An Interview with Neil Douglas Klotz
by Dan Vera
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There are many ways of knowing.
The lame goat's kind is a branch
That traces back to the roots of presence.
Learn from the lame goat,
And lead the herd home.
Rumi (Coleman Barks translation)
In his most recent book, Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus, the scholar Neil Douglas Klotz speaks of the need to recapture the depth of meaning in the words of Jesus. A thoroughly trained academic, with training in hermeneutics and somatic psychology, Klotz's work has centered on unpacking the teachings of Jesus in Aramaic--the language of many original texts of Jesus' words were written in. Through these uncoverings, Klotz reveals himself as a poet whose work allows the layers of well known biblical text to be peeled away. It is not the revelation of a new meaning, but the multiple revelations of multiple meaning that take your breath away. So, a well known line like "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" becomes a treasure trove with the following real possibilities:
"Ripe are those who reside in breath; to them belongs the reign of unity. Blessed are those who realize that breath is their first and last possession; theirs is the "I Can" of the cosmos."
-- from Prayers of the Cosmos
Klotz's work is not about alternative interpretations of the text. On a more profound level, his work is a reminder that our static understandings of biblical texts are actually meaning equivalent of Biblical "Cliff Notes." In reading the translations that have come down to us, we are seeing only one layer of a text which in its original Aramaic had a multiplicity of possible meanings. And it is through this exploration of multiple meanings of text that we glimpse the linguistic realities of the shamanic quality of Jesus' teaching. Klotz is dedicated to returning a "sense of place" to Jesus' teachings, that is, affirming that Jesus was a "native Middle Eastern person" whose "mind and message arise from the same earth as have the traditions of Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers."
After 10 years as professor at Holy Names College in Oakland and instructor with Matthew Fox's Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality, he now makes his home in Scotland. His many interests include the Universal Dances of Peace and Sufi Practice.
Vera: There is a lovely density to your work. The translations open up so many possibilities, that it is as if one is looking at a kaleidoscope of meaning. How would you describe your work as a scholar?
Klotz: Well, there was an image that I used when I was writing my second book Desert Wisdom that still holds true. It's a bit like you have a piece of earth or section of the land that has been sort of over-grazed and over cultivated and you're trying to restore it to its natural ecosystem. That sort of recovery sometimes takes many years. The end of the process looks a lot less organized, a lot less civilized, if you will, then the way it originally started. Essentially the words of Jesus are sort of like that. They have been overgrazed, over cultivated, put into orderly lines. Which accords for the Greek mindset, but not with the Aramaic and not with mindset of Jesus and his original audience. So, when I began working with Prayers for the Cosmos, I knew intuitively that some of this overgrazing was true. I knew enough Aramaic to do the translation, but I didn't know the whole tradition of the language or as much of the background in hermeneutics as I know now. And now, I'm amazed actually at how well the book came out. It really resulted from an intuitive way of finding the right poetic forms to use in translating the prayers of Jesus and the Beatitudes.
Blessedly ripe are those who radiate from a new self within;
They shall be shown a waking vision:
the womb of the One surrounding them with compassion.
-- Matthew 5:7 "Blessed are the merciful"
Vera: I was immediately struck by the poetic quality of the translations. Do you have a background in poetry?
Klotz: I have a bit of a background. When I began this work, I didn't really know how to start. I knew that in Aramaic, you can read a statement five, six, seven ways. That alone was revolutionary. But then, given that the King James Version of the Lord's Prayer has so much rhythm, it has so much poetry--those fellows knew what they were doing even if they had a vocabulary that was much more limited than Shakespeare--I was inspired in the timing of what lines work. I read Robert Bly's book on translation and that introduced me to the "long line", the Blake/Whitman line. That is where you count syllables rather then stresses. That was a real breakthrough. I consciously used the long line for the Aramaic prayer translation.
Vera: Well, that comes up in other poets' work like Allen Ginsberg. It also has a real rootedness in the biblical tradition, the Psalms particularly.
