Does the love of heaven make one heavenly?

Why do find myself so attracted to articles about religion? I am not an adherent -religion does not stick to me- nor am I tempted to take the famous wager of the 17th century philosopher, Pascal: dare to live life as if God exists, because you’ve got nothing to lose if He doesn’t, and everything to gain if He does.

Perhaps I’m intrigued by the etymological roots that underpin the word: Religare (Latin, meaning ‘to bind’) is likely the original tuber of the word. But is that it -does it bind me? Constrain me? I’d like to think not, and yet… and yet…

Even many diehard atheists concede that religion has a use, if only for social cohesion -Voltaire was probably thinking along those lines when he wrote: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’. Or Karl Marx: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’.

And then, of course, there’s Sigmund Freud, an avowed Jewish atheist, who for most of his life, thought that God was a collective neurosis. But, in his later years when he was dying of cancer of the jaw, he suggested (amongst other, much more controversial things) in his last completed book, Moses and Monotheism that monotheistic religions (like Judaism) think of God as invisible. This necessitates incorporating Him into the mind to be able to process the concept, and hence likely improves our ability for abstract thinking. It’s a bit of a stretch perhaps, but an intriguing idea nonetheless.

But, no matter what its adherents may think about the value of the timeless truths revealed in their particular version, or its longevity as proof of concept, religions change over time. They evolve -or failing that, just disappear, dissolve like salt in a glass of water. Consider how many varieties and sects have arisen just from Christianity alone. Division is rife; nothing is eternal; Weltanschauungen are as complicated as the spelling.

So then, why do religions keep reappearing in different clothes, different colours? Alain de Botton, a contemporary British philosopher, argues in his book Religion for Atheists, that religions recognize that their members are children in need of guidance and solace. Although certainly an uncomfortable opinion, there is a ring of truth to his contention. Parents, as much as their children, enjoy ceremonies, games, and rituals and tend to imbue them with special significance that is missing in the secular world. And draping otherwise pragmatic needs in holy cloth, renders the impression that they were divinely inspired; ethics and morality thus clothed, rather than being perceived as arbitrary, wear a spiritual imprimatur. A disguise: the Emperor’s Clothes.

Perhaps, then, there’s more to religion than a set of Holy caveats whose source is impossible to verify. But is it really just something in loco parentis? A stand-in? I found an interesting treatment of this in a BBC Future article written by Sumit Paul-Choudhury, a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist. He was addressing the possible future of religion.

‘We take it for granted that religions are born, grow and die – but we are also oddly blind to that reality. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult. When we recognise a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires… Even today’s dominant religions have continually evolved throughout history.’

And yet, what is it that allows some to continue, and others to disappear despite the Universal Truth that each is sure it possesses? ‘“Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is political support,”’ writes Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster in the UK ‘“and all religions are transient unless they get imperial support.”’ Even the much vaunted staying power of Christianity required the Roman emperor Constantine, and his Edict of Milan in 313 CE to grant it legal status, and again the emperor Theodosius and his Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The first university I attended was originally founded by the Baptists and, at least for my freshman year, there was a mandatory religious studies course. Thankfully, I was able to take a comparative religion course, but in retrospect, I would have liked an even broader treatment of world religions. I realize now that I was quite naïve in those times; immigration had not yet exposed many of us to the foreign customs and ideas with which we are now, by and large, quite familiar. So the very notion of polytheism, for example, where there could be a god dedicated to health, say, and maybe another that spent its time dealing with the weather, was not only fascinating, but also compelling. I mean, why not? The Catholics have their saints picked out that intervene for certain causes, so apart from the intervener numbers, what makes Hinduism with its touted 33 million gods, such an outlier in the West (wherever that is)?

It seems to me that most of us have wondered about the meaning of Life at one time or other, and most of us have reflected on what happens after death. The answers we come up with are fairly well correlated with those of our parents, and the predominant Zeitgeist in which we swim. But as the current changes, each of us is swept up in one eddy or another, yet we usually manage to convince ourselves it’s all for the best. And perhaps it is.

Who’s to say that there needs to be a winner? Religions fragment over time and so do societies; their beliefs, however sacrosanct in the moment, evolve and are in turn sacralized. And yet our wonder of it all remains. Who are we really, and why are we here? What happens when we die? These questions never go away, and likely never will. So maybe, just maybe, we will always need a guide. Maybe we will always need a Charon to row us across the River Styx…

Lying down in green pastures

I suppose I should admit something from the start: I’m not particularly religious, and I certainly do not have anything but the most superficial knowledge of Biblical writing. Still, I have come to appreciate the glory of metaphor and how it is able to transmute otherwise ineffable concepts into words. Feelings. Poetry, of course, aspires to that, but so do many of the texts in the Bible -especially the in ‘Old Testament’, apparently.

