A: At the beginning of Stevan Davies’s translation of the Gospel of Thomas, there’s a Foreword written by Andrew Harvey. Harvey has this to say about the Gospel of Thomas: “If all the Gospel of Thomas did was relentlessly and sublimely champion the path to our transfiguration and point out its necessity, it would be one of the most important of all religious writings — but it does even more. In saying 22, the Gospel of Thomas gives us a brilliantly concise and precise ‘map’ of the various stages of transformation that have to be unfolded in the seeker for the ‘secret’ to be real in her being and active though [sic?] all her powers. Like saying 13, saying 22 has no precedent in the synoptic gospels and is, I believe, the single most important document of the spiritual life that Jesus has left us (pages xxi-xxii).”
Harvey then plunges into 5 pages of rapture on the ecstatic meaning of Saying 22. None of which I agree with, of course. And none of which you’re likely to agree with, either, if experience is any guide. But I thought maybe you and I could have a go at it.
J: By all means.
A: Okay. Here’s the translation of Saying 22 as Stevan Davies’s writes it:
“Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples: These infants taking milk are like those who enter the Kingdom. His disciples asked him: If we are infants will we enter the Kingdom? Jesus responded: When you make the two into one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the upper like the lower and the lower like the upper, and thus make the male and the female the same, so that the male isn’t male and the female isn’t female. When you make an eye to replace an eye, and a hand to replace a hand, and a foot to replace a foot, and an image to replace an image, then you will enter the Kingdom (page xxii and 25-27).”
Harvey’s interpretation of this saying speaks of an “alchemical fusion” and a “Sacred Androgyne” who “‘reigns’ over reality” with actual “powers that can alter natural law” because he or she has entered a transformative state of “mystical union,” where “the powers available to the human being willing to undertake the full rigor of the Jesus-transformation are limitless.”
I’m not making this up, though I wish I were.
J: And there I was, talking about a little ol’ mustard seed . . . . It’s a terrific example of the danger of using “wisdom sayings” as a teaching tool. People have a tendency to hear whatever they want to hear in a simple saying. Parables are much harder to distort. Eventually I caught on to the essential problem that’s created when you choose to speak indirectly to spare other people’s feelings. When you use poetry instead of blunt prose, it’s much easier for other people to twist your meaning intentionally. You can see the same understanding in the Gospel of Mark. Mark is blunt. He doesn’t waste time on cliches and “wisdom words.” He goes straight for the truth, and leaves no wiggle room for gnostic-type interpretations.
A: Harvey seems to have found a whole lot of wiggle room in Saying 22.
J: I must admit that Harvey’s “revelation” of the Sacred Androgyne makes me feel sick to my stomach.
J: Because it denies the very reality of male and female. It denies the reality that God the Father is male and God the Mother is female. It denies the reality that everything in Creation is built on the cherished differences between male and female. Being male isn’t better than being female. And being female isn’t better than being male. But they’re not the same. Neither are they yin-and-yang. They’re not two halves of the same coin. They’re not mirror images of each other. They’re not a fusion — they’re not a Oneness — like a bowl of pure water. God the Mother and God the Father are like a bowl of minestrone soup. You can see all the big chunks of differentness floating around in there, and that’s okay, because that’s what gives the mixture its taste, its wonder, its passion.
God the Mother and God the Father aren’t the same substance with opposite polarities. No way. They have individual temperaments and unique characteristics. In some ways, they’re quite alike. In other ways, they’re quite different from each other. Just as you’d expect in two fully functioning, mature beings. That’s why it’s a relationship. They work things out together so both of them are happy at the same time. It’s not that hard to imagine, really. They have a sacred marriage, a marriage in which they constantly strive to lift each other up, support each other, forge common goals together, build things together, and most importantly, raise a family together. They look out for each other. They laugh together. They’re intimately bound to each other in all ways. But they’re still a bowl of minestrone soup. With nary a Sacred Androgyne in sight.
A: Okay. So if you weren’t talking about “oneness” or “alchemical fusion” or the “Sacred Androgyne” in Saying 22, what were you talking about?
J: Well, I was talking about the mystery and wonder that can be found in a simple seed. I was talking — as I often was — about how to understand our relationship with God by simply looking at and listening to God’s ongoing voice in the world of nature.
A: Oh. Are we talking about tree-hugging?
J: You could put it that way.
A: David Suzuki would love you for saying that.
