Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Horace Jeffery Hodges: "Crossing the Sacred-Profane Divide in Gnosticism and John's Gospel"

Yesterday saw the arrival of my copy of Trans-Humanities, a journal published by Ewha Womans University, containing my most recent publication, "Crossing the Sacred-Profane Divide in Gnosticism and John's Gospel" (Trans-Humanities, 2011, Volume 4, Number 1). Readers with interest enough to obtain a copy can find my article on pages 163-176. Here's the abstract:
Marcel Mauss and Mary Douglas together offer a theoretical understanding of gift-giving that enables us to draw a crucial distinction between the crossing of the sacred-profane boundary in Gnostic systems and the Johannine one. This distinction is particularly evident when such crossing leads to transactions involving the offer of nourishment. The sacred and the profane do not easily mix in any system, but in Gnostic texts and John's Gospel, the conflict between these dynamic forces of the two realms is presented as working itself out differently. This conflict is irresolvable in the former due to its substance dualism, but it is resolvable in the latter due to its ethical dualism. Gifts of nourishment accentuate this difference, such that the reciprocity and ambiguity that Mauss sees in gift-giving work out their implications differently. Conflict is shown to be accentuated in Gnostic systems, but ultimately resolved in the Johannine one. (Horace Jeffery Hodges, "Crossing the Sacred-Profane Divide in Gnosticism and John's Gospel," Trans-Humanities, 2011, Volume 4, Number 1, page 176)
For a taste of the article itself, here's the introduction:
Perhaps, as has been said, we live today in a fast-changing world in which cultural boundaries undergo rapid deconstruction and reconstruction. But in our emphasis upon the radical transformations that occur in our present age, we might forget that boundaries have always been contested. Such forgetfulness draws a line between our time and the past, but a drawn line presents a challenge. This paper will attempt to cross that implicit, temporal boundary, along with some disciplinary boundaries, e.g., anthropology and religious studies, and thereby offer a new horizon on boundary-crossing in some ancient texts. The boundary in question is the one between the profane and the sacred, and a few things need to be said here by way of introduction. This border between the profane and the sacred identifies a division between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Although the sacred realm is generally considered to contain dynamic power, each of these two realms can be understood as having a power of its own. Particularly in Gnosticism, due to its radical substance dualism, the profane realm has significant power at odds with the sacred realm. Similarly, canonical Christianity presupposes a power within the profane realm. The opposition of these forces poses problems for anyone or anything moving across the sacred-profane border. An earthly descent by a sacred being thus constitutes a precarious excursion, particularly if this involves an encounter with earthly nourishment, and especially if this nourishment is presented as a gift, as we shall come to see through applying the insights of Marcel Mauss on reciprocity and ambiguity in gift-giving. To understand the danger better, consider the social role that food and drink play. In an anthropological study on the role of drinking, Mary Douglas notes how drinks can "act as markers of personal identity and of boundaries of inclusion and exclusion" ("Distinctive" 8). Much the same holds for food, which, as Douglas notes, "actually delivers good fellowship" ("Standard" 12). Food and drink as gifts increase the force of this bonding and reciprocity, and when nourishment as a gift crosses the sacred-profane border, some very interesting consequences result that depend upon the difference between the sacred and the profane and upon the intention of the giver or recipient. In Gnostic systems, with their substance dualism of good spirit and evil matter, genuine gift-giving cannot occur, for neither true bonding nor actual reciprocity is possible between two intrinsically antithetical realms. Such gifts are pseudo-gifts intended for subverting the power of the one accepting them. This contrasts with systems based upon an ethical dualism of good and evil, where genuine gift-giving across the sacred-profane divide is possible. To illustrate this difference, this paper will focus upon the descent of heavenly figures in Gnostic texts and the purportedly 'Gnostic' Gospel of John, their encounter with gifts of earthly nourishment, and their own gifts of heavenly nourishment.

Douglas, Mary. "A Distinctive Anthropological Perspective." Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology. Ed. Mary Douglas. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

---. "Standard Social Uses of Food: Introduction." Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities. New York: 1984.
Perhaps that will prove enticing, my gift to you of food for thought . . .

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At 5:46 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Crossing the Sacred-Profane Divide...

... what about in Horace Jeffery Hodges' thought?


At 7:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's the article itself.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:03 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Great introduction, Jeffery. Your prose really moves!

Can I get a copy?

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, I can send you one as soon as I get offprints. Or I could photocopy the article. Or I could send a document by email.

Jeffery Hodges

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