And yet, except for a very few of the more memorable lines I was taught in Sunday school as a child -parts of Psalm 23 spring to mind- I can’t say I was ever able to differentiate the poetry from the -what?- commands: the instructive reverence with which I was intended to regard the message. But, it seems to me that by its very nature, poetry, through metaphor, simile, and even word play would be particularly helpful for some of the ideas the Bible is trying to describe -things like lamentations, or hymns of praise where it would make sense to draw on the emotive powers of poetry to make a point.

In my adult years, on those rare occasions when the subject of biblical poetry has arisen, I have usually attributed my wonted tone-deafness to translational problems. Cross cultural, not to mention cross-temporal issues mean that some figures of speech, or clever puns in the original language do not have much chance of making the same impact on us as they would have on the recipients when and where they were originally composed.

Even nowadays, the European poems of Schiller (German), or Baudelaire (French), for example, are difficult to translate into English and preserve their same emotional intensity -and they were written as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively. Imagine the difficulty of attempting to render the writings of people living more than 2000 years ago into meaningful word-pictures that would resonate in today’s modern world. And, given the sacred nature of the Bible, any attempt to change the wording, or render the sentences into something like their original poetry, risks immediate condemnation.

The very idea that someone was willing to take the risk intrigued me. It would require impeccable credentials in ancient Hebrew with an equivalent temporal knowledge of the customs and literary devices used so long ago -and an ability to maintain the intended meaning without trivializing the message.

Of course, I have no way of knowing how well any translational skills succeeded in walking that  obviously difficult path, but some of the word-play involved in the effort was explained in an article in Aeon by Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley:

‘An essential fact about the Hebrew Bible is that most of its narrative prose as well as its poetry manifests a high order of sophisticated literary fashioning. This means that any translation that does not attempt to convey at least something of the stylistic brilliance of the original is a betrayal of it, and such has been the case of all the English versions done by committee in the modern period.’ True, the Hebrew Bible is basically a religious text, and yet, ‘If a translation fails to get much of its music across, it also blurs or even misrepresents the depth and complexity of the monotheistic vision of God, history, the realm of morality, and humankind.’

So how, after millennia, can one ever hope to express this language from the depths of time into relevant, let alone evocative English phrases? The accuracy of the message is one thing, of course, but conveying it in anything like the clever style of the original so the reader can still appreciate the poetry is another. ‘One small but telltale manifestation of the artistry practised by the biblical writers is their fondness for meaningful word play and sound play.’ However, ‘translation… entails a long series of compromises because full equivalence is rarely an option.’

For example, ‘The prophet Isaiah, like any great poet, commands a variety of formal tools – powerful rhythms, striking imagery, pointed literary allusions (in his case, to earlier biblical texts). Isaiah is particularly fond of sound play that verges on punning. In order to convey with force the perversion of values in the kingdom of Judah, he often juxtaposes two words that sound rather alike but are opposite in meaning… The Hebrew writers repeatedly revelled in the expressive possibilities of their medium, working inventively and sometimes surprisingly in their stories and poems with rhythm, significant repetition, narrative point of view, imagery, shifts in diction, the bending of language in dialogue to represent actual speech or the nature and location of the speaker.’

The article offers a few examples of Alter’s clever compromises to restore the music of the text, but I suspect it is intended more as a kind of a proof-of-concept than as a detailed slog through each Biblical book and chapter; it was both tantalizing and yet mercifully short. Still, it was enough to alert me to the things I never appreciated in my Protestant Sunday school. In fact, I don’t recall them ever mentioning anything about Biblical writing styles -it was the message they were trying desperately to inculcate in our young minds, I suppose.

But lest readers of my humble feuilleton suspect that in these penultimate years I am finally succumbing to Pascal’s wager and conceding that even though the existence of God may be unlikely -and at any rate unprovable-  and that the potential benefits of belief far outweigh shuffling off unshriven, let me assure them that any quest for hidden beauty need not involve ulterior motives. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.

Sometimes it’s enough to know what one’s education may have missed without having to read the whole of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, Alter stirred my interest enough to allow me to finish his essay, but, sadly, not enough to make me want to retrain as a biblical scholar. I’m happy the Bible is poetic, but not, well, overjoyed, or anything…

The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

Religious writings usually serve a special function amongst their adherents -not the least of which is to convey the beliefs and principles in a way that allows them to be used as a reference. They may be regarded as sacred if believed to be divinely revealed, or merely special guides to expected behaviour. But whichever, they usually embody the fundamental assumptions of their divine source. And, although they may be summarized for the easier assimilation of their acolytes, the message is the same, no matter the simplified wording.

