Friday, July 6, 2007

Pagans and Prophets

The prologue and first chapter of No god but God deals with pre-Islamic Arabia and the birth of Muhammed. It's interesting that 600 years after Christ, and nearly 200o years after the birth of Judaism, that these religions were still dealing with those pesky lesser gods that Moses and Saul and David sought so hard to eradicate. The pagan gods in the Hebrew Bible are like cockroaches - no matter what method you use, you just can't get rid of them. The entire Hebrew Bible - from Genesis on - is a war against the other gods that Yahweh is jealous of. It makes you wonder what's so threatening about them that entire genocides have been committed to erase them, and what's so attractive about them that they keep resurfacing in the hearts of their believers anyway.

The way that the pre-Islamic Arabs dealt with this is what Max Müller calls henotheism, which Aslan defines as "the belief in a single High God, without necessarily rejecting the existence of other, subordinate gods" (8). The Arabs called their High God Allah, but believed he was the same as Yahweh, the God of the Jews. Any cursory study of the Hebrew Bible will show that the beliefs behind those books are strongly henotheistic, and that Yahweh himself acknowledges the existence of other gods. The first commandment ("You shall have no other gods before me") directly implies the existence of the other gods, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible is a war on those other gods. But even the warriors for Yahweh have idols in their houses, thus breaking the second commandment. Jacob and Rachael steal her father's household gods (though Jacob denies knowledge of it), and David has a teraphim in his house which his wife uses as a decoy to help him escape from Saul, who wants to kill him. And yet these are two of God's favorites. Jacob is renamed Israel after wrestling with God and almost defeating him, and David is given the kingdom of Israel and constantly forgiven for multiple crimes against God, routinely breaking at least six of the commandments. So while the Hebrew God does demand to be first in the hearts of his worshippers, he does not imply that he is the only god. Quite the opposite, actually.

Of course, as Aslan notes, all religious stories are sets of symbols and metaphors to help us better understand our connection to our community, the universe, and ourselves, and so one could say that the idols represent those attractions which pull us away from God: money, sex, power, television. And to that extent, we are still a deeply henotheistic culture. Christians go to church and Jews to synagogue to promise their eternal love and obedience to God, but then spend the other six days of the week serving the lesser pagan gods, who creep slyly back into the corners of their lives. No one calls them gods now, but their function is much the same.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is when Elijah tries to quit his job as God's prophet. He tells God he is sick of it - that no one wants to hear what he says, and that they are trying to kill him. I believe, based on my study of the Hebrew Bible, that the first requirement for an authentic prophet is reluctance. Moses begged God to choose someone else. Jonah tried to escape from God and ended up in the belly of a whale. An enthusiastic prophet would be a false one. The weight of prophecy is unbearable, and is almost always unrewarded. Moses was the chief example of this, spending most of his life serving God, only to be denied entrance into the Promised Land on a technicality. Muhammad was also reluctant. Aslan notes that after his first revelation (which crushed his chest until he could no longer breathe), his first thought was to kill himself (37).

Elijah actually tried to kill himself, by lying down to die in the desert. But an angel brings him food and water. He runs away to a cave, but God doesn't take no for an answer. "It's a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," as Saint Paul reminds us. Job knew this, and William Blake's painting of the encounter, as one of my students remarked last year, looks like God is raping him.

In the cave, Elijah demands that God speak to him. And a windstorm comes, and an earthquake. Then a great fire. But God is not in those. We often forget that is not how God operates. Finally, God arrives in a "still small voice." This might be the most illuminating phrase in the entire Hebrew Bible. The voice of God is not thunderous or terrifying. It is more silent than anything - more quiet than your television, than your radio. More quiet than your thoughts. That's why the true voice of God can only be heard in deep meditation; but once heard, it will not be ignored.

