Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Sabbatical Post 3: Why Mushrooms?
The mushroom as a metaphor is very apt for me and my understanding of Gnostic spirituality, because of its multivalency. Irenaeus uses the image in reference to Gnostics as harmful fungi that grow popping up here and there and everywhere with no sustained root. But what of other valencies? Not all mushrooms are poisonous. Some are medicinal. Some are hallucinogenic. Some are just good to eat (as long as you aren't allergic to them as I am!). The image of their growth through spore is wonderful. The lack of centrality and organization in their growth patterns. Their growth in rich soil or compost. Their need for constant damp and low exposure to sun.
Why is this multivalency important? My understanding of Gnostic spirituality is characterized by the transgressive. My definition of the Gnostic sees the Gnostic as transgressive in terms of his or her metaphysics and practices. Now you may call be to task on this, wondering who do they transgress? Early Christianity was diverse, as was early Judaism. So we can not talk about a dominant tradition or interpretative strategy. Doesn't transgression imply perversion? Aren't you being polemical like Irenaeus?
First, I would say we need to pay attention to the sociologists and the anthropologists who have studied transgression for decades. To transgress is not the same as being different or diverse. There is still the normative even within diversity. Or better, diversity can represent the norm and the status quo. It doesn't have to be transgressive. Every culture has its norms, and religious expressions are no different. Religions in fact are conservative and tend to renew themselves by maintaining whatever is normative for them at all costs. According to sociological studies, the transgressor is only known as a transgressor because he or she is labeled such by others in the community. In other words, we only know what is transgressive through the response of the community to the one who transgresses. This response helps us to identify the norm and the parameters of the acceptable, as well as the unacceptable. What can be acceptable in one period, may become unacceptable in another time period, even periods as short as decades.
In modern terms, let me suggest an example. Next time you are in an elevator turn around and face everyone else and stare at someone. Watch the reaction of others in the elevator. You will quickly know that you have transgressed the public norm for properly riding in elevators.
The same is true of the ancient world. It did not take long for Christians to begin to get kicked out of synagogues, and if Paul is correct, even captured and dragged before the Jewish religious authorities. Why? Because they were Jews who had transgressed what were considered commonly accepted Jewish norms of the time. We can argue about what those norms were, but they were transgressed and the Jewish community responded by expelling the unacceptable and consolidating what it perceived as normative. We might even say that the Christian transgression assisted the Jewish community in marking its boundaries even clearer.
How the Gnostics fit into this, well, that is one of the main goals of my book.
Image from The Canterbury Psalter