Riddle Me This
Many of the
sayings of Jesus are riddles. Jesus seems to have known that any truth
he might simply tell you would not do you as much good as some truth you
might come to by your own efforts. In this he was like Socrates who
sought to coax his hearers to produce the truth from within themselves.
That's where it was, if they would only realize it. As Tillich said, our
problem is not that we are strangers to the truth, and so must be
introduced to the truth from without, by someone else. No, our problem
is that we have somehow become estranged from some truth that we
really know, deep down. So we need someone to jog our memory, to prompt
us to put two and two together. And so Jesus lets fly one of his
sayings, followed after a pause with an implicit "Get it?"
Thomas, saying 5
is one such saying. "Jesus said: ‘Know what is in your sight, and what
is hidden from you will be revealed to you. For there is nothing hidden
which will not be manifest." The saying assumes we are curious about
some great mystery. There is some blank we want very much to fill in,
and so we look for a way to get the information. Where to find it? “Say,
isn't Jesus Christ a heavenly revealer? Why not go ask him?"
Jesus the answer man. But he will not be cast in such a role, no matter
how much traditional Christian theology may wish to portray him so.
Theologians approach him with questions, but he answers them with more
questions. And so here.
He seems to be
saying that the mystery is not what or where you think it is. In fact,
something only seems to be mysterious to you because you are failing to
grasp something obvious. If you can figure out A, then Z becomes B, it
falls right into line. Your problem is that you think you understand the
basics, but you don't. And that is why something else seems so
complicated. It wouldn't if you'd got off on the right foot at step one.
Recently I had an
inexplicable malfunction on my fax machine. The machine is built to send
me a printout self-diagnosis, but it couldn't give me a clue. I felt the
headache coming on. What on earth could be wrong? No doubt some glitch
in the dilithium microsubprocessors that I could never find in a million
years. And then I discovered that the phone jack had slipped out of the
socket. That was it. We ignore the simple thing before our nose and go
on a great quest, a wild goose chase.
The disciples are
all set to go on a safari for the mysterious truth. And Jesus tells
them, save your trouble. What you're looking for is right at your feet.
Don't you see it? "Know what is in your sight, and what is hidden shall
be revealed to you." Because it is what is in your sight that is hidden
in the first place. Somehow you do not see it.
Poe and the Police
As I read this
saying, I thought immediately of Poe's tale, "The Purloined Letter." Had
Poe known the Gospel of Thomas, he might have used the fifth saying as
an epigram, because it is a perfect summation of the premise of the
story. Perhaps you know it. It is one of the three adventures of Poe's
pre-Sherlockian Sherlock Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin.
One day the
frustrated prefect of the Paris police knocks on Dupin's door and tells
how he and his men have been searching for months for a stolen letter,
all without success. It seems that the queen had received some sort of
love letter from a secret admirer and had hastily stashed it on her desk
when the king came in. While his majesty did not notice the letter, soon
a conniving government minister entered and did readily recognize the
letter and what it meant. He managed to pocket it in plain sight of the
queen who however dared not say anything lest the king be alerted to her
indiscretion. The minister kept the letter to blackmail the Queen into
favoring his policies. The Queen set the police on the trail of the
minister to retrieve the letter as discretely as possible. They have
made nightly searches of the minister's apartment, but to no avail.
Every imaginable hiding place has been scrutinized with utmost care, but
nothing. Eventually Dupin saves the day, reasoning that the minister, a
clever rogue of his acquaintance, would have anticipated the secret
searches and outwitted the police by "hiding" the letter out in plain
sight in a letter rack on the mantel. No one thought to look there!
story has attracted a lot of critical attention. Jacques Lacan discusses
it in his "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'." Then Jacques Derrida
critiqued Lacan, in his own "The Purveyor of Truth." Finally, Barbara
Johnson mediated their debate in her "The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan,
Derrida." I won't try your patience with the whole agenda of the debate,
but here is something significant I got out of it. All the critics agree
that in Poe's story the stolen letter functions as a symbol for
communication in general. Every message, whether oral or written, is
like a letter sent from sender to receiver. And just as the Queen's
letter was stolen, and finally stolen again from the thief, every
communication of ours is liable to go astray, to miscommunicate our
meaning. A caricature of our words may return to haunt us. Our words may
come to the ears of others whom we did not intend to hear them, and what
was meant innocently becomes problematic. Every communication of ours
may be misconstrued, its meaning lost in echoes.
