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Dr. Hal Taussig on
The Thunder: Perfect Mind

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Who would have ever dreamed it?

How can an ancient voice do so much for an overwhelmed, cynical, confused, yet often awake and creative 21st-century humanity?  Could an 1,800-year-old document untangle the deep confusion and disillusionment with what often seems like a failed all-powerful and all-loving God?  Could an ancient text be a key to life with a 21st-century vulnerable divinity?

The question is whether a recently discovered document from an ancient world can become a powerful divine presence in the ragged, out-of-control, thirsty-for-something-better 21st century.

It is a real question since a number of film makers, novelists, musicians, and teachers have already become enamored by such an up-until-recently unknown ancient text.

The text is called The Thunder: Perfect Mind.  It was found in a jar in the Egyptian desert in 1945 along with 51 other documents.  Much more widely known than all but one of the other 51 documents, Thunder is already being celebrated and taken seriously by hundreds of thousands.  Nobel Prize winning author, Toni Morrison, quotes it as the epigraph for two of her novels.  Multiple Oscar award-winning director Ridley Scott has made a film about it.  Julia Dash, the first African American woman director in Hollywood, opened her award-winning full-length film, Daughters of the Dust, with an eight-minute quote from Thunder.  A key chapter in Umberto Eco’s famous novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, features this document from the Egyptian sands.  Leading early Christianity scholar, Elaine Pagels probably is most responsible for spreading the news about Thunder, quoting it extensively in her popular books.  In 2013 Thunder was one of ten newly discovered ancient texts added to A New New Testament by an international Council of spiritual leaders and scholars and published broadly by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.  University of Pennsylvania professor Andrew Lamas calls this poem “one of the ten most important documents in history.”  And in the spring of 2020 Sue Monk Kidd has joined Morrison and Eco in bringing Thunder into a significant novel, The Book of Longings.

The first morsel of The Thunder: Perfect Mind tantalizes:

I am the first and the last
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman
I am the wife and the virgin
I am he the mother and the daughter
I am the limbs of my mother
I am a sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband….
I am the silence never found
And the idea infinitely recalled….
….I am a barbarian among barbarians….
I am a foreigner and a citizen of the city….
I am the one who prepares the bread and my mind within…

There is no denying its power and novelty, but thinking about what it can mean for people in the 21st century has, in many ways, only begun.  Not much work has been done on what it might have meant in ancient Mediterranean culture.  That most people don’t know it at all clamors for an initial introduction.

The Basic Thunder

Some things are clear about this nine-columned papyrus.  The voice is strong and calls attention to itself.  It speaks almost entirely in the first person ‘I’ voice.  The very beginning demands, almost pleads to be heard:

I was sent out from power
I came to those pondering me….
Look at me…audience, hear me…
Don’t chase me from your sight….
Be careful.   Do not ignore me…

This voice does not mince words:

I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman….
I am a barbarian among barbarians….
I am she whom you detested and yet you think about me….

This person also seems to make unusual connections inside herself:

I am the wife and the virgin….
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband….
I am she who is disgraced and she who is important….
I am the deliberation of both the Greeks and barbarians….
I am a foreigner and a citizen of the city….

She has much power, speaks her own truth even when it is not easy, brings different persons and characteristics together in herself, and enacts surprising connections.

These character traits point to the obvious, even though the voice is quite original.  She must be divine.

I was found among those seeking me
Look at me, all you who contemplate me…
Those expecting me, receive me
I am the first and the last….
I am the silence never found….
Do not be afraid of my power….
I am the one who prepares the bread and my mind within ….
I am what everyone can hear and no one can say…

From the ancient perspective this voice is like many other ancient Mediterranean divinities that speak in the voice of a great ‘I am.’ The Hebrew God revealed himself to Moses as “I am;” and later Ben Sirach writes of how divine Wisdom herself proclaims, “I am like a vine putting out graceful shoots.”  The Egyptian goddess Isis often spoke in long strings of ‘I am’ statements about how powerful and wise she was.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks fourteen times as a great “I am.”  The voice in The Thunder: Perfect Mind belongs to well charted divine beings.

Thunderous Puzzles and Surprises

At the same time, this ‘divine’ voice does not fit a typical divine voice from the second century.  Or, for that matter, it doesn’t fit the conventional talk about God in the 21st century.  What this ‘divine’ person says is provocative and uncomfortable when compared to conventional ways of talking about God.

