Saturday, February 19, 2011

Samson and Sophia

Samson and Sophia
by Paula Sophia Schonauer

In the novel Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, E.H. Henderson is a rich American, a pig farmer, a loud and boisterous man with a large physique. In many ways he exemplifies the ideal of American success. Though he acts rashly, at times lashing out in destructive anger, his heart is full of good intentions. In his fifties he confesses to his wife that he would like to become a doctor, a healer. In this aspiration, he hopes to appease the aching in his soul, a need that drives him to Africa, the birthplace of humankind. This deep need articulates itself in an echoing mantra, “I want, I want, I want…”

Henderson describes himself as having a military temperament. He loves the discipline of military life, its regimen and sense of duty. And, he is the epitome of a soldier. Even in middle age he is able to defeat a much younger man in a wrestling match. His strength and lust for life are unbounded.

The Arnewi, the first African tribe Henderson encounters, are an impoverished people. They have suffered through an extended drought, and their riches are dwindling. Their cattle are dying of thirst because of an infestation of frogs in the community cistern. For some reason, the frogs are seen as a contamination, and it would be bad medicine to let their cattle drink from the water they inhabit. The tribe won’t even touch the frogs. Though they are a troubled people, they exhibit a deep happiness, a sense of enlightenment that Henderson envies. He realizes that they may have the answer to the soul’s aching need.

The Arnewi recognize his lust for life, and they welcome him with open arms. The tribal Queen Willatale, a Bittah (a person who was not only a woman but a man at the same time, thus exemplifying a balanced human being) recognizes that Henderson suffers.

“Oh, it’s miserable to be a human being,” he says. “You get such queer diseases. Just because you’re human and for no other reason. Before you know it, as the years go by, you’re just like other people you have seen, with all those peculiar human ailments. Just another vehicle for temper and vanity and rashness and all the rest. Who wants it? Who needs it? These things occupy the place where a man’s soul should be…Lust, rage, and all the rest of it. A regular bargain basement of deformities.”

What Henderson is beginning to realize, I think, is that he is on the verge of losing his strength, the ability to dominate, and he wants to find some kind of vital replacement to make this decline gracious and meaningful, not merely a sense of wasting away.

Henderson wants wisdom…He sees it in Willatale, and he expects that she knows the secret. But, tragically, he only gets a dim sense of what it means to be wise. He becomes obsessed with the frog infestation and rashly concludes that the removal of the frogs is the best way to restore vitality to these beloved people. As an outsider, he sees himself as perfectly suited for the task. He constructs a bomb with a flashlight and some gunpowder and throws the explosive into the cistern. The resultant blast does kill the frogs but it also destroys the cistern. Henderson realizes the rashness of his act when he sees the water flowing into the parched land, leaving only yellow mud and dead frogs.

Now, for me, it is irresistible to see Henderson’s bomb as a metaphor of American military strength. An effective weapon meant to liberate an oppressed people, but too often used without wisdom, without reflecting on the possible consequences both good and bad.
I see the removal of Saddam Hussein as an act of benevolence on the part of President George W. Bush, not merely a cynical ploy for the control of Iraq’s oil reserves. Saddam was the frog that poisoned the cistern. His removal was necessary for the welfare of the Iraqi people, but the display of strength aptly described as “Shock and Awe” has destroyed the cistern of Iraqi national identity that contained the possibility of a unified nation.

All right, I didn’t mention the war in Iraq as a political point as much as the latest example of the rash use of strength without informed reflection and the enlightened consideration of consequences both short term and far reaching. It seems that the use of strength is an intoxicating temptation that humans have been dealing with for millennia.

In his book Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins uses the ancient enmity in the Middle East as a backdrop for the revelation of wisdom personified in the Dance of the Seven Veils. Each section of the novel lifts a veil of ignorance based upon assumptions about history and religion. Ultimately, he reveals the common origin of the Semitic and Canaanite peoples in the form of Pales, the ass-god.