And even when
deprived of any particular meaning, the mere fact of the letter, of the
thing having been said, is powerful and continues to make waves, as
when, long ago, in a famous incident, Alexander Haig was embarrassed and
discredited after the near assassination of President Reagan. He said,
"I'm in control here in the White House," but the media did not hear the
last few words and leaped to the conclusion that Haig was power-mad and
had leapfrogged the whole line of succession. By the time they realized
they were wrong, the damage had been done. Meaning had strayed; Haig's
letter had been purloined.
Dead Letter Office
Purloined Letter," I could not help but think of another letter, the
Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. This was the passage that came to
mind: "Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our
assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken
in mind or excited, either by spirit [i.e., by a prophecy] or by word
[i.e., oracle], or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect
that the Day of the Lord has come" (2:1-2).
There are a few
places in the Pauline corpus where he mentions some lost letter. This
makes New Testament scholars drool: a lost letter by Paul! Or in this
case perhaps an early pseudo-Pauline forgery! Scarcely less intriguing!
What is this letter? What happened to it? If only we might see it! What
a mystery! Except that the mystery might well dissolve if we noticed
something right in front of us. For more than likely the "lost" letter
is simply First Thessalonians!
It might be that
First Thessalonians, which does seem to say that the coming of
the Lord is immediately at hand, is a forgery which Second Thessalonians
means to correct. Or maybe it is Second Thessalonians which is a forgery
trying to undo the damage caused by First Thessalonians, which had
catastrophically disappointed people with a premature expectation of the
Second Coming. Or maybe both letters are genuine, but Paul had not meant
to say the Second Coming was quite that imminent, and he regrets that
his letter had been misread.
In the few verses
after those we just read in the second chapter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul
lists the signs of the oncoming end, just to show that, since some of
them haven't transpired yet, the apocalypse can't be expected
immediately. One of these is the rise of the "son of perdition, who
opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of
worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, pretending to
portrait of the Antichrist was derived from the attempt (39-40 CE) of
the Emperor Caligula to install a divine image of himself to be
worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple. You may be interested to know what
happened next. When this plan was announced, the Jews sent an embassy to
Petronius, the Roman legate in Palestine. They threatened an
agricultural strike, martyrdom if necessary. Petronius realized how high
the stakes were, so he sent a letter to Caligula, asking him not to send
the statue. Caligula received the letter, didn't like it, and promptly
dispatched a letter ordering Petronius to kill himself. The letter went
on its way, but while it was in transit, Caligula himself died. This
news, too, was sent to Petronius. Which letter would reach him first?
The order to commit suicide, which as a loyal Roman he would have
obeyed? Or the letter that would nullify the order to kill himself?
Petronius owed his
life to the fortuitous circumstance that the news of Caligula's death
arrived first! His life had been saved by the purloining, the prolonging
of the delivery, of the first letter. So the meandering, the straying of
meaning, may be saving grace. The unpredictable dissemination of meaning
may be the chance mutation that allows survival.
In any case, First
Thessalonians turns out to be the Purloined Epistle mentioned in Second
Thessalonians. "Purloined," as Lacan points out, derives from the same
root as "prolonged" and implies the letter has gone astray before
finally reaching its intended destination. And this is what happens, or
at least what can too easily happen, in all of our attempts to
communicate. Paul had tried to communicate the hope of an early Coming
of Christ, but that promise was delayed, prolonged, purloined, and so
the letter in which he said it became a purloined letter.
Indeed, at this
point it occurs to me that all of Paul's Epistles are purloined
letters (and so is the rest of the Bible). Why? Because you and I, and
all Christians of the twenty-first century, are reading these documents
which were addressed to the concerns of people long dead. They have
somehow become misrouted in the meantime! Whenever somebody in the early
church collected these letters of Paul from the churches he had
originally sent them to, he rerouted the letters. Ever since then, we
have been reading somebody else's mail.
And that's where
hermeneutics, the whole science of Bible interpretation, comes in. We
need rules, as if there could be any, for redirecting a writer's words
written for others, as if they were addressed to us. It's a pretty
tricky business, full of ambiguity. And yet worthwhile. For no one would
deny that we can eavesdrop on Paul's letters to Rome and Thessalonica
and Corinth and pick up some valuable pointers. But in the last
analysis, that's what we're doing: reading somebody else's mail.
I think it is
significant that Islamic theologians deny that a letter could properly
be considered scripture, since a letter is a word from one human being
to another, not a word of God to humanity. I appreciate their insight
that any word from God that we overhear must be very oblique, and the
lessons we draw from it must be very tenuous. We simply have no business
citing these texts as the conclusion of an argument, as a theological
trump card. Paul wasn't trying to referee the particular game we are
playing in the twenty-first century. He was in the first-century arena.