This voice actively compares herself to characters who are slandered.  She says that she is both a “whore” and a “holy woman.”  The only line in the whole poem where she compares herself to just one person is to a “barbarian.”  No self-respecting God or Goddess would refer to the divine self like this.  She compares herself to foreigners, women who do not have children, and women who do not have a husband.  She not only actively associates with those who are slandered, she calls herself one of them.  This is disturbing for the way most conventional deities are portrayed as above all ‘holy,’ ‘pure,’ and without moral or physical blemish.

At least as surprising is that she makes no claim to being almighty, even though she is clearly powerful.  She proclaims unashamedly that she is disgraced, stripped bare, and thrown to the ground.  This divine one—while knowing that she is strong—does not care whether she has all dominion.  As she says, “I am she who exists in all fears and in trembling boldness.”

This is a startling deity.  Almost unheard of. This is a ‘vulnerable divinity,’ fully formed.

Thunder does not present herself always as female.  In contrast to so many kinds of divinities who are supremely male or female, she speaks about herself a bit queerly.  As is obvious so far, she thinks of herself mostly as female.  She calls herself “wife, whore, virgin, sterile, midwife, bride, and slavewoman.”  Over the entire poem she refers to herself at least 25 times as “she.”  On the other hand, even within the first seven verses of the poem, she calls herself “he, the mother.”  Later this divine voice says, “I am he whose image is multiple in Egypt,” ” I am he the one you thought about and you detested me,” “I am he from whom you hid,” and “I am he, the defense.”

So, Thunder is not like the current fashion in some circles of portraying a divine figure alternately as ‘he’ and ‘she.’  Rather the voice in Thunder seems mostly female and a little bit male.  And, as has been clear from other places, Thunder actively scrambles what is meant by conventionally as ‘woman’ or ‘female,’ when she talks about herself simultaneously as:

…the bride and the bridegroom
And it is my husband who gave birth to me
I am my father’s mother,
my husband’s sister, and he is my child.

Here she is actively confusing the conventional gender rules, especially within families.  As when she names herself “he, the mother,” she also actively evokes her “husband who gave birth to me.”  This is neither nonsense nor randomness, but clear consciousness of the many ways genders get bended, often for the better.

This is a commanding voice, an almost unimaginably sure and strong person in her own right, and one that keeps the hearers on their toes.

As her occasional masculinity brandishes itself, she keeps pointing to—even toys with—the many caricatures of women.  She does not shrink from these insulting terms for women, but takes them into herself with bravery and humor.  Here the Thunder voice scrambles the expected roles of women, claiming for both her divine self and women in general much fuller, more complex, and more playful identities:

I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman
I am the wife and the virgin….
I am the limbs of my mother
I am a sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband
I am the midwife and she who hasn’t given birth
I am the comfort of my labor pains.

It is this gripping, evocative, close-at-hand divine female that has already captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of 20th-and 21st-century spiritual seekers.  And yet, it turns out these already hailed aspects of her only scratch the surface of who she is.

The Major Dilemma About God in the 21st Century

Within the last century one huge question about God has thrust itself into most levels of life.  It has proved more or less insolvable.  And this huge question is at the heart of Thunder herself.  It is the growing interrogation of God — can God be both all-powerful and all-loving? There is a general move by many people away from divinity that is always powerful and self-confident about the way its love has no limits.

The main—although far from the only—thing that has moved people away from this kind of God has been the 20th-century Holocaust.  The murder of six million Jews under Nazi Germany has not been explainable in relationship to an all-loving and all-powerful God.  If God is all-loving and all powerful, why did God not do something about this on-going massacre?

All the main ways people try to explain how and why deep loss and pain happen fall apart completely when looking at the murder of so many.