Klotz: Yes, I intended that. It was interesting because I sort of had to load the language knowledge into one side of my brain, if you will, and then the more meditative or spiritual side into the other side. I actually did the translations while on retreat. I did a lot of chanting of the words in Aramaic, a lot of the same body prayers that I share in the book. The translations pretty much came out of that whole cloth, with out much revising. I did quite a bit of revising in later translations especially Desert Wisdom, but the Prayers pretty much came out the way they are. Its amazing how quickly they all came through. In a way it felt like a meditative research process.
Vera: In Hidden Gospel you talk about your work being about "overcoming centuries of mistrust and tragedy" specifically in relation to the cultures of the middle east. That resonated with the ways in which the taught biblical tradition has had a scarring effect on the lives of Queer people. Where scripture as "word of life" has become, through translation, the "word of death." Gay men raised in the institutionalized tradition that condemns Gay being and practice.
Klotz: In certain strains of Christian theology.
Vera: Well, yes, in most strains of Christian theology. I'm curious if you have had direct experience of that transformative power, the resonance with people who have been locked out, shunned.
Klotz: Most of the people who I encounter through my work are coming from a more liberal branch of belief, although they may have found their way there from a more restrictive branch, a more fundamentalist branch.
Hokhmah/sophia As First Integrated Self
I believe that part of the answer lies in her Hebrew name itself: Hokhmah. By a mystical reading, the roots of this word point to a breath of individuality (HO) which arises from a sense of inner-ness (KhM) and then expands to connect with Sacred Unity (A). The roots of Hokhmah/Sophia's name, as well as the way she is depicted in Proverbs, show that her role in creation was to form the first integrated self, or "I am."
Vera: In the chapter on the connections between the Sophia/Wisdom tradition in the Bible to the teachings of Jesus. You speak about the Sophia tradition being a "bringing of the diverse parts of self into whole." That strikes me as similar to the dynamics of many Gay men who have come out, as part of a journey to wholeness. Do you see this as an "embracing of" or a "bringing in" of that scorned part into the whole.
Klotz: Well, that is a very important element of Jesus' teaching that is essentially overlooked. As I wrote in The Hidden Gospel, I think the two major elements of Jesus' teaching are the "recovery of creation story" and the capacity to be creative in alignment with the unfolding creation.
Vera: Do you mean creative in terms of one's relationality with the unfolding creation?
Klotz: Yes, it is to be creatively in radical relationality with one's surroundings. To be fully present with all aspects of one's experience. This takes creativity.
Vera: It reminds me of Carter Heyward's belief that being in relation pushes us to an understanding that basic human unit is not "the self' but rather "the relation."
Klotz: The Sophia tradition, the wisdom tradition represented by Hokhmah, is in essence a gathering of both inside and outside, the loved and the unloved, the scorned and honored. All these different paradoxes are a significant part. It is about gathering them all together around one table, to essentially eat and drink together. This was the original sense of the communion as well. Unfortunately this original understanding has been lost in the current Christian tradition, where it is a communion which keeps it all apart instead of gathering it all together.
Vera: Can you speak to the connections of the Sophia wisdom tradition to the teachings of Jesus?
Klotz: Well, there are many scholars who have pointed out Jesus' relationship with Sophia. But they've generally focused on the "outer" or social justice aspect of the tradition, which I believe is very important. My work essentially just supports that but also points out that in any rendition of Jesus' worth, you can't just take it as either "solely outer" that is the social justice, outward representation. And you can't consider it as solely "inner," that is a completely introverted spiritual state. You have to realize that for Semitic speakers and readers, there has always been a fluid reality between these two aspects. This was especially true for lay speakers at the time of Jesus. In Aramaic, there isn't a strict separation between "inner" and "outer", between the so called "outer communal life" and the "inner psychic life" which you find in our culture and language. Its this split between outer and inner which is probably our biggest problem in Christian culture.
