THE LAST MIRACLE of Christ, I once suggested to a Christian friend, is that the mystery of Jesus has survived, despite 2,000 bloody years of Christianity. The friend did not reply. Perhaps he prays for me.

Under the terms set out in the Apostle's Creed, I am not today a Christian. Yet I still feel the intimacy of Jesus, having spent so many hours in the earnest years of my youth listening to his words and searching the parables for truth. I am still intrigued, if no longer enthralled, by the mystery. Certainly I am still convinced that Christ's paradoxical message of power and love is the operative truth of the human condition. Whether it is also the keys to the kingdom I am unable to say. So, as a once-removed Christian, I wish to pose a provocative question, partly to stimulate honest questioning but also, perhaps, to prick the rigid righteousness of all those famous preachers who presume to speak for God. We are, as everyone knows, in a new era of religious certainty, the Christ of moral anger, in which deep-water evangelists and their fellow-traveling politicians tell us to disbelieve our eyes and ears, our minds.

They command the world to stop in its tracks. Life is not complicated and changing, they proclaim. Human nature is not indescribably complex and mysterious. The truth of God is simple and harsh. Listen to the preacher and obey.

My question is this: If Christ came to Washington, would he dine at their table? Would he recognize these righteous ones as his own and take his place in their pulpits? Would he summon these TV preachers to his lap and dispatch the rest of us to pedition?

Or would Jesus find Christian heirs in strange places? I am not thinking of the poor and the lame and the little children. Of course, he would gather them in his flock. I am thinking of strange places which offend the contemporary preachers of certitude. A psychiatrist's office, perhaps, where one seeks self-knowledge and freedom from worldly fears. A feminist rally where speakers denounce the social order of male dominance. A laboratory where men and women of supposedly godless science search out small pieces of cosmic, incomprehensible whole.

Here is a stunning thought: despite those old-time religionists, is it possible, I wonder, that Jesus would seem to us thoroughly modern?

In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant discovered in a cave near the town of Nag Hammadi an extraordinary legacy of "underground" Christianity -- 13 papyrus books, bound in leather, which were probably hidden there sometime in the fourth century after Christ because the orthodox church denounced these texts as Gnostic heresies. The books were written by Christ's followers -- some may even predate the orthodox gospels of the New Testament -- but these gospels were successfully suppressed because they describe God and Jesus and life itself in terms antithetical to the Christianity that survived.

"It is the winners who write history -- their way," historian Elaine Pagels of Barnard College observed. "No wonder, then, that the viewpoint of the successful majority has dominated all traditional accounts of the origin of Christianity. Ecclesiastical Christiams first defined the terms (naming themselves 'orthodox' and their opponents 'heretics); then proceeded to demonstrate -- at least to their own satisfaction -- that their triumph was historically inevitable or, in religious terms, 'guided by the Holy Spirit.'"

For those who are curious about the alternatives which history rejected, Pagels' book, "The Gnostic Gospels," (Random House, 1979, now reissued in a Vintage paperback), provides a fascinating and portentous account of the earliest Christian arguments that raged among true believers in the first and second centuries. Christ's followers were small bands scattered around the Mediterranean, trying to keep his vision alive in the world but disagreeing among themselves about the nature of Jesus, his teachings, his death and resurrection.

Pagels is not a born-again Gnostic. On the contrary, her central point is that the political structure demanded by orthodox Christianity -- the authority of bishops and priests and the uniformity of doctrine -- was essential, in historical terms, to the survival and flourishing of the faith. If Christianity had been left to the Gnostics, it might well have splintered into myrian small sects and joined the lost religions of human history.

Nonetheless, Pagels found in the heretical Gnostic texts a strong foreshadowing of modern experience, a sense of God and self which resonates mysteriously with so much of our own contemporary gropings. Gnosis was knowledge or self-discovery and, rather than rely on the authority of bishops, the Gnostics held that each believer must make his or her own search. The search began within.

According to the heretical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus taught: "If you will bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

The kingdom of heaven, it followed, was not a specific place somewhere in the sky but a state of being in which the individual became truly united with the universal divine, a "resurrection" in life, a transformed consciousness in which one realized God. ". . . the Kingdom is inside of you and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize you are sons of the living Father."

The Gnostic Christians, Pagels points out, saw actual events as less important than their perceived meaning. Like modern psychoanalysis, they concentrated on interpreting the nonliteral meaning of words, dreams, actions -- "the internal quality of experience." The teacher Valentinus said all things emerge from "the depth" or "abyss," which psychology has named the "unconscious."

The Gospel of Philip: "Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. One will not receive truth in any other way."

God is indescribable for the Gnostics but must be imagined in various parts: the ineffable, the depth, the primal Father and grace, silence, the womb and Mother of all. Thus, unlike the Hebrew and orthodox Christian traditions which portray God as masculine, the gnostic deity encompassed both male and female qualities, like some other Near Eastern religions. From the "Great Announcement":

" . . .This is one power divided above and below; generating itself, making itself grow, seeking itself, finding itself, being mother of itself, father of itself, sister of itself, spouse of itself, daughter of itself, son of itself -- mother, father, unity, being a source of the entire circle of existence."

This distinction in doctrine and the absence of a priestly hierarchy made a practical social difference to the worshippers. If each must seek the divine individually, if the divine was all embracing, then all believers could be equal -- men and women. In most gnostic communities, they were, according to Pagels. Members of a gnostic cicle in Lyons drew lots to see who would serve a meeting as priest or teacher or prophet. Each meeting chose new leaders.

"Instead of ranking their members into superior and inferior 'orders' within a hierarchy," Pagels explains, "they followed the principle of strict equality. All initiates, men and women alike, participated equally in the drawing; anyone might be selected to serve as priest, bishop or prophet. . ."

The apostles of the New Testament were 12 men, but gnostic texts include many other disciples, including the Gospel of Mary, which recounts Jesus' secret teachings to Mary Magdalene, the despised prostitute.

Finally, what does God look like? The Gnostics sound incredibly arrogant in their individualism, their insistence that each human contains the divine within and can, spiritually at least, become not merely Christian, but a Christ. Yet their vision of God was, in other ways, humble and less presuming than the church authorities who claim to speak authentically for the deioty. The Gnostic imagined God but assumed, in the words of modern theologian Paul Tillich, that there is a "God beyond God," who is too great and universal for man's imagination.

The gnostic doctrine, if fact, foreshadows the religious feeling which morivates many modern scientists -- the awe and wonder and curiosity tward the infinite perfection. At some point, scientific reason confirms the mystery rather than undermines it. Those early Christian heretics defined God as an invisible, incomprehensible primal principle, according to Pagels. Now listen to Albert Einstein on a scientist's religion:

"His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."

Einstein, of course, would be dismissed as a dreaded "secular humanist" by these contemporary preachers who are so sure of their own righteousness. They have made an enemy of reason, declared themselves as keepers of the only truth. But I think our age will rediscover what the Gnostic Christians already understood -- that knowledge in search of self and the natural world does not diminish God's mystery, any more than Jesus can be cheapened by the babble of a TV evangelist.