r m p






     Mister Know-It-All


I'd like to read two texts from the Gospel of Thomas. They interpret one another like two views of the same object. The first is saying 67: "Jesus says, 'Whoever knows the All but fails to know himself lacks everything.'"

The second is number 3: "Jesus says, 'If those who lead you say to you: 'Behold, the Kingdom is in heaven,' then the birds of the heaven have the advantage over you. If they say to you: 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will have the advantage. But the kingdom is within you and it is without you. If you will know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the Living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty."

I think the second pretty well explains what the first means when it says that for lack of knowledge of yourself, you lack everything. That is the poverty, the lack, the deprivation of true selfhood. 

What exactly is the feature of your own identity that you are unaware of that makes such a difference? What is it about yourself that you don't yet know? Is it something others know about you, but you remain oblivious of it? That is a frightening thought! That I could be parading around like the naked emperor, all the while thinking that my brand new duds are pretty dapper, and all the while, all I've got on is that shabby old threadbare birthday suit! Hasn't fit in years.

Another Jesus saying has a typically humorous example: How can you pretend to offer help to someone with a speck of sawdust in his eye, when all the time you're so blinded by the two-by-four in your own eye that you can't even see the two-by-four in your own eye!? So you can see all things, even that there is a tiny speck in the other guy's eye, and yet you are totally unsuspecting that there is something the size of a tree-limb sticking out of your own!

How strange to be blind to your own blindness! That is the double-blindness of the comic character created in another Jesus-saying, the blind guide, the blind who leads the blind! The comic possibilities of this, however politically incorrect, are endless!

Did you know that everyone has a blind spot in the field of vision? But we aren't aware of it, because the mind rapidly edits what we see and extrapolates what should be in the shadowed part? It may be wrong, and a second glance at a thing may surprise us!

This is so much a part of human nature that not even Bultmann ever worried about this one going out of style, becoming outmoded or obsolete in an age of modern science! We still find it striking just as we still find Shakespeare striking, because it is such a clear and caustic comment on human nature, which has never really changed much.

The saying strikes us with nervous laughter, nervous because we suspect uneasily that when we laugh at it, the joke may be on us!

Let's notice a couple of things about saying 67 of Thomas that we might be in danger of rushing past. First, it seems to be a development from a more familiar version, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but at the cost of his own soul/self/life?" Not too good a deal after all! What's in mind in this one? It's just like in Luke's parable of the Rich Fool, the guy who spends every waking hour, year in and year out to build a fortune that will one day allow him to retire on easy street. But that day never comes, because he thinks he needs, as Rockerfeller said, "always a little more." He always puts off the day of rest for more striving, to build up a bigger nest egg till there is no nest big enough to contain it! And then it turns out the only benefit he's going to get from all that striving and saving is a shiny marble tombstone. What a deal.

Only in the Thomas saying, the concern has shifted from that of crass possession to the subtler concern of knowing. And here the paradigm case would have to be Faust. He has learned all that a man might learn in every field of arts and sciences. But he still doesn't know life. He still doesn't know himself. And he is the first to say that he lacks everything. He knows nothing, really.

And I wonder if this is because he cannot see where he himself fits into the whole picture of that universe of knowledge he has mastered. If he could see that which he is missing, what would he be seeing? What's the big secret? And why can't he see it?

Whatever it is, is must be a mysterious something which, being absent, somehow negates all the rest of what one sees, even though one sees everything else! Wanting for knowledge of it, the universal knowledge you have carefully amassed is completely negated! You see, "all" means "all." If you know one less thing than "all" things, you don't know the All. An infinite gulf yawns between the All and the part. So what is the missing piece?

Comparing saying 67 again to saying 3, we can see a parallel between the wide expanse that the kingdom is said to cover ("It is in the heaven! It is in the ocean!") and the universal range of what is known. ("all things, the All"). They are the same in Thomas' understanding, because it is only the one who knows who reigns!

To ask what is the elusive bit of knowledge is to ask where the kingdom really is. And the answer is the same that Uggdala gave to his son Svetaketu, "That thou art!" The kingdom is within you, and it is without you. This atman is Brahman! You are like the Living Jesus himself who in this gospel proclaims "I am from the Light that is above the All. I am the All! The All came forth from me!"

Now how on earth can that be true? It is true because of what physics reveals, what anthropology reveals, if you want to be scientific about it (which I, for one, sure do!). Physics has shown that the very presence of the experimenter, the observer, affects the results of the experiment. You don't have to strain your eyes scanning a particle chamber to learn this. Think of the news media. Do the cameras merely observe what is happening, like the unseen eye of God? No, they have become a character in the play, a player in the game. As if the commentator rushed out on to the field! Would there have been parades and demonstrations in Teheran during the Hostage Crisis if they hadn't known the networks would be there?

