On the History that Never Was
By W. Dodson

Review by R. Stephen Sparks

Upon reading W. Dodson’s preface to his new work, On the History That Never Was, I was immediately struck by what I presumed to be his (well-reputed) pretension. Note the slimness of book, then read the following excerpt, taken from the preface:

It is my intention herein to divert the stream of history: namely, to postulate a conceivable, nay, probable alternate history of the world based on a theological ‘what if’: What if instead of John’s gospel, the gospel of Thomas had become canonical? (iv)

It seems natural, even inevitable, that the reader exhibit a deal of skepticism. What Bodler is claiming to have done – within 212 pages (187 excluding index and notes) – is to have completely rewritten the history of the Western world over the past nearly 2,000 years. I must be excused if I admit that I geared myself for a failure proportionate to the grandeur of his presumption.
It was with great shock then that I found myself underlining and copying out passage after passage and with even greater shock finding Bodler’s arguments persuasive. But I am here to discuss the book’s merits, not to sing its praises (separating the two may prove difficult).
To start, let us examine the axiom upon which Bodler’s speculations rest:

Both Thomas’ and the Johannine gospels rest on the same foundation, that of Christ’s ‘secret teachings,’ the teachings that Christ withheld from his popular sermons and retained for his disciples… Despite this common foundation, the two gospels are divergent to the point of being antithetical. Thomas relates Christ’s insistence on the divinity within every man; John’s Christ demands belief in Him as the only divine. (2)

This seems a fair assessment of the characteristics of each gospel. And what, according to Bodler, are the worldly correlations to these oppositional views? In the world in which John’s gospel gained supremacy – our world – we would see a spiritual structure based on:

…a strict hierarchy and well-defined, authoritative Church…. with brow-beating and a strong sense of the inadequacy of man to furnish his own salvation…. ‘Man,’ we would be told, ‘is in need of spiritual guidance and it is the responsibility of his religious superiors to prod (or whip, flay, burn) him into conformity, for his soul hangs in the balance, ever on the precipice of eternal damnation…(23)

Thus, Bodler goes on to comment: “we have Inquisition, religious wars… martyrdom… and a near-universal sense of a vague, yet well-deserved guilt” (24). This is our world and Bodler rightly places a great deal of emphasis on the aspects of John’s extremely faith-reliant gospel that have attributed to religious intolerance, fundamentalism, and the destruction of diversity concerning spiritual matters.
Throughout his brief analysis of the world as it has been formed through the influence of such texts as John’s gospel, Bodler remains staunchly objective, though he expresses his honest distaste for the “in-crowd” atmosphere that John revels in.
Of course, it is a sad fact in nearly all religious groups – it is “us” against “them,” the “saved” confronting the “damned” – but through John, we are led straight into intolerance…. This intolerance is missing from the Gospel of Thomas. (26-7)
I must note here that Bodler is not whole-heartedly endorsing or naïvely assuming that a world based on the Thomas would be a better world or that John’s gospel is devoid of spiritual insights or value. He is, as he never tires of reminding us, merely speculating on the “brightest possibilities and most hopeful visions of a history it is still conceivable for mankind to enact” (184).
And now: a world based on Thomas’ gospel?
Let us first examine Bodler’s more radical speculations:

Thomas’ gospel, with its belief in the divinity buried or latent within the soul of every man, woman and child, is a more democratized religion… it dispenses with an authoritative element altogether…. In this vision of Christianity, there is room for an Eckhart, but no Torquemada…. There exists, in seed form, the idea of a common brotherhood of all men, regardless of theological differences. If every man is potentially Christ, how is one man better than another? (57-60)

Bodler is at his best in his raptures – he calls them “daydreams” – on the optimism of Thomas’ Christ’s teachings. And although he waxes for pages sounding like the best of the religious enlightenment thinkers, propounding on the latent possibilities within man, there is never far from the surface of the prose a sense of the necessity of the religion as it came to be. Let us hold that pessimistic, or realistic, tone for a moment and look at one of Bodler’s conjectures on how our history might have been altered if the Gospel of Thomas were the standard rather than the heretical:

Indeed, that period we call the ‘dark ages’ would have occurred regardless of the official religion of the time – there were larger factors contributing to the decline and fall of the empire than that of a relatively minor religious sect. But what would have been different is the way in which the West emerged from those turbulent times. (66)

Would it have been a better world? Bodler is wise enough to leave that decision to the reader. He does not, however, fear risking his neck by prognosticating:

To men concerned with seeking the divinity within themselves rather than through evidence in the external world, science or philosophy would hold little allure… nor would the arts as an exemplar of ‘divine’ inspiration…. The west would resemble the east, a great rift would have never come into existence – neither between east and west, nor between man and his soul… (109)

In the end, Bodler’s bold prefatory statement fails in its promise. The book never achieves the grandness of his presumption – only a vast, universal history would accomplish that. That book would take a genius of an altogether divine order. It would call for the realistic examination of such a noble and banal assortment as economics, husbandry, social organization, fashion, etc. Perhaps that book is possible only in the Creator’s mind.
That being said, I would argue that Bodler’s book is not a failure. It points us in a new direction, a new way of examining our tradition and our future. It opens possibilities, not for mere daydreaming or regret, but for taking a conscious view of the ideas that shape the world around us.

(Entry by R. Stephen Sparks)