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The Moebius Strip


"Jesus saw children who were being suckled. He said to his disciples, 'These children who are being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.' They said to him, 'Shall we, then, being children, enter the kingdom?' Jesus said to them, 'When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer, and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male be not male and the female not be female, when you make eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in the place of a hand, and a foot in the place of a foot, and an image in the place of an image, then shall you enter the kingdom.'" Gospel of Thomas 22 

You have noticed, I'm sure, how our little service retains vestiges of a conventional church service, just as Christian services retained the bare outlines of the Jewish Synagogue service. One such vestige is a sermon, and specifically a sermon that attempts to explain and apply a passage of scripture. Like Schleiemacher, like Calvin and the Puritans, I still see the role of the minister as that of a servant of the word. I feel the chill of reverence for the Holy Text, whether that of the Christian canon, of the heretics, of the other religions. And I feel most at home in the pulpit as a midwife, trying to bring to birth insight from these ancient texts. It is alchemy, the transformation of papyrus into wisdom, of superstition and myth into spirit and truth. 

Again, it is agriculture, as I make to scatter the potent seeds of the ancient writings into your minds where it may take root, and all manner of exotic fruits may bloom. This morning's text is certainly one of the more exotic variety. Or you may think in terms of another metaphor. It is perhaps a stony field from which it seems nothing may grow. It is a blank wall with only gibberish scrawled on it. What is Jesus, or Judas Thomas, saying? 

I believe the code has been cracked. Like the Book of Revelation, you just have to learn the code and it all clears up. At least I think it does, unless it is even more of a puzzle than it looks. And I guess it is. As Frank Kermode says, all texts are first and finally obscure, a dull obsidian in which we dimly discern meanings that are but our own reflections. Well, here goes nothing. 

Here is the gist of Stevan Davies's exegesis of the passage before us. It comes from the context of early Christian baptism, specifically from the circles of Encratite Christianity. These were the Christians who made celibacy a condition of salvation, and who had many women prophets and teachers. They had renounced sexuality, seeing in it the downfall of Adam and Eve, and thus they had gone beyond sexuality and beyond chauvinism. 

The image of the newborn baby suckling is a common image for a new initiate into Christianity or the other Mediterranean Mystery cults. You are a catechumen who is fed the milk of introductory doctrine. Then you became one of the telioi, the mature, the perfect among whom Paul might preach secret wisdom. The children, then, are the newly baptized. 

They have made the two one. How? It is really rather simple. To use Kierkegaard's phrase, they have attained unto that "purity of heart" that means "to will one thing." William James, in The Variety of Religious Experience, says that the conversion experience has the effect of setting the religious sentiment at the center of the personality so that all other interests take their place in obedient orbit around it. There is a centrality of the spirit. The two, or more, have become one. As Jesus says elsewhere, you cannot fire two arrows at the same time. You cannot ride two horses in different directions at once. As James says, if you are double-minded, you will never achieve anything. You will be like the two-headed giant who always quarreled with itself, never able to agree on what to do or where to go. You must make the two one. You must get your self together! 

You must "make the inner as the outer," so that the distinction between them is lost, like in the mysterious Moebius Strip which seems to have two sides, but each becomes, and thus already was, the other. This, too, though difficult in practice, is really a simple thing. You know all those places where Jesus criticizes people for being like whitewashed tombs: pure and unsullied outside but full of corruption inside? Where he says something's badly wrong if a fig tree bears grapes? The inside and the outside should be the same. You ought to be transparent. Everything should be on the surface.  

Live in such a way that afterward there will be no nasty discoveries. Like the great literary critic Paul de Man. Most knew him as a conscientious and generous mentor and scholar. After his death, lucky for him, someone unearthed a bunch of Belgian wartime newspapers in which de Man had written articles friendly to Nazi anti-Semitism. They published the newspaper, so he would do what they said. He was a yellow Nazi stooge. Everybody was pretty upset when they found out. If de Man hadn't been dead already, this would have killed him! Don't be one thing outside and another inside. 

"Make the above as the below." I admit this would fit better if it had "Make the below as the above," but maybe he means "close the gap" between God's will and your own, much like the petition in Matthew's prayer: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." 

"Making the male as the female and the female as the male." This is likely a reference to the transcending of sex roles through the abjuring of sex. Genesis 2 had the man and the woman becoming one, but it was through sex, not through the renunciation of it. The Encratites seemed to have believed that Christ was the second Adam in the sense that he restored the original androgynous character of humanity before the first human had been split into male and female. Thus he had gone back before the entry of sin. Baptism, as Galatians 3:23 says, identifies you with this Christ, the result being that there is no longer any division of race, class, or sex, any more than there was in the primordial human being before the division. 