Derrida pointed out what should have been obvious: that anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss's very presence among the tribes he studied changed the "natural" scene he wanted to study. Imagine a space alien coming down to observe typical human behavior. How's he going to do it? I'll tell you one thing! He, she, or it is not going to start by announcing his, her, or its presence! "Hello, people of earth! I am Klaatu from the planet Remulac. We have crossed the infinite sea of stars with the aid of technology that makes your own best weapons systems look like tinker toys. Now, don't let us get in the way! Just carry on as usual." Yeah, right!

Even by watching the world go by, you have a subtle impact on it, maybe a big impact! Maybe someone is getting mugged or raped, or is about to make a fatal error, and you just watch the world go by. By refraining from action, you have acted. You are, if not the All, then at least an important, self-aware part of the all. A cog in a larger machine that can decide to malfunction, throwing who knows what all out of kilter!

If you don't realize that, you are missing a very basic thing about that world you think you have so completely figured out.

But there's more. In the very act of knowing the world, you are swallowing it up, digesting it, creating it anew. You do this by selecting what aspects of the flood of undifferentiated perception you will decide is important, deciding what is to be explained in terms of what. What is worth what. Letting your moods, your interests govern your ascriptions of motive. Who is to be blamed, who is less important than you, who is good or bad based on what impact they have on you. Peter Berger says you live in a cognitive universe, the map of reality inside your head, your sampling of the data and the conclusions you draw from it. Conclusions which may not match at all the world inside the head of the person next to you.

I occasionally become aware of this when I am watching people go by in the mall, as I stand there passing out tracts warning them of Armageddon next Tuesday (just kidding!). I am brought up short to realize, though only for a single instant: For each face in the crowd there is a whole different world! Each has an autocentric universe, a universe in their heads of which they, like me, are the absolute center! Their dark mood is making it a dark day. Their happiness makes it the truth that "Life is good." Their dead-end dilemmas make the world a black grave of tragedy. Their optimism sets the rule that anyone can pull himself up by his own bootstraps.

I am God in my world! But to others I am at most a significant other. To most around me I am one of the supporting actors in their play, which is what the world is about! For a wider circle still, I am an unnoticed face in the crowd, when, that is, I do not single myself out as a momentary irritant by bad driving or long-windedness. Once I thought what an airy lightness would be mine if I could drop that position of centrality, give up the throne of the universe, and become, even to myself, a face in the crowd, an external observer to my own workaday life.

And it may be that learning to distinguish the atman from the false personal ego-self would make that happen. I guess it would. The yogis speak of living in a peaceful state of "mere witness" in which they watch the world go by without anxiety, since they have no further investment in it. They know, as Thomas says, that he who has known the world has recognized it for a rotting corpse and declines any more to play the role of maggot. 

By the way, this wouldn't imply some Olympian unconcern with the world ("What fools these mortals be!"). Rather, it issues in the universal compassion of the bodhisattva for all beings equally, since one has no more favorites to play, least of all oneself.

So the world in my purview is the world I create. I cannot control you, but I will inevitably treat you as the character I think you are playing on the stage of my life, in the stage play of my world.

I think of the Johannine saying "Know ye not that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me?" There is an reciprocity of interpenetration. You place your stamp upon the world insofar as you are able to suck it into your head. But on the other hand, it is equally true that this self of yours, though you may not know it, is defined and shaped in an interaction with the world outside you. As Buber said, there is no "I" alone. There is only selfhood in relation. There is only "I-thou" and "I-it."

I come to know myself as I come to recognize how like you and unlike you I am. I become firm in my opinions as I hear myself voice them and then feel I must stand by them. My words, even if ill-considered, blaze a path for my behavior, and I follow obediently. I know me in the same way you know me, by observing me in interaction. We may stand aghast at what we have done in a surprise moment, because something of our self has been revealed not only to others, but to us as well, in the same way, in the same moment.

Do you imagine that your life is what is happening to you? You are wrong. Just as wrong as you are to think that you are creating your own reality. It goes both ways. Your life is not something other than you. It is not something outside you. Hell, no! Your life is you! The others who shape you are you! They are the characters who define your character. They are the trace of you. Each of them is the adjacent jig-saw puzzle piece that defines you simply by virtue of being what and where you are not! Your shape is the result of being different from and formed by their shape, and vice versa. That thou art! I am the All! The All came forth from me! The All has attained unto me!

He who knows the All and yet fails to know himself lacks everything, knows nothing in the final analysis, because he is the All! If he does not know that, he has failed to grasp the All, though it is right under his nose! And by the same token, he has failed to attain the kingdom, because he is the kingdom.

July 6, 1996




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