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?