I am not an especially religious person, but I was brought up in the Christian Protestant traditions, with the Bible -amongst fervent believers, at any rate- a sacred book to be searched for clues as to proper comportment. It was a moral and ethical guide, if sometimes a little vague on specifics.

Indeed, so important was the Bible, that Martin Luther felt that it, not the Pope, should be the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from and about God. He also translated the it into German making it more available for any of the laity who could read.

My point is that the Bible has been considered the foundational book for the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its wisdom, I assumed, undisputed until relatively recently. Altering it or questioning its teachings was anathema, and anyway, unthinkable. So it was with considerable surprise that read about the changes made to it by British missionaries in the Caribbean: Today, just three copies of the so-called “Slave Bible” are known to exist. Two are held in the United Kingdom, and one is currently on view at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

‘When 19th-century British missionaries arrived in the Caribbean to convert enslaved Africans, they came armed with a heavily edited version of the Bible. Any passage that might incite rebellion was removed; gone, for instance, were references to the exodus of enslaved Israelites from Egypt… The abridged work was first printed in London in 1807, on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. The missionaries associated with this movement sought to teach enslaved Africans to read, with the ultimate goal of introducing them to Christianity. But they had to be careful not to run afoul of farmers who were wary about the revolutionary implications of educating their enslaved workforce.’

‘That meant the missionaries needed a radically pared down version of the Bible. A typical Protestant edition of the Bible contains 66 books, a Roman Catholic version has 73 books and an Eastern Orthodox translation contains 78 books… By comparison, the astoundingly reduced Slave Bible contains only parts of 14 books.’

I must admit that I don’t recognize many of the omitted texts, but I can see that some of them might induce some anxiety in the slave holders and, no doubt, some inspiration in those who were enslaved. For example, ‘Exodus 21:16—“And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” -they cut that one out, but of course, were happy to leave ‘Ephesians 6:5: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.’

I suppose an obvious point about leaving things out of Biblical text needs to be made here: Luther, and what he decided to do with his translations. Because he believed in Sola Scriptura -in other words that the scripture alone was adequate to define Doctrine- he decided that some of the other (opposing) apostolic traditions of the existing church weren’t appropriate. The book of James comes to mind. Luther felt it disagreed with his Sola Scriptura, so in his ‘Protestant’ Bible he put it, and a few others, in a separate section, the Apocrypha.

I’m certainly not a Biblical scholar, so I have to admit I’m obviously floating on the surface here, but my point is that one might well argue that rearranging the text, as did the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves, does not set any precedents. What it does do, however, is change the entire thrust of the Biblical message by not merely rearranging it, but by expurgating it. It ends up as different information -a different spirit.

It is a variety of historical revisionism -history is written by the victors, after all: the most powerful. And the winning side not only gets to control the propaganda, it also gets to interpret the outcome, doesn’t it? Views change as history moves on I suppose, but sometimes we can only contextualize things in retrospect. At the time, it’s only too easy to cave in to vested interests too comfortable to omit the inconvenient truths.

With the egregious omissions of the Slave Bible, the intent is fairly obvious, of course, but there seems to have been no effort to adhere even to Luther’s stringent changes, and at least from the article, I’m not convinced that the Christianity promulgated was of much comfort to the enslaved workers either.

Unfortunately, we often rationalize the means to whatever end we have convinced ourselves is right -whether it be for the good of Britain’s overseas empire that enriched the home country establishment, or for the benefit of the government closer to home. After all, in Canada, we decided that the aboriginal owners of the land we appropriated would be more manageable if they came to accept our Old World -largely European- values. So, we stole their children and forced them into Residential Schools with or without parental permission and attempted to interdict their native languages and inculcate standards entirely foreign to them. Although we all pretended it was for their own good, the reasoning was an opaque attempt at domination. And the irony, in Canada at least, was that it was done both with the blessings, and under the aegis of the Church.

Plus ça change, eh? We have learned little over the years, I think. There still seems to be a need to convince anyone who will listen -and perhaps especially those who won’t- of the righteousness of our beliefs. Of our cause. And yet, a hundred or so years in the future, if there’s still anyone left, they will study us and sigh. ‘What were they thinking?’ they will ask, and then shrug and read their own zeitgeist into the story.