He writes:
“The country of Palestine, which had been called Canaan, was named for Pales.
Pales was a deity. The ass-god. Or the ass-goddess. Usually he was male, but sometimes she was female, and sometimes its gender was a tad ambivalent.
The name Pales was Arabic, having come out of Libya, but the Hebrews love the long-eared bisexual no less than the Arabs. Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote that the Semites fell into venerating the ass because had it not been for wild asses, they never would have survived in the desert. It was probably more complicated than that.
The ass was a savior who provided milk, meat, shoe leather, and transportation (what the Bible calls the “golden calf” was actually the golden ass, since there were never many cows in the Levant).
The ass was also obstinate, silly, and sexually crude.
Embodying all of those characteristics, Pales was trickster, fertility spirit, and sacred clown, presiding over humankind’s unruly passions, giving mortals what they needed, but not before having some fun with them.” (Jesus riding an ass into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday takes on a whole new dimension of meaning here doesn’t it?)

The Dance of the Seven Veils takes place in a restaurant called Isaac and Ishmael’s in New York City. The restaurant is located across the street from the United Nation’s building and had been bombed by terrorists. The owners, Spike Cohen and Roland Abu Hadee are the Jew and Arab, the respective representatives of Isaac and Ishmael.

Spike Cohen laments the exploits of Joshua, the heir to Moses and the key figure in the conquest of Canaan, “I quote to you from the Old Testament. Joshua carried off all the livestock of these cities (meaning the cities of Canaan) but all the people he put to the sword, not sparing anyone who breathed. Joshua plundered, Joshua burned, Joshua massacred, Joshua wiped them out, Joshua put to death, Joshua turned his forces, all were taken by storm…annihilated without mercy and utterly destroyed, Joshua subdued, Joshua slew, Joshua left no survivors. In your Christian Bible you will find this nice story of this nice guy Joshua. You think I could go on living when I wear the name of such a man?”

Spike Cohen understands that the actions of Joshua may be the root of all the hatred in the Middle East, which the indiscriminate use of strength shed blood and nourished the seeds of war for millennia. He sees how Joshua would be perceived in the present day, as a harbinger of homicide, a leader who fell under the spell of the Final Solution, a man guilty of implementing genocide.

Roland Abu Hadee weighs in the on the Christian Crusades, “In the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, while Europe wallowed in its Dark Ages, while Europe was ignorant and impoverished and altogether barbarous, there was enlightenment in the Arab lands. The Arab world was cultured then, rich educated, and in its fierce, dreamy way, refined. Mathematicians strolled in rose gardens. Poets rode stallions.
So what happened? Why, my dear, the Crusaders paid us a little visit. The Crusaders came. Christian knights from Europe. And they massacred men, women and children-Jew as well as Arab, it should be told: all who were non-Christian. The Crusaders destroyed the intellectual and scientific life of western Asia and northern Africa. They burned the library of Tripoli, and the reduced to rubble scores of scientific and artistic centers. Such a tragedy. Such a waste.
Noble Crusaders. Holy Crusaders. They pulled the Arab lands down into the much pit of Europe. And the Arab lands have never recovered. No amount of oil profit can buy back their enlightenment. How different conditions would be today in the Middle East, how much saner and safer the entire earth might be, had those Christians not defiled a civilization too advanced for their arrogant little minds to understand.”

The underlying message here is that the indiscriminate use of strength has led us into a struggle that seems to have no end, that we must learn to turn to wisdom so that we have a hope of ending a cycle of brutality and vengeance that has gone on throughout recorded human history.

In Proverbs chapter 8, it is interesting to note that wisdom and understanding are personified as female. This is not a surprise, really, since wisdom (Sophia) has a long historical precedence as being a divine representation of femininity.

Zeus produced the goddess Athena from his own thoughts, and Athena represents justice and balance, wisdom and understanding. She is also the patroness of weaving, crafts and the more disciplined side of war. She embodies the thoughtful use of strength.

In the Proverbs text, verses 22 through 31 assert that God created wisdom at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old, “Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth…”

This passage reminds me of another, John 1: 1-5, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

If one looks at these passages through the binary understanding of male and female, masculine and feminine, one might see a contradiction, that Divine Wisdom and Christ are competing for the same spot in the order of creation.