"Eyes in place of an eye": remember the admonition to rip out and cast away your offending eye? That probably refers to lust or coveting or stinginess. To replace such an eye would mean to replace these habits with an eye that is sound and full of light. To change your perspective on things. 

"A hand in place of a hand": same thing. The Sermon on the Mount also says to cut off the offending hand and throw it as far away as you can. To cut off the hand, in Aramaic idiom, George Lamsa says, is to stop stealing. As 1 Thessalonians says, "Let him who stole steal no more but work with his hands."  

"A foot in place of a foot": We are told to cut off the offending foot and throw it away lest it lead us into a worse fate for the whole person, final damnation. Lamsa says that to cut off the offending foot means to stop going where you should not go, a euphemism for adultery among other things. Not to trespass. 

An image in place of an image? Thomas seems to hold the same sort of idea of the resurrection we find in 1 Corinthians 15. Now, as mortals, we bear the image of the earthly, the fleshly Adam. But on Resurrection Morning, we will bear the splendid image of the heavenly Adam, the Adam Kadmon, the heavenly prototype of humanity. Humanity as it was before the fall. Again, very much like Encratite Christianity, not to mention the Jewish Kabbalah. 

So in all these cases, the newly converted is told to live a new life, turn over a new leaf, adopt new habits. If he does, he will attain unto the kingdom. 

What I have just done is what Jonathan Culler and other critics call "naturalizing" the text. Every text stands before us like an alien hieroglyphic. Just as Ventris had to learn how to decipher the hitherto unknown Mycenean script Linear B, just as you must learn German to read a German text, and before you do, it looks like gibberish to you--every text is a hill that must be scaled with some effort. You may be able to leap over it and not even be winded. But it may take several tries. You may have to give up and skip it. A very dense text is like Mount Everest. Can anyone scale it? If you do, they will say you have "conquered" Everest.  

When we make what we think is adequate sense of a thorny text like Thomas 22, we think we have conquered the text. The text was our opponent, like Jacob wrestling with the god of the River Jabbok. So we wrestle with it till the sun comes up, and if we are tenacious enough, saying to the text as Jacob did to his antagonist, "I will not let you go till you give me a blessing," we may indeed get some spiritual light from the text. 

But have we found the meaning of the text? De Man would say what we have done is to rewrite a text we couldn't understand into a new simpler text that we can understand. We have reduced it, whittled it down, domesticated it. Made it manageable. Just as we do when we evade the admonition of Jesus to love our enemy or to give to the poor, pretending it says something else, something less, that we already agree with. 

What we have done is to allegorize the text, just as the Stoics did with their scriptures, the Iliad and the Odyssey, when they recorded unedifying deeds of the Gods. No, the Stoics reasoned, the texts must mean something else. The embarrassing gods must stand for something else, something we like. As when Genesis 1 plainly says the world was made in less than a week! We can't buy that, but we hate to say the Bible is wrong, so we say, in effect, "Let's pretend what it says is that God made the world in six vast aeons of indeterminate length." It would be nice had the text said that--but it didn't! Every interpretation, one critic has said, is an allegorization, a translation of one set of terms into another, more manageable. And Thomas speaks with some pretty strange sounding terms. Maybe we ought to leave them sounding strange and raw. Maybe the point is to let them act on us like baffling Zen koans. 

Let me return to some few points in the saying, to look at them in a new light. A light that emerges when we do not smother the piercing light of the text under the bushel-basket of conventional, sensible meanings. 

"When you make the inner as the outer, and the outer as the inner." Here I am reminded of an intriguing observation made by Raimundo Panikkar. He draws attention, in an almost Derridean way, to a contradiction in our spiritual imagery. We speak of internalizing the external, as when we speak of taking the eucharist. You are symbolizing the reception of divine grace as if it were a matter of taking the spirit from outside and drawing it inside. Billy Graham asks you to ask Christ into your heart. From the outside in. But, Panikkar says, what has come in has only changed exterior positions. As long as it is other than you, it is outside you. For it to be truly inside you, it must become the same as you, homoousion. The two must be made a single one. If you are to get God inside you, you must get God to become you! 

The early Sufis, like the martyr mystic al-Hallaj, knew this. They were Muslims, members of that religion which will countenance no partners for God, no other Gods. But they reasoned to the conclusion that if anything but God even exists, then it is a rival to God. Therefore only God exists, and as Shankara said, we are the same as God. Al-Hallaj used to go about outraging the orthodox by saying "I am the Truth!" It is more humble, he taught, to say "I am God" than to say "I serve God," since the latter still allows a being beside God to usurp the divine prerogative of being! 

