symbol of feminine power— could be viewed as a benificent creature bestowing humanity with a most precious gift, with Eve having the wisdom to accept it.

How might things look today if this had become the prominent viewpoint? Explorefaith.org columnist Marcia Ford poses a few more “what ifs”.

What if the so-called Gnostic gospels were true? What if the early church had in fact been conceding to Roman culture—and not to the will of God, as many assume today—in relegating women to “silent” status in their gatherings? What if the men who determined the canon of the New Testament really were politically motivated, as some charge, rather than led by God to include certain books and exclude others? What if Jesus intended all along for women to enjoy equal status with men?

Things turned out the way they did, but I like to explore the “what ifs.” It opens up new ways to view the present, enriches my understanding of the past, and widens possibilities for the future. On this Valentine’s day, I tip my hat to Valentinus and wonder how vastly different my lot might be had he won that election and become Pope.*Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Penguin. 1999.

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  1. Lizzilu says:

    I like this post.
    What an incredible difference Valentinus would have made to the Catholic church. Like how accepting of other current social issues would it have been? If Valentinus was the pope then the fall out from that would probably have meant the protestants wouldn’t have come about.
    In the “what ifs” though I have always wondered about our growth as a church had polygamy not been involved in the early years. Idon’t think it would be where it is today .
    I’m so distracted right now, and trying to rush that I will have to post again later.

  2. Eric James Stone says:

    The story is “A Sound of Thunder,” by Ray Bradbury.

  3. Deborah says:

    I had the same thought, Eric. That’s the first story I read with my 8th graders this year, and they keep bringing it up, hunting for “butterfly moments” in their own lives and in literature. Amazing how compelling the idea is — the road less traveled in relief.

    I hope there’s a “holodeck” in heaven that lets me view the lives I could have had if I had taken that other job, traveled a different route home that day, dated the other guy . . .

    It also makes me think of the line in the Yalom text on group counseling. Part of therapy is asking the question, “Are you satisfied with the world you’ve created?”

  4. Marsha+ says:

    It has been my personal experience and revelation that the Gnostic Gospels are true. True in the sense that “Myth is always truer than history” ( a quote from A.B. Kuhn)
    Certainly the words of the Gospel of Thomas, such as saying 77:
    Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.
    Split a piece of wood; I am there.
    Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”
    All these things are True.
    Perhaps the question should be, What if the ancient gnostics had become the large group rather than, What if the Gnostic Gospels were true.
    Did not the leaders of the church teach that the Word of God has been in all places and times and that more documents such as the BoM would be found? I am sure I read that in the DnC at some point. It is my belief that the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library is one such manifestation of this.

    Your Sister in Gnosis,

    Father Marsha Emrick+

  5. AmyB says:

    Lizzilu, the polygamy question is another very interesting what if. I also wonder what would have happened had the Mormons stayed in the east rather than migrated west and grown in isolation.

    Eric, thanks for the link. I thought it might have been a Bradbury story.

    Deborah, I love the holodeck thought. I hadn’t really thought about the personal “what if” questions, I was thinking more on a historical basis. But the personal ones are important because that’s where we can actually have an effect.

  6. Caroline says:

    Amy, I love this post! I had never heard the story of Valentinus before. It is amazing how such a very small margin could have determined such a drastic change in the Catholic church. It makes me think of the 2000 elections. Just a few more votes and Al Gore would have been president, and how very different the world might look today.

    I also think about the ‘what if’s’ in regards to the Mormon church. I’ve talked to Armand Mauss, famous sociologist, about this, and he thinks there’s a good chance that if JS had lived longer, he would have realized polygamy wasn’t working and called an end to it. JS was a great experimenter, and he wasn’t afraid to abandon things when they went wrong. (kirtland bank, united order, etc.)

    Armand also thinks that if JS had lived, women might have a much higher status in the church than they currently do.

  7. Caroline says:

    Marsha, thanks for your comment. I love that quote from the Gospel of Thomas.

  8. Grace says:

    Valentinus is a fascinating individual, but Stephan Hoeller’s book is not the place to learn about him. I would look other places. Saying you learned real history from Hoeller’s book is a bit like saying you learned real history from Dan Brown’s books.

  9. Wes says:

    Perhaps women’s roles would have been improved with JS living longer. If so, then why did God take us down the path we have been taken? As lizzilu stated, perhaps the Protestant revolution would not have even come about if Valentinus had been elected Pope. Did God sacrifice something from the status of women in order to take the Church or the World down this path. And if so, what is the future He wants for us that we couldn’t have had if we had gone down a different path?

    I have never heard of Valentinus before, but if the post is accurate concerning his teachings and beliefs, I think I miss him a little.

  10. Brooke says:

    Wow. Thanks for that fascinating post, Amy.

    On a slightly related note, have you ever read Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. It’s a pretty cool “what-ifs” story where people can go back in time and change things.

