A: Okay. Back to some exegesis from the Gospel of Thomas. This morning my copy of Thomas* opened itself up to Saying 32: “Jesus said: A city built and fortified atop a tall hill cannot be taken, nor can it be hidden.”
Stevan Davies’s notes on this saying, as usual, miss the point. Davies says, “This saying urges strength in defense while at the same time encouraging openness. You should not try to protect yourself by hiding your light, but at the same time you should be aware that attacks are likely. Ultimately you will be safe, above real danger, even if you expose yourself and your light to the world (pages 35-36).”
Granted, there’s not much context to go on here. This saying could be interpreted in a number of different ways. But I’m curious about your thoughts here.
J: I’m wondering in what way Davies can argue that a person who shows their light is “above real danger.” This is a reckless thing to say in view of the way reformers are treated in many parts of the world. Reformers need to know that attacks are likely, as you and I have discussed before. But reformers don’t have a special magical cloak that’s guaranteed to protect them from all harm.
A: Obviously you didn’t have such a magical cloak.
J: No. And I didn’t promise my followers one, either. It’s a fallacy to suppose that a person of faith will be protected from all suffering and all harm. Shit happens. Shit happens to everyone. The question isn’t how to be “above real danger.” The question is how to recognize real danger and how to handle it when it arises. Davies’s interpretation of saying 32 is pretty much the opposite of what I was trying to say.
A: Davies is implying in his notes that the fortified city on the hill is a metaphor for a person who has uncovered the secret of the Kingdom. He’s implying that knowledge of the Kingdom lifts a person above the fray. It kind of reminds me of the “shining city on the hill.”
J: Which tells you right off the bat it isn’t something I would have said.
A: You’re not big on the idea of Temples on Sacred Mounts.
J: No. I used metaphors from nature and peasant life to explain what the Kingdom feels like. By contrast, I used metaphors from the sphere of urban construction to explain what it feels like to be estranged from the Kingdom. Saying 32 is an attack on the people who choose to be like a fortified city on the hill. They choose to place themselves “above” other people. They choose to build walls around their hearts. Sure, everyone can see them up there, everyone can see their status. But they’re walled off from their feelings, from their compassion. They’re successful. They’re proud of their walls. They love to be noticed for their accomplishments. But they have no heart. And they have no relationship with God. They’ve made themselves invulnerable to pain. And this means they’ve made themselves invulnerable to love. They’re afraid of intense emotions, afraid of intense feelings like joy and grief and humbleness. They hide behind their walls and bemoan the cruel God who allows suffering. Meanwhile, they do nothing courageous themselves. They refuse to come out from behind their walls and engage in the task of coping in mature ways with the love and pain of living. They feel safe where they are, and they’d much rather blame God or other people for the emptiness they themselves feel inside.
Surprising as it may seem, inner emptiness seems like the better choice — the practical choice — for the majority of human beings. For those who’ve endured years of abuse and trauma, it’s often the only viable choice. They can’t make it through the day if they have to think about the pain they’ve endured. So they try to stop thinking about it.
A: Yet the pain always expresses itself somehow.
J: Yes. You can’t escape the pain. When you repress it, it finds a way to reveal itself anyway. Playwrights and psychotherapists make their living from expounding this truth. The pain must be confronted and transmuted — healed — into something deeper and more positive. Otherwise it will ruin your life and probably the lives of the people you’re closest to.
A: This is what Viktor Frankl taught. The idea that you have to find purpose and meaning and the means to go foward despite the most traumatic experiences imaginable.
J: A process that people need help with. If you don’t have a mentor to help you struggle through the emotional complexities of loss and suffering and eventual transformation, you’ll probably end up — like so many people — building gigantic walls around your heart. But there’s a cost for doing this. The cost is your ability to love.
A: You mean the person building the walls is no longer able to love.
J: Right. They can’t love themselves. They can’t love their neighbour. They can’t love their God. They can still function at a logical level, a practical level, but they wake up each morning and go to bed each night having no clear idea who they are or why they’re here or why they feel so empty and miserable. Life feels like a chore to them. A duty. A punishment they must endure. They feel very sorry for themselves.
A: I know a number of Christians who fit this bill.
J: The real tragedy is that once a person has finished building his or her fortified city on the hilltop, he or she “cannot be taken” — cannot let love in through the walls of logic and status. No amount of kindness or empathy or forgiveness or patience will breach the walls of intentional dissociation in another human being. You can’t “fix” such a person from the outside. If they don’t want to come out from behind their walls, you can’t make them do it, no matter how hard you try.
A: A lesson it took me years to understand.
J: The person who is like the city “built and fortified atop a tall hill” is NOT “ultimately . . . safe, above real danger.” Such a person IS the danger. She’s a danger to herself, her neighbours, and her community.
J: Because she thinks she’s in her right mind, in full control of all her thoughts and feelings and actions, but she’s not. She’s built a city of logic stone by stone, choice by choice, and she’s happy with it. She likes being dissociated from her soul’s own feelings. She chooses to live this way. But big chunks of her biological brain are miswired as a long term result of her intentional choices. She can’t make balanced choices anymore. She can’t because she’s worked very hard not to make balanced choices. She believes she has all the tools she needs in case of emergency or real danger. But she doesn’t have the brain tools she’ll actually need in an unpredicted crisis. So she’ll panic. She’ll freeze. She’ll think only of herself. Because that’s what she’s trained her brain to do.
A: You’re saying it doesn’t have to be this way.
J: I’m saying Darwin was dead wrong about survival of the fittest. The stupidest human beings on the planet are the ones who’ve made themselves into isolated cities on hilltops. And when I say “stupid” I don’t mean temporarily foolish or poorly educated. I mean less functional and less able to grasp complex issues and act on them with common sense, compassion, and integrity. Including many individuals with PhDs. These are the people you don’t want on your team when a genuine crisis hits. They’ll stab you in the back without blinking when the going gets tough.
A: Says the man whose own family and friends turned him over to the Romans when he made the going too tough . . .
J: Damn straight.
*For readers who haven’t been following our posts about the Gospel of Thomas, I’m using a book translated and annotated by Stevan Davies. (Stevan Davies, The Gospel of Thomas (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004.))