J: I was a nature mystic, to be sure. Endogenous mystics are nature mystics. They see the image of God — and more importantly the stories of God — in God’s own language, which is the world of Creation. The world outside the city gates has so much to say about balance and time and beginnings and endings! The world outside the city gates is a library. It’s literally a library that teaches souls about cycles and physics and interconnectedness and chemistry and complexity and order and chaos all wrapped up together in a tapestry of Divine Love.
A: What you’re saying seems like a pretty modern, liberal sort of understanding. Were you able to articulate it this way 2,000 years ago?
J: Not to be unkind to modern, liberal thinkers, but when was the last time a philosopher of science sat down with a mustard seed and reflected on the intrinsic meaning of it? When was the last time you heard what a humble fresh bean can teach you about the spiritual journey of all human beings?
A: I see your point. People in our society don’t usually take the time to sit down and “smell the roses.”
J: Geneticists and biologists and related researchers can print out all their research on the genome of a kidney bean, and can even modify this genetic code in a lab, but to a mystic the kidney bean holds more than pure science.
A: So we’ve switched from mustard seeds to kidney beans as a metaphor?
J: Kidney beans are bigger and easier to see without magnifying lenses, and a lot of people have begun their scientific inquiries by growing beans in a primary school classroom. So yes — let’s switch to beans.
A: I remember being fascinated by fresh beans and peas when I was young. If you split the bean with your thumbnail, and you didn’t damage it too much when you split it, you could see the tiny little stem and leaf inside at one end, just waiting to sprout. If you planted a whole, unsplit bean in a small glass-walled container, you could watch the whole process of growth — the bean splitting open on its own, roots starting to grow from one end, the stem and leaf popping up, the two halves of the bean gradually shrinking as their nutrients were converted into stem and root growth. Somehow the bean knew what to do. It just kept growing out of the simplest things — dirt, sunlight, water.
J: The bean is a lot like the human brain. If you plant it whole in fertile ground and provide the right nutrients, it grows into a thing of wholeness and balance and wonder and mystery. On the other hand, if you try to split it open, or extract the tiny stem hidden inside, or plant it on rocks instead of good soil, or fail to give it sunshine and water, it won’t thrive. It may not even root at all. You can’t force the bean to grow where it isn’t designed to grow. You can’t force it to grow once you’ve forcibly split it open. You can’t force it to grow on barren rock. The bean has to be whole when you plant it. The outside skin has to be intact. The different parts inside the skin have to be intact. The bean has different parts, but it needs all those different parts in order to be whole — in order to create something new. The bean isn’t a single substance. But it is holistic. It’s a self-contained mini-marvel that teaches through example about cycles and physics and interconnectedness and chemistry and complexity and order and chaos. It appears simple, but in fact it’s remarkably complex. Creation is like that — it appears simple, but in fact it’s remarkably complex.
A: Why, then, were you talking about “male and female” in Saying 22? Why did you seem to be talking about merging or fusion of male and female into an androgynous state? Or a Platonic state of mystical union?
J: It goes to the question of context. I was talking to people who, as a natural part of their intellectual framework, were always trying to put dualistic labels on everything in Creation. Everyday items were assigned labels of “good or evil,” “pure or impure,” “male or female,” “living or dead.” It had got to the point where a regular person might say, “I won’t use that cooking pan because it has female energy, and female energy isn’t pure.”
A: I’m not sure that kind of paranoid, dualistic, magical thinking has really died out, to be honest.
J: There are certainly peoples and cultures who still embrace this kind of magical thinking. You get all kinds of destructive either-or belief systems. You get people saying that right-handed people and right-handed objects are favoured by God, whereas left-handed people are cursed. It’s crazy talk. It’s not balanced. It’s not holistic. It’s not trusting of God’s goodness.
A: And you were left-handed.
J: Yep. My mother tried to beat it out of me, but I was a leftie till the day I died. When I was a child, I was taught to be ashamed of my left-handedness. Eventually I came to understand that I was who I was. The hand I used as an adult to hold my writing stylus was the same hand I’d been born with — my left hand. But on my journey of healing, redemption, and forgiveness, I came to view my hand quite differently than I had in my youth. Was it a “new hand”? No. Was it a new perception of my hand. Yes. Absolutely yes.
A: You stopped putting judgmental labels on your eyes and your hands and your feet and your understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God.
J: One of the first steps in knowing what it feels like to walk in the Kingdom of the Heavens is to consider yourself “a whole bean.”
A: Aren’t there kidney beans in minestrone soup? How did we get back to the minestrone soup metaphor?
J: A little mustard seed in the soup pan never hurts either.