"Make the above as the below." I said a moment ago that the interpretation I offered would work better if it said "Make the below as the above." But this time let's take it as it stands. Make the above as the below. Here I have little choice but to think of Altizer, the evangelist of the Death of God. The Sacred has been poured out into the Profane. God is present only as the Trace, the Shadow, the Echo, the Cinder. As the Kabbalah says, God has withdrawn to allow room for the world to be. But even the cosmic crater of God's absence is a mode of God's presence. The above has become nothing else than the below. Nirvana has been revealed as Samsara. All things glow with the ultraviolet brilliance of the absent God. In another text from Thomas the disciples ask Jesus when the kingdom will come. He says, "What you anticipate has arrived but you do not see it." 

"Make the male and the female a single one, so there is no longer any male and female." Celibacy? Maybe, but I'm not interested in it. Suppose instead the idea is that the male adds female characteristics, while the female takes on male traits in addition to the original female.  

This is what the Jungian June Singer calls Androgyny. You know that Jung hypothesized that every man has a hidden female counterpart inside, his anima. Likewise, every woman has a man inside, an animus. It is as if to say your unconscious self is the opposite gender. One is manifest, the other latent. One dominant, the other recessive. The same thing is reflected in physiology, isn't it? The man has secondary female characteristics like nipples, while the female has secondary male characteristics. Even the genitalia mirror one another, having diverged from the same basic model. 

Or think of it like the Tao, divided by an S curve into two complementary opposites, Yin and Yang. They need each other. Their very identity, their shape, is determined by each's difference from the other. Each is the Trace of the other and nothing else. That is the way of male and female. And each has an anticipation, a latent bit of the other in it. In us it has to do with relative amounts of testosterone, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome. But every male has a bit of the female, every woman some of the essence of a man. It gives us enough commonality to be able to understand each other, though not enough so that we can understand each other without trying hard. 

June Singer advises us to cultivate the counterpart within. As Deborah Tannen says, we need to learn each other's assumptions, desires, priorities, reactions. And we need to empathize, to think in the other's language and to speak it ourselves. If we do, we will be awakening our anima or animus. It will be a kind of psycho-sexual ambidextrousness--using both hands, both sides of the brain with equal facility. In fact, it won't just be like it, that's exactly what it will be. 

This is quite real to me personally. I believe I have always had some feminine sensitivities. Once my mother told me that had I been a girl they had planned to name me "Lynne." From then on I felt that Lynne was the name of my anima, my female counterpart within. 

I believe one reason Carol and I get along so well is that in her some of the latent male traits have come to the surface. She is a no-nonsense realist. She is at home in the real world as I am not. She is canny and shrewd, and has better judgment than me. She has an awakened animus just as I have an activated anima.  

This is why she can be my lover and my best friend. She is male enough to be my buddy and female enough to attract and delight me. Let me venture a speculation on what happens with a good marriage. I dare say that the man gains the dimensions of his anima from his mother, his female role model, and we hope she is a good one, while the woman has her animus shaped by her male role model, her father. Men can thus say, "My mother, myself," and women can say, "My father, myself." 

Then one meets a member of the opposite sex who answers to one's own inner counterpart. This is why we relate to the opposite sex in a similar way to the way we related to our opposite sex parent. Once one meets the right partner, and they grow together over the years, the spouse more and more becomes the mate's anima or animus. Each of us externalizes our counterpart, projecting it onto our mate, and the mate internalizes it. Carol replaces "Lynne" or becomes Lynne, my anima. We are one. The two have been made one. 

And this, in turn, is how we come to have "eyes in place of an eye." Notice that in this phrase a single part is replaced by more than one. In a sense we have a reverse of the imagery of the rest of the text, where two are made one. Here one is replaced with two. Just as Hercules would lop off one head of the Hydra, only to see two more sprout in its place. When the counterpart is awakened, whether by your becoming one with a mate, or by cultivating your own inner double, you see yourself from a new perspective; you begin to see yourself as others see you. I often catch myself thinking, "Come off it, Price! That's just typical apish male stubbornness. You know better than that!" Thanks, Lynne. Thanks, Carol. I needed that.  

But if you did this, if you awakened your inner counterpart, wouldn't you have in fact done the opposite of what the Gospel urges? Wouldn't you be making the one into two? No, I don't think you would. You are assuming you are already one. That's where you're wrong! As it stands now, you are a half! You are a Yin by itself, a lone Yang, a bicycle with one pedal. You're not going to make much progress that way. Let the half become whole. Let the two, one of which is now buried and hidden, join and become one. And then you will have entered the kingdom.

Robert M. Price

September 9, 1995




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