Here are the standard explanations for the all-powerful and all-loving God in the face of the Jewish Holocaust and the problems with these explanations:

  • They died because there was a lesson to learn from it all. (What lesson would be worth that kind of suffering and death?)
  • God had a plan. (What kind of plan could make sense of such loss.  What kind of God would that be?)
  • Suffering is rewarded in the end. (It wasn’t in this case.  What kind of reward would that be?)
  • The Jews were killed because they deserved to be punished. (The Jews did not deserve punishment.  What kind of God would punish them?)
  • God will reward them in heaven. (How could heaven be a sufficient reward for both those who were killed and all those who lost their loved ones?)
  • The death of six million Jews was due to the sins of those humans who killed them, not due to God’s failure. (If God is all-powerful and all-loving, God must share the blame, since the depth of loss of life makes such a God both a failure and mercilessly capricious.  Blaming these deaths on the Germans and Hitler without interrogating God is flimsy reasoning.)
  • God is a mystery and humans must honor God’s mystery. (This kind of mystery simply cannot stand unless if removes the assertion of God being all-loving.)

It is, of course, not that the slaughter of six million Jews single-handedly caused God to become a puzzle rather than a comfort and inspiration.  Rather as this incomparable tragedy sunk into people’s consciousness, most of the explanations for how God made sense fell apart.   Almost simultaneously, as communications broadened the awareness of many, other devastating and massive losses became much more obvious.  Between six and one hundred million slaves killed under slavery in the United States of America.  More than 400,000 Syrians killed in war since 2011.  The three million people that die of starvation every day.  At least four million people killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1996.

What leg does an all-powerful and all-loving God have to stand on, in terms of a reasonable and loving response to all these losses?

There are, of course, other reasons to challenge belief in God.  But this complaint about not being able to answer how an all-loving and all-powerful God could exist is certainly near the heart of confusion about God in our time.

In other words, the real protest and pain of parents who have lost their baby and the Holocaust of six million Jews are connected.  Both deserve a better divinity than an all-powerful and all-loving God that ends up doing little and/or gives poor answers.

In The Thunder: Perfect Mind we encounter a divine presence that does not rationalize losses.

A Mix of Agony and Trembling Boldness

The Thunder: Perfect Mind addresses this key question about God openly and clearly.  Thunder is not all powerful, sometimes she is even mocked and attacked.  A closer look reveals that she is threatened and sometimes diminished by violence, pain, and loss.

Sometimes she fears that she will be attacked:

Do not throw me down among those slaughtered viciously….
In my weakness do not strip me bare.

More often, she is attacked and berated:

Do not be arrogant to me when I am thrown to the ground…
Do not stare at me in the shit pile, leaving me discarded…
Do not stare at me when I am thrown out among the condemned…
Do not laugh at me in the lowest places….
I am she whom you chased and she whom you captured…
I am she whom you scattered….
Take me from the disgraced and crushed places….
I am she who shouts out and I am thrown down on the ground….

All of a sudden, this powerful, clever, and demanding deity is brutally assaulted.

These scenes are gruesome, but her resistance continues to be fierce.  Her voice is not silenced.  She never gives up even after being stripped bare, thrown down, and captured. And although her agony is present throughout the whole poem, there are other violent attacks where humiliation is not the last word.

I am both awareness and obliviousness
I am humiliation and pride
I am without shame
Pay attention to me
I am she who is disgraced and she who is important
Pay attention to me, to my impoverishment and to my extravagance….

In some cases, she not only remains strong and with full voice, she actually grows in the middle of the onslaught.  Right after she shouts, but then is thrown to the ground, she yells again, “I am she who shouts out and it is I that listens.”

This resilience and creativity in the face of loss and violence appears not just as her resonant voice.  Sometimes in the middle of an on-going devastation, she brings forth creativity and goodness alongside the destruction:

I am a sterile woman and she has many children….
I am the comfort of my labor pains….
I am the slave woman of him who served me….
I shall shut my mouth among those whose mouths are shut
And then I will show up and speak….
I am she whom you detested and yet you think about me
I am he from whom you hid
And you appear to me.

This divinity recognizes loss, destruction, torture, and trauma.  She does not necessarily defeat it or make it disappear, but she is not in denial nor is she passive.  Although she sometimes grows in the middle of the mess, other times she simply stands tall while the hurt continues.