And it seems that throughout the history of monotheism, the Judeo-Christian-Muslim default has been to suppress the feminine, even to despise the feminine. We all shudder at the way the Taliban have suppressed women and girls, and we can remember in our own recent history that women were thought of as little more than property, having no rights of their own apart from their husbands, and having no political identity.
I believe that this suppression of the feminine has led to the suppression of wisdom and the over-reliance upon strength. Seeking consensus and emphasizing dialogue are often seen as the methods of wimps. I mean, look at how we have demonized France in the past several years because of their lack of support for the War in Iraq.

And, in our own country, demonizing feminists, pacifists, and homosexuals has become a tool of political strategy that creates a pervasive homophobia that has become a powerful wedge device in local and national politics, a wedge issue that has kept those in power who have used strength unwisely.

I believe that homophobia is the fear of diminished strength, the fear of losing one’s masculine vitality. As a result, we have become a results oriented society where the most expedient tool seems to be strength, often at the expense of wisdom.

One of the names of Christ is Yeshua, which is Greek for Joshua, which is Jesus in English. Yeshua means, “He will save.”

In a sense, Jesus is the second Joshua, the one who restores order to the chaos wrought by the first Joshua. Where Joshua used the sword to gain victory, Jesus refused to be proclaimed as a military Messiah. He resisted the temptations of the devil, one of which promised him all the kingdoms of the world, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” He could have been an emperor like no other, the true ruler of the earth if he had taken up the sword. One of the disciples, Simon the Zealot, begged Jesus to lead a revolt against the Romans and restore the glory of Israel under King David. Judas was probably motivated to betray Jesus so he would have to reveal himself as the Messiah and thus vindicate the oppression of the Jews under Roman authority. When Jesus died on the cross, he totally refused the power of this world and embraced a different kind of glory, a glory that transcends death and ends the cycle of violence perpetuated by the need for vengeance.

In this way, Jesus showed us that Wisdom and Christ do not contradict one another. They coexist, together in one body, in one manifestation.

The Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of scrolls discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945, may provide insight into the divine orientation of Jesus Christ. In the Sophia of Christ (Wisdom of Christ) God the Father consorted with the Great Sophia, and together, they revealed the first begotten androgynous son. “His name is designated, “Savior, Begetter of All Things. His female name is designated All Begettress Sophia.”

I believe that the struggle for gender equality is a manifestation of the impulse toward wisdom, a balancing of the masculine strength that has ravaged our earth for too long, and I believe that the struggle for glbt equality is an offshoot of the general struggle for gender balance, not only in our culture and politics, but in our own psyches.

The re-emergence of goddess-centered religions may be a reaction to this deep spiritual rift that has gone on for too long. Perhaps the popularity of The DaVinci Code is part of a psychological venting of tension produced by this growing awareness of this spiritual dichotomy between male and female. The tectonic plates of the psyche are beginning to make a measurement on the Richter scale of consciousness.

The effort to achieve balance is exemplified no better than the movement in the Roman Catholic Church to deify Mary, to proclaim her as a co-redemtrix to her male counterpart in Jesus Christ. I applaud this movement because it recognizes the need to acknowledge the divine feminine, but I think it doesn’t go far enough because it keeps the masculine and feminine figures as separate beings. What we really need is to achieve balance in one unified figure.

I believe a good measure for progress in the balancing of strength and wisdom can be seen in the reaction of people when we refer to God as She. If people wince at this, then it may indicate that we have not achieved true gender equality, not only in the political and economic arenas but in the realm of self as well.

Oh, back to Henderson…

Henderson’s constant companion in his trek through Africa is Romilayu. He becomes Henderson’s trusted friend even though Henderson tends to bully him. He constantly tries to counsel Henderson toward moderation and literally and spiritually saves Henderson’s life because of his superior skill in surviving the desert. But Romilayu’s most important role is to convince Henderson to act wisely rather than to claim revenge on his enemies. Henderson finally listens to Romilayu’s advice when he tells him that “Revenge is a luxury.”

As we struggle for balance, it is important to remember Romilayu’s advice. Revenge is indeed a luxury, a luxury we can no longer afford. Revenge continues the cycle of violence through the abuse of strength. The wise one does not succumb. The wise one turns the other cheek. The wise one loves one’s enemies…

The wise one loves others and loves one’s self, the masculine and feminine embodied in us all.

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