Idolatry and Dissonance

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”—Gospel of John 15:1–4 (King James Version)

I am becoming quite fond of reading the New Testament Kabbalistically. It goes places and it not only makes sense of some personal gnosis, but has served to amplify and intensify the work with it. This particular quote provides an occasion to revisit the topic of idolatry (hardly a new subject here).  Read, especially, the sacking of the Temple of Israel in this light (vines show up there, too). Or the story of Job. Vines, channels, fruits. Not one way to read those, but many, some of which intertwine with the Tree of Life.

There is one way to be alive in spirit and that is to be alive as a part of it. If you sever yourself from the whole, then you wither. Though I know it may be hard for some of us who have been inculcated with Christian theology to see, think about this as a statement from before Christianity was ‘Christian.’ Think about it as a statement about direct personal experience between a person and the divine. What do you have?

If you are alive in spirit, you are productive. Ideas, dreams, images, stir within you and through work you can give expression to them through various kinds of deeds, some of which will leave more lasting impressions than others. The work we do are the fruits and leaves of the vine, whether those are the specific relationships we cultivate with each other, the words we write, the prayers we repeat, the images we draw and paint.

If you are living in the spirit, those are going to depart from you. Those will be pruned away and you will allow them to be pruned away. In return, the life of the spirit continues. In time, what you are will itself be pruned away, until some subtle mystery of you is what circulates within the vine and its branches. To clutch to the visible forms is to pass over into what must be pruned away.

One of the things that seems to go wrong in the popular reception of the mystery and truth of pruning is that it turns into a hatred of creativity and originality, it turns into destructive opposition to images and/or the dogmatic preservation of a specific set of images. Both of these strategies, though, are inimical to the mystery that motivates them. The point is not to bring about a cessation of this flow of ideas and images, but to intensify it by willfully cutting back.

This is somewhat different than a habit of acceptance, because in this situation you are engaging in a kind of creative refusal. Or, perhaps, accepting a kind of productive refusal that challenges and transforms what it means to be engaged in the work with spirit.

‘Idolatry’ delineates a domain that encompasses a too strong attachment to the manifestations of spirit, but also reveals to us its toxic double, too fierce an opposition to images. Here is where the magical work can be something of a tightrope. If you work magic, if you work spirit, strictly for its manifest results, you miss the opportunity which magic holds out to you, the opportunity to experience the subtle world in its wonder. If you cast aside magical action altogether, though, you cut yourself off from the opportunity for the subtle world to interpenetrate and sacralize the manifest world.

Hybridization and cross-fertilization don’t seem to be the problem; that seems to be a feature of the work, at least for some of us. Spirits that seem more than happy to pick up, at least for a brief time, spirit names drawn from reading or to send you reading after throwing up a strange spirit name. That often requires us to juggle parallel conceptual frames. It is through that, I suspect, that the spirits properly go about their work. Through these attachments to us, the world of spirit rejoins what was once withered and in order to return the lingering bit of life to the vine.

These discontinuous frames often do drop away once they have illumined some more basic spiritual fact, but they may remain an active part of your work for great stretches, perhaps even a lifetime. The Yucatan of the late modern to contemporary period and the Tigris-Euphrates of Antiquity, for example, have remained vital and consistent frames for me, even if they fade into the background of my work from time to time.

In order to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of attachment and phobia regarding idols, we need to make ourselves familiar with the presence of dissonance. There is a subtle trinity at work in this vine metaphor—the vine, the gardener, and the pruning. Son, Father, Holy Spirit, because the spirit is what is sharp and red. We need to learn to attend to a holy discomfort, a discomfort that tells us when we are turning aside from the development of our vital spirit and yielding over into the fetishization of that which was produced by it.

It comes back to the issue as it is articulated in the Judaic material, of having no other before you. It gets us back to the question of following the wrong gods home, of mistaking a spiritual wellspring for your spiritual wellspring, or of mistaking a past wellspring for a present one.

We don’t have to treat this ill-health as eternal damnation. We can treat it, instead, as a situation which can be set right, or, at the very least, ameliorated. It can become a sign that can point the way toward a fresh and refreshing relationship with our spiritual currents, if only we pay attention to this sacred dissonance. There is value in the damnation talk, too, since it highlights how precarious this can become. If we proceed too long, too deeply, into a dissonant way of life and engagement with spirit, it becomes possible to become so out of sorts that it becomes all-but-impossible to regain our spiritual equilibrium. Being out of sorts spiritually is dangerous.

And, as I’ve noted in my previous reflections on idolatry, what was once a healthy spiritual relationship can turn idolatrous if we don’t allow both ourselves and the spiritual world in which we are embedded to change. When the pruning comes, it is not a matter of turning against what we have done so much as of letting go of what we no longer need. In matters of idolatry proper, though, the dissonance is the sign of our cutting ourselves off from what is vital, from what we do need, and of being in danger of ourselves being cut loose. Same shears, different implications.

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