  11. Bored in Vernal says:

    I second the endorsement of Pastwatch!

    Amy, your description of Valentinus really appealed to me. More thoughts on him here.
    Grace, do you have suggestions on where to read more about this interesting character?

  12. Lynnette says:

    Those are fun questions; I also find it entertaining to think about counterfactuals, about how history might have been radically different if small events had been altered. And I don’t know what to do with the question I think Wes alludes to–to what extent is God involved? Is he micromanaging history, or is he simply working with the course it ends up following?

    Like several others here, I’m attracted to the gender egalitarianism which can be found in some gnostic writings. On the other hand, I have to admit that I don’t find gnosticism in general all that appealing; at least from my own admittedly limited knowledge, it includes a number of rather disturbing elements, such as the view that salvation consists of secret knowledge only available to an elite minority, the rejection of the body as evil, and some serious anti-Semitism. Still, I agree that it’s interesting to contemplate where we’d be now if more egalitarian views on gender had carried the day in early Christianity.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  13. AmyB says:

    I had written a response to Marsha before I dashed out the door to work this morning. Apparently it didn’t post. I too like to read through scriptures in the mythical and metaphorical sense, and I tend to think that’s where some of the greatest truths are found. I’m also intrigued that women Gnostic Priests are called “Father”. There’s something I’ll do some studying up on!

  14. AmyB says:

    Caroline, The Joseph Smith “what if” is a big one for me. It seems that women would have higher status now, and I think the LDS church as it is today would likely be significantly different.

    Grace, I didn’t read Hoeller’s book. I googled Valentinus after reading a little about him in “The Alphabet vs. the Goddess” and came across a webpage that quoted Hoeller. I admit I still know very little about Valentinus, although I’m interested to learn more if you have a good suggestion.

    Wes, I’m not necessarily convinced that things are the way they are because that’s the way our divine parents planned it. That seems to me to be at odds with the fundamental doctrine of agency. Do we not make our own choices along the way, and have not all people since the beginning of time had the same privelege? Or were people made to make certain choices along the way throughout history so that we could have the Mormon church exactly as it is today? I run into trouble personally when I think that God is that closely involved in things. I just can’t wrap my brain around how God helped Sister Smith find her keys, but allows genocide in Darfur. I suppose this discussion does get at some basic philosophical questions, like Lynette mentioned, as well as just how divinely inspired one thinks church policy is.

    Brooke, thanks for the book recomendation. I haven’t read any Card in ages, but I enjoyed him when I did.

    Lynette, as I googled I did get the sense that there are some aspects of Gnosticism I might not love. I do still wonder how profoundly it would have effected Christianity up even until today had Gnostic leaders taken power. Thinking about it also makes me realize how much some of those early Christian writers influenced the course of Christianity and still inform our current worldviews.

  15. Wes says:

    I agree that God is not involved to that extent. But I think He is to some degree. I think He allowed JS to die at that time (He certainly could have saved his life) becuase it served some future purpose. Perhaps as a builder of faith among those that follow. Whatever that purpose is, I wonder what purpose God sees in our future that we may not have attained if our past had been different.

  16. Kaimipono says:

    Great question, Amy.

    I agree with Caroline — so much about the church might be different if Joseph Smith had lived a little longer. His statements — on one occasion, for instance, he essentially promised that women would receive the priesthood — suggest a radical vision that was not at all tied to his own past experiments. He experimented with different ideas, and stuck with the ideas that worked best. Also, towards the end of his life, his theology really began to develop in radical directions — the King Follett discourse, Heavenly Mother, etc. It would truly be interesting to see that counter-factual world.

    Deborah,

    I second your hope for a holodeck. I sometimes wonder about paths not taken. Maybe someday, all will be made clear.

    Marsha,

    Thanks for the thoughts on Gnosticism and truth, I enjoyed them.

  17. Lilith says:

    Wow. I am new to this site. My professor informed me of this site and I will have to thank him. What if this Valentinus had lived and won? Would the LDS church as we know it today be prepared in a way to accept women in leadership positions? In the priesthood? It sounds like they did back then, why not now? They do in the temple, so obviously it’s not like we are unable. How much of what we practice is God’s word and how much of it is God’s word interpreted through imperfect men subject to the same flaws, to the same bias and cultural traditions as every other human being? I am taking a course on Women in Islam right now and it has opened my eyes to how much a culture can change the practice and interpretation of one religion. The question of polygamy is a fascinating one. I did some in depth research on this topic and its practice, not among Mormons, but a comparison between the Middle East and African polygamous cultures. The overall result, same practice equals drastically different experiences among women. But I ramble.
    Thank you for posting that about Valentinus. Once again, history shows how sneaky Lucifer is. In same breath though, the protestant reformation did happen, proving once again that God is smarter, it’s us, the human element that seem to take so long in getting it.

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