On the other hand, this is no suffering servant.  There is nothing good about pain itself in her misery, resistance, and creativity. Nor does she just look on the bright side of life as if the destruction and loss does not matter.  Although she is steadfast and sometimes silent in a way that makes us nervous, she is definitely not mute.  She does not let go of her desire and wry humor.  It is astounding how she even insists on claiming the experiences of shame and mockery.  Over and over again, she mentions being mocked and shamed and lets that memory live in her without letting it silence her.  Indeed, in the Coptic version of the poem itself, the rhymes and rhythms of the Coptic word “shame” itself wrap themselves around the very sinews of this divine being.  She does not pretend that she has not been shamed, nor does she let that be the last word

In sum, this ancient deity processes violence, loss, hurt, fear, and humiliation in the same breath and body as her strength, extravagance, and trembling boldness.

21st century humanity has much to learn from this thundering voice with its combination of strength and vulnerability.  When we are hurt or humiliated, often our cultures rely on materialist comfort to keep us from remembering and processing these difficult experiences.  Many of us hide our losses and trauma behind intellectual sophistication.  Still others dive into addictions as we try to forget violence enacted upon ourselves or others.  In other cases, bravado, patronizing, and emotional flatness manufacture a façade that blocks that which has crushed, stripped bare, or discarded us.

Contrary to our 21st-century addictions and aversions, the character of Thunder offers another storyline that does not hide or compromise even when she cannot vanquish.  Nor does she hide how she wants people to relate to her.  She is a fully developed divinity with integrity, even though she is not all powerful.

This is not just a quirky ancient poem.  It borders on a new kind of spirit, god, and divinity that might provide us early 21st-century persons with crucial companionship.  Thunder’s nuanced blend of bonding with different human conditions, assertive god-like strength, and open admission of weakness and loss make for palpable connection to real people.

The picture of divinity in Thunder is one in which the divine voice cares deeply about the suffering and violence in the world, is actively working against it, but not completely successful.  The presumption of an all-powerful God is laid aside and replaced by divinity that “exists in all fears and in trembling boldness.”

This is a fully developed divine person in relationship both to powerful violence on many fronts and to the larger human community.  Thunder’s character does not simply respond with violence to violence as an adolescent might strike out in anger.  Rather she neither forgets that she has strength that can help nor does she forget her own fears in the face of violence.  What a mature relationship to power that has “trembling boldness” as a way to integrate energy and fear!

This kind of divinity has depth that promotes growth and wisdom much more than any all-powerful God does.

In a very similar way, Thunder’s divinity builds up human community, not just by example or in the way she uses strength.  Rather, her understanding of what it means to be mocked and humiliated brings perspective and insight to larger human groupings.  Once again, her vigor carries profundity with it in terms of how cooperation develops when it depends more on a combination of experience and vigor than dominance.

Thunder can be a touchstone for some different ways of encountering a divine voice and presence.  Compared to the traditional ‘all-powerful’ divine characteristic, her “trembling boldness” avoids a caricature in how strength functions.  S/he is perhaps the most full-blown portrait of a vulnerable deity.  This ancient figure is not, in itself, the full picture of renewed and open paths to human-divine connection.  But Thunder is nonetheless a major new resource for such human-divine vulnerable connection.

History and overview of scholarship on The Thunder: Perfect Mind

Although this essay about Thunder focuses on my current spiritual and theological interest in making headway on what I am calling ‘vulnerable divinity,’ here is a brief summary on history and overview of scholarship on The Thunder: Perfect Mind.

Thunder was first introduced to a larger public and scholarly audience with the appearance of Elaine Pagel’s 1979 The Gnostic Gospels in which Thunder is described at some length alongside of a number of other relatively newly discovered early Christ movement writings.  This and other scholarship prompted both scholarship and a growing public interest in Thunder as so-called “gnostic literature,” often thought of as a movement of early Christian heresy.  More recently Pagels and a number of other scholars have followed the work of Karen King and Michael Williams in dropping the term “gnosticism” for Thunder and many other documents of early Christ literature discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The only complete scholarly book in English is the ten-chapter The Thunder: Perfect Mind: A New Translation and Introduction by Hal Taussig, Jared Calaway, Maia Kotrosits, Celene Lillie, and Justin Lasser.  This new translation and a short introduction by Taussig is widely accessible in A New New Testament: A Bible for the Twenty First Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts. Also recommended is Maia Kotrosits’ “The Thunder: Perfect Mind and Early Christian Conflicts about Gender,” in The Fourth R (Westar Institute) and Anne McGuire’s “Thunder: Perfect Mind” in Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary, Volume 2.