She wears her faith but as the fashion of her phone.

Everything is a matter of time, isn’t it? Everything changes. Like the apocryphal monkeys typing away infinitely, everything will be written. Everything will be transmogrified somewhere. Some time. Somehow. I suppose that should be a comfort, but I can’t escape the nagging feeling that there is something unrequited in all that: an imbalance between now and then -no bridge to mediate between what is, and what some nebulous future may unfurl for our children’s children.

And yet, an article I found offers some hope that I might have missed the entr’acte, missed a vital link in the ever lengthening chain of progress –or at least underestimated its importance. I’m talking about the smartphone. I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, as T.S. Eliot wrote –that, at least, may be a suitable mea culpa for my inattentiveness, perhaps.

I should have seen that with all of the changes occasioned by the phone, other subtle philosophical alterations might well hide within its shadow. ‘He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block’, as Beatrice says in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Who would have thought that religion itself might live the same fate? The mobile phone Bible seems to be replacing the book Bible –at least with many of the younger religious crowd. And the result may have been a loss of context –no thumbing through the pages looking for something, just an arrival at whatever nugget was requested –like looking it up in Wikipedia. In other words, an information Christianity, a virtual religion. ‘“A new kind of mutated Christianity for a digital age is appearing,” says Phillips [director of the Codec Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University in the UK]. “One that follows many of the ethics of the secular world.” Known as moralistic therapeutic deism, this form of belief is focused more on the charitable and moral side of the Bible – the underlying tenets of religion, rather than the notion that the Universe was created by an all-seeing, all-powerful leader.’

Although I hold neither religious affiliation, nor any particular interest in the Bible, I have to say I am intrigued by the philosophical machinations the smartphone seems to be engendering –the moralistic therapeutic deism, as it is increasingly being referred to. The results of interviews with three thousand teenagers were summarized in (sorry) Wikipedia, and seem to establish the tenets of this theism. First of all, ‘A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.’ And ‘God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.’ But what I found particularly interesting was the idea that ‘God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.’

And why do I find this  so-called ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ so interesting? It seems to me it may be the early phases of an evolution of religious thought engendered by the way we are beginning to assimilate information. Or perhaps I should say they are –the millennials. I suspect that we elders –or should I say just ‘olders’- still adhere to the belief that data does not necessarily spell knowledge.

But, as the article points out, ‘[…]a separate strand of Christian practice is booming, buoyed by the spread of social media and the decentralisation of religious activity. For many, it’s no longer necessary to set foot in a church. In the US, one in five people who identify as Catholics and one in four Protestants seldom or never attend organised services, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre. Apps and social media accounts tweeting out Bible verses allow a private expression of faith that takes place between a person and their phone screen. And the ability to pick and choose means they can avoid doctrine that does not appeal. A lot of people who consider themselves to be active Christians may not strictly even believe in God or Jesus or the acts described in the Bible.’

I doubt that this phenomenon is exclusive to Christianity, either. Any religious doctrine which has a credo that can be digitized, is susceptible -nuggetable into bite-sized digestible portions. Wikipediable.

I think that is what two girls were talking about at the bus stop a few days ago. Both wearing delightfully colourful hijabs, they were huddled around their smartphones giggling.

“Where did you find that?” the taller of the two said shaking her head. She was dressed just like any other teenager –running shoes, jeans, and a bright orange leather jacket- but a dark blue hijab seemed almost tossed onto her head and barely draped over her shoulders. Perhaps it was the wind, but the almost-studied disarray was charming.

The other girl, stouter and wearing a long black coat, also sported a red, hijab-like scarf that barely covered half her head despite her constant readjustments. “It’s Al-Quran [an app, I later discovered],” she answered as if that should have been obvious.

The taller girl tapped on her screen for a moment and then nodded her head. “But, you know that’s not what Abbad said…”

The other girl just shrugged. “He always thinks he knows everything, Lamiya.”

“Well…” I could see Lamiya sigh, even though I was trying not to watch them. “He usually gets it right, Nadirah… I mean, don’t you think…?”

I couldn’t help but smile when Nadirah rolled her eyes. “He only gets it right when you don’t know! If you don’t check on it…”

Lamiya seemed to pout. “I just, like, took his word for it…”

“You can’t do that blindly, Lami… Not anymore.” She made another attempt to readjust her hijab in the biting wind. “Not when you can look it up!” She shivered deeper into her coat and I could see her breath whenever the wind died down. “Things just aren’t what they used to be for our parents… We can actually, like, check,” she said as their bus pulled up and they got on, leaving me still informationless in the cold.