trap ease

No doubt, many students of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish esoterica will claim that my literal reading of their scriptures betrays my ignorance of their spiritual import. To be sure, occult, alchemical, and conventionally mystical interpretations of various passages in the Bible and the Koran are as old as the texts themselves, but the problem with such hermeneutical efforts— whether it be the highly dubious theory of gematria (the translation of the Hebrew letters of the Torah into their numerical equivalents so that numerologists can work their interpretive magic upon the text) or the glib symbol seeking of popular scholars like Joseph Campbell— is that they are perfectly unconstrained by the contents of the texts themselves. One can interpret every text in such a way as to yield almost any mystical or occult instruction.

A case in point: I have selected another book at random, this time from the cookbook aisle of a bookstore. The book is A Taste of Hawaii: New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific. Therein I have discovered an as yet uncelebrated mystical treatise. While it appears to be a recipe for wok-seared fish and shrimp cakes with ogo-tomato relish, we need only study its list of ingredients to know that we are in the presence of an unrivaled spiritual intelligence:

snapper filet, cubed 297
3 teaspoons chopped scallions
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a dash of cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
8 shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cubed
½ cup heavy cream; 2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 teaspoons rice wine; 2 cups bread crumbs
3 tablespoons vegetable oil; 2 ½ cups ogo tomato relish

The snapper filet, of course, is the individual himself— you and I— awash in the sea of existence. But here we find it cubed, which is to say that our situation must be remedied in all three dimensions of body, mind, and spirit.

Three teaspoons of chopped scallions further partakes of the cubic symmetry, suggesting that that which we need add to each level of our being by way of antidote comes likewise in equal proportions. The import of the passage is clear: the body, mind, and spirit need to be tended to with the same care.

Salt and freshly ground black pepper: here we have the perennial invocation of opposites—the white and the black aspects of our nature. Both good and evil must be understood if we would fulfill the recipe for spiritual life. Nothing, after all, can be excluded from the human experience (this seems to be a Tantric text). What is more, salt and pepper come to us in the form of grains, which is to say that our good and bad qualities are born of the tiniest actions. Thus, we are not good or evil in general, but only by virtue of innumerable moments, which color the stream of our being by force of repetition.


That such metaphorical acrobatics can be performed on almost any text—and that they are therefore meaningless—should be obvious. Here we have scripture as Rorschach blot: wherein the occultist can find his magical principles perfectly reflected; the conventional mystic can find his recipe for transcendence; and the totalitarian dogmatist can hear God telling him to suppress the intelligence and creativity of others. This is not to say that no author has ever couched spiritual or mystical information in allegory or ever produced a text that requires a strenuous hermeneutical effort to be made sense of. If you pick up a copy of Finnegans Wake, for instance, and imagine that you have found therein allusions to various cosmogonic myths and alchemical schemes, chances are that you have, because Joyce put them there. But to dredge scripture in this manner and discover the occasional pearl is little more than a literary game.

Sam Harris, "The End of Faith" (2004)