So we have to be charitable in our interpretations of the Bible. Since
mine is no less an indirect inference than yours, I had better listen to
yours as seriously as I want you to take mine. Since we are both
siphoning off meaning unintended for us, we had better be careful about
it and not accuse each other of purloining Paul's letters too quickly,
because that sword cuts both ways.
Paul's meaning was
derailed, misrouted insofar as the Thessalonians mistook his meaning.
And his meaning was something about the coming of Christ, the advent of
the kingdom of God. And the confusion comes from the fact that that
kingdom itself has been purloined, prolonged in its appearing. Lost
somewhere along the way. Twenty centuries later, still it is as far from
realization as ever.
Kingdom of Godot
And this brings
me, after a long process of rerouting, following back alleys through the
text, digressions and side roads, to another text in Thomas, saying 113:
"His disciples said to him: ‘When will the kingdom come? Jesus said: It
will not come by expectation; they will not say: “See, here,” or “See,
there.” But the kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and they
do not see it.’" This one might almost be a commentary on the fifth
saying, with which we began. The disciples are scanning the horizon for
the distant appearance of the kingdom of God. It is a great mystery, or
so they think. They ask Jesus for some clue to know when the kingdom
will come. But Jesus says there is no mystery such as they seek to
solve. The kingdom has in fact already appeared. It is right before
their eyes if only they will open their eyes and see it. When will it
come? Nonsense! It has always been here! When are you going to start
recognizing it? That's the real question.
Another point made
in the Lacan/Derrida/Johnson discussion of "The Purloined Letter" is
that the stolen letter functions both as a signifier and as
something signified. That is, as a written letter, it says
something about a state of affairs, specifically an affair of state,
namely that the queen is having an affair that will, if discovered,
shake the stability of the state. The letter says something about
something other than itself. So it signifies. But once the crafty
government minister recognizes precisely what the letter signifies, and
purloins it, the letter itself becomes significant, an object of
inquiry. The police search madly for it because it has come to mean
something in and of itself. It has become a powerful weapon. It is a
signified thing in itself, whatever the text of the letter specifically
says. The police are scouring the place for any sign of it.
And in just the
same way, the disciples of Jesus regard the kingdom of God as something
signified. They ask for the signs that will signal its approaching.
That, they think, is the mystery. They, and the whole Christian church,
have sought for the kingdom as fervently as the prefect of the Paris
police sought for that letter in every mysterious place he could think
of to look. But like the Parisian police, we have wasted our time.
What Jesus says,
by contrast, is that the kingdom of the Father is not that to which
signs point. It is not some final meaning to be revealed. What no one
suspected was that the kingdom was itself a signifier. A sign
pointing to something else. In fact, pointing to everything
else! As the Upanishads say, neti, neti: not this, not that. The
Ultimate is not any one particular thing, but everything. The kingdom is
spread out all over the earth--and we do not see it! We can't see the
forest for the trees. We see all the finite things, but not the infinite
sum of them. Schleiermacher understood the Redeemer's God-consciousness
right well: it is "a sense and taste for the Infinite."
grasped it, too. Where do you go to find Nirvana, the unknown world of
peace and eternal bliss? Do you retreat from this world to find it, as
if there were some other world to take refuge in? No, you just learn to
recognize that this weary world is Nirvana, once you open your
eyes, once you stop expecting the world to be something other than the
kingdom of the Father. How else can Jesus say you will see his face in
the face of the least of his brethren? How else is it possible to look
at bread and wine on the communion table and suddenly see there the body
and blood of Christ? "If you will know what is in your sight, then what
is hidden from you will be revealed to you."
Have you ever
heard the truism, which is nonetheless true despite being an "ism," that
life will be negative if you approach it negatively, but positive if you
approach it positively? The world will be for you the kingdom of God if
you expect to see it that way. The suffering of yourself and of others
will be revealed as the crucifixion of the Son of Man. The continuance
of your heartbeat from one fragile moment to the next will be recognized
as the merciful providence of God. The extra strength, the second wind
in your moment of extremity will be seen as the grace of God. The
afternoon of boredom will become an epiphany of easy grace and the
blessed space of freedom. It is already as plain as a city set on a
hill, a light that suffuses the whole earth. Thomas’ Jesus bids us to
blink away the blinding scales and to open our eyes to the second sight
of Isaiah, who in one moment saw nothing but an empty temple and in the
next beheld the flaming seraphs who sang: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord
of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"
By Robert M.