That voice - possibly because it is so silent - is also intensely jealous, and thus arises the need to destroy anything that threatens to drown it out. The Hebrew Bible reads like a war saga, where a relatively minor deity rises to the seat of power through the most disturbing means. Yahweh was originally the name of an Arabian volcano god. (Mount Horeb, or Sinai, the holy mountain where Moses saw God face to face, was a volcano.) Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest during his years in the desert, and it must have been there that he first heard of Yahweh, who - from the burning bush to the pillar of flame - constantly reveals himself in the form of fire. Allah - before Muhammad claimed him - "was originally an ancient rain/sky deity" (7), and if the Arabs were right that Yahweh and Allah were two aspects of the same being, then that would explain Noah's Flood and the Red Sea.

Aslan shows that Muhammad never thought of himself as creating a new religion: "Muhammad's message was an attempt to reform the existing religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Islamic Arabia so as to bring the God of the Jews and the Christians to the Arab peoples (17). The God he brought was perhaps less henotheistic than the one Moses found, but it still required the extinction of other gods. The primary profession of Muslim faith ("There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet") is a step toward true monotheism, but the fact that it needs to be said so often shows how persistent those pesky pagan gods still are.

So why are pagan gods so attractive that they survive the most atrocious genocides and tortures? Why did the Hebrew people continually return to worshipping false idols despite the multitude of plagues God would send to them? I am not far enough along yet in the history of Islam to know how this problem has cropped up for the Muslims, but if we take the broader, symbolic definition of gods (in monotheism, anyway) as competing interests against the true experience of the divine, then it should be obvious that Muslims, Jews and Christians all struggle with them to this day. The idols themselves have no power - they represent something beyond themselves. Usually, they represent fertility, or ways to achieve power or happiness or love. And this is a major problem in monotheism. In a belief system with many gods, a person can find a reason for the myriad experiences of his life. Tragedy and prosperity can co-exist because there are many gods competing with each other, and who may take our side in life if we please them. When tragedies happen, you do what's necessary to appease whatever being you have offended. Carl Jung viewed all these deities as projections of the unconscious, and so today, the psychologist functions as the modern shaman, helping to identify the latent forces - for good or ill - that lie buried but highly active within us. We don't call them gods today, but we treat them much the same.

Monotheism pulls all those unconscious aspects under the power of one being, and this is the problem of Job. When there is only one God, then when tragedy strikes, that God was responsible - or at least let it happen. Much of the Hebrew Bible deals with trying to figure out how the Jews must have done something to deserve their punishment, and leads to the stereotype of Jewish guilt. In monotheism - especially in those belief systems that advocate omniscience and omnipotence - God must be aware of all of our sufferings, and if there is no god but God, then there is no one to blame for those sufferings but ourselves or God. This is the theological crisis of monotheism, and one that can't really be solved. So the believer's choice - to blame God or himself - is not really a choice at all. Blaming God is blasphemy, and blaming the self is masochistic. How can a baby born with cancer be to blame for its illness? Yahweh says the sins of the fathers are to blame here, and while this may be genetically or logically true in some cases, it doesn't seem very fair. Job did nothing whatsoever to deserve his suffering, and while he is rewarded for questioning God, he is essentially given a non-answer to those questions. The other response is to blame the devil, but then we are back at henotheism.

Monotheism seems to me an untenable belief system. It simply cannot withstand the shocks it creates to its own system, and thus implodes. Islam may be the most monotheistic religion today (Muhammad rejected outright the notion of the Christian trinity as polytheistic), and I still don't know enough about it to say how it would explain a crisis like Job's, but the dilemma imposed by monotheism makes it incredibly difficult to love God. We may love God in fair weather and blame ourselves in foul, or we may decide that God is testing us, but there are still far too many tragedies without explanation (Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson notwithstanding) for us to live our lives consistently this way and still be happy. It may be possible to profess our faith in such a God, but that faith all too often falters in the face of adversity because it has not been explored to its deepest depths, and a tragedy is no time to learn how to do this. Paganism - for all its problems - at least offers