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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright©2009 by Robert
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