When photographing the red maple and frosty grasses (shown above), the slow shutter signaled a probable blur. So I adjusted the f-stop to get a sharper image; but after uploading the digital images, my attraction was drawn to the blurred, less clear representation. Or perhaps a surreal view moves through the superficial and into the light that had first driven me upstairs and back with camera in hand. Clarity has value but not absolute.
The unknown approaches through likeness, by parable. Humans, at our best, it seems, are meant to be ever leaning. The apprehension of truth falls too easily into arrogance; for the essential, the most meaningful, pulls beyond knowing and most certainly beyond commanding.
How strange (and yet not all all) that my early academic work focused on clarity. In the late seventies and eighties when “research on teaching” depended on conducting low-inference studies on process-product variables, using quasi-experimental designs, teacher clarity was marked in the top ten for research and publication. Gaining tenure depended on pursuit of such a target.
And now, easing into retirement, relatively uncaged by publication’s jailer, it’s parable that’s so compelling. Not strange also because the path toward knowing leads so often amid the experience of opposites. How else is unity approached? C.G. Jung’s exploration of individuation abounds in the “marriage of opposites.” For example, look at “opposites” in the index of Mysterium Coniunctionis (p. 679).
Dominic Crossan, writing extensively about the parables of Jesus, elaborates on the multiplicity of meanings around parables in his preface to In Parables. The truth seems far from clarity when he asserts “reality is parabolic” (p. xiv). And paradoxical: knowing is non-knowing. Perhaps the greatest peril to knowing comes in satanic certainty. Parable holds center stage, or perhaps dances just outside the spotlight, for all religion that I’ve seen.
The value and authority of parable flow all through the first book of Rumi’s Mathnawi. For example, Victoria Holbrook’s translation of Kenan Rifai’s commentary, Listen: “O heart, tell a parable that you may discern compulsion from free will” (line 1519, p. 181). Nicholson’s classic translation has the line and selected others this way:
O son, (only) they know (the real meaning of) compulsion in whose hearts God has opened the sight (of the spiritual eye)./To them the unseen things of the future became manifest; to them recollection of the past became naught./Their freewill and compulsion is different (from that of ordinary men): in oyster-shells drops (of rain) are pearls…O heart, bring (forward) a parable for the sake of (illustrating) a difference, that thou mayst know (what distinguishes) compulsion from freewill. . . (about lines 1466-; 1496-).
And from Book III, lines 2114 & 2786: God hath set down these tales and parables for the purpose of concealing (the true nature of) the praise from the unworthy. [My note: Some will not understand and will criticize the one who knows the mysteries].
That use of similitude belongs to the Lord, for He is the (sole) authority for the knowledge of the hidden and the manifest.
A bit more of Holbrook’s translation of Rifai:
"So, let the light of spirit shine. Once the light of the spirt has shown, all the proofs and terms of knowledge and intellect are left in the shade. This means the shining of the sun of love within the heart. When that happens, the stars of knowledge and intellect fall into invisibility" (p. 184).
Parables are not vestiges from olden times. Howard Schwartz, considered “the preeminent Jewish folklorist in America,” compiles one hundred modern parables in Imperial Messages. The second parable in this collection is the one we focused in Good Stories, Kafka’s “Before the Law.” Here, parable in its most compelling, even Kafkaesque, drives us up against the final judgment: how do we each find ourselves purely accountable?
Such a question, almost maddening, serves to disrobe the emperor, to push us to acknowledge the arrogance behind persecution and proselytizing, the intolerance of fundamentalism. Not in dualistic conviction but in holding opposites do we approach the great mysteries. Parables help us own the limitation of words, the treasury of secrets, the authority of mystery. Parables guard wonder, enter transformation and the world of art, full of blurs, the open-ended story, as Crossan tells “to help others into their own experience of the Kingdom and to draw from that experience their own way of life” (p. 52, see below).
*Crossan, In Parables, p. 52: “It is one thing to communicate to others conclusions and admonitions based on one’s own profound spiritual experience. . . It is quite another thing to try and communicate that experience itself, or, better, to assist people to find their own ultimate encounter. This is what Jesus’ parables seek to do: to help others into their own experience of the Kingdom and to draw from that experience their own way of life.”
**Much commentary has been given to “Before the Law”; for example, Chapter 5 of Acts of Literature focuses Derrida’s exploration.