Vera: That split, that schizoid nature of our modern Western reality brings to mind the way your work speaks to "Jesus as Shaman," the integration of that schism. It comes through quite clearly in the translations and the sense of rootedness in culture and ecology too.
Klotz: Well, when you split extraordinary states of awareness or "non-ordinary" states of awareness from so called "normative consciousness" than you end up with basically a schizophrenic culture. Which is what we have. Today, if you have visionary states, then you either go to the minister to be forgiven, or you go the therapist to be drugged out. We simply have no context for understanding the shamanic spiritual practice. Jesus did have that context.
Vera: Can you explain what you mean exactly by "shamanic spiritual practice"?
Klotz: Well, what we see in the texts is that Jesus consistently connected Semitic concepts of holiness, light, kingdom, earth, and heaven, with his listeners' personal experiences of the sacred. This meant his teaching wasn't confined by the conditions of class, wealth, or ritual purity as defined by the political and religious structures of the time. To take this stance was both revolutionary and dangerous.
Vera: How is it that we miss that sense of Jesus' shamanic practice when we read the texts today?
Klotz: What we're suffering from is a very limited extraction in teaching. The biblical texts have been strained out through a Greek/Latin mindset, which is very surface and static. I sometimes think it would have actually have been better if Western culture had based so called "Western religion" on Greek philosophy, rather than middle-eastern, because then at least you'd have all one thing. It would be eternally consistent. But what we have now is sort of half of each. And you're left with a basically schizophrenic tradition.
Vera: I'm reminded here about Alice Walker writing about recovering her "pagan self." She writes that the "Jesus most of us have been brought up to adore must be expanded to include the 'wizard' and the dancer, and that when this is done, it becomes clear that He coexists quite easily with pagan indigenous peoples."
That wizard and shaman aspect comes through so clearly in your work. Especially when you write about the connection between the teachings of Jesus and his relation to the land... that the wisdom flows out of this honoring of place. It speaks to the shamanic element of Jesus, which seems to be completely missing from our common understanding of Jesus.
Klotz: Yes. All my colleagues in the "Historical Jesus" field, they're willing to talk about Jesus as "prophet." But they'll never touch talking about him as a mystic, or mention his visionary practice. They refuse to do that.
Vera: Why do you think that is?
Klotz: It's too challenging to their own awareness. It would mean that they'd have to use different tools to study his teachings, tools that are more appropriate to studying the states of consciousness of a shaman or of mystics in other traditions. They just won't touch that. When they're asked why, they have no explanation. So, either they would like him safely in the "outer," sort of social justice/prophetic tradition, that is to say the leading edge of liberal theology, or they want to keep him back in the box, which is basically as a theological icon.
The Search for Jesus' Basic Spiritual Practice
Vera: One of the things I really love about your work is the way you leap around the texts of the tradition. For example, when you talk about the voice of Sophia "Hokhma" you leap from the canonical book of Proverbs, and then leap to "Hokhma/Sophia" in [the non-canonical text] "Thunder Perfect Mind." This approach alone seems to be a very open, inclusive practice, as if you're in relationship to all the Sophia tradition wherever if comes up. I took this as an honoring of the essence or the resonance of the Sophia "voice" wherever it arises.
Klotz: Yes, I think so. You see I'm primarily interested in trying to get down to the question of "what was Jesus' basic spiritual practice?" What is he offering us today? What is of use in helping us to understand our relationships, our purpose of living, and the depth of our own being. Those are the kinds of questions I'm interested in. And so I'm willing to use whatever means are available, whether that is the scholarly contextualization, as well as the poetic renderings in the Jewish tradition, what we call "midrash," or body prayer. Body prayer after all is part of midrash. Midrash is the bringing of the word, to feel the word, to understand and plunge into the vitality of the word. Because I think these are the closest to the ways that Jesus himself would have approached it. Not that Jesus was a scholar, but I think he had a context for the words. He also had a relationship with the text of the earth, what he saw around him, what he knew around the Sea of Galilee. He launches, from, he doesn't repeat generally, but he launches his midrash, that is to say his interpretation from his understanding of the Hebrew Wisdom tradition.
Vera: I'm not sure if you're familiar with Jerome Rothenberg's work in "Technicians of the Sacred." As a poet and ethnographer, he speaks to needing to return to an understanding of poetry as not separate from dance, or movement. He shows that at one point they were all one in the same. It struck me that your work is about this kind of recovery. It seems to be a remembering that Jesus was a middle eastern person living in a middle eastern context. I'm not sure that I'd ever really realized that deep connection, between the tradition and practices, you can't have one without the other.
Klotz: Usually when I go around talking to Christians, I have to explain to them about this whole tradition of midrash. If I were sitting in a Jewish circle and we were going to take up the first verse of Genesis, the rabbi would sit us down and he would go through all the possible meanings of each word. And then half an hour later, after going through all the possible meanings of each word, he would go: "So, what does it mean to you?" "What is the meaning for you at this particular time in your life?" "What questions does it raise for your own capacity for creativity, about the way you balance your heaven and your earth reality?" You see it's a deep questioning process when one takes up the text. You don't presume that you have all the answers. It's not until you get to the Greek formulation that you encounter this belief that one's interpretation can give you the only or exact representation of the text.
Vera: This also reminds me of the Base community experience of liberation theology in Latin America in which people engage directly with the text and recover the present meaning.
Klotz: Yes. Base communities provided some of the more interesting perspectives, in terms of midrash, on the whole Christian experience. It's startling. It has certainly opened that all up. At least from what people have told me, I would hope that my work is certainly in support of that. This can be seen to be based in what is called the "historical Jesus" movement.
Give birth to compassion for the nearest,
yet unfamiliar, aspect of your self,
as you do for the one outside
who feels like a stranger.
Give birth to the deepest warmth fo
the neighbor, inside and out,
as you do for your own
inside and out.
based on the Aramaic version of Mark 12: 31
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
Vera: I'm wondering what specific thoughts and reflections on this work you'd want to extend to the experience of Gay men.
Klotz: I would say that we can all identify with the experience of Jesus. Particularly men can identify with Jesus and probably Gay men in particular. Jesus is one of the most projected upon historical figures in the history of humanity. In other words, everyone has put their own meanings on him. But Jesus hasn't really been allowed to speak for himself. In that sense, if you talk about the "hidden gospel," you realize that Jesus' own teachings have been "in the closet" for two millennia. Everyone else has had their shot at him, but he hasn't had a chance. I think as much as possible I'm trying to let him speak for himself. Not saying that "this is the only meaning" but "these are some of the other meanings that you haven't been hearing." And they're equally possible to what the church says, or what academic scholarship has said.
I think Jesus is a role model of sorts. Well, I wouldn't recommend the crucifixion part [Laughs]. But he has this mystical and prophetic capacity that is certainly a role model for Gay men. And also, though we don't have evidence in the gospel, Jesus seems to be very fluid in his sense of sexuality. Its clearly fluid in the sense that he is always inviting to his table all these people he's not supposed to be eating with. He's constantly crossing caste boundaries in regards to Jewish dietary law, with whom one is allowed to sit with and eat with.
Vera: Jesus definitely had a radical relationality.
Klotz: He definitely does. So these are aspects of his teaching to consider. Again, I think this Hokhma meditation of "gathering the different parts of the self around the table" is important. All these different parts, all to be honored, all to have enough, all to perform that most important inner communion. That is an extremely important meditation for everyone. Particularly for Gay men for whom so much of themselves has been kept in exile, kept away from the table.
Neil Douglas Klotz is the author of The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus; Desert Wisdom: The Middle Eastern Tradition from the Goddess through the Sufis; Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus; and Sufi Vision and Initiation.
Dan Vera lives in Chicago.
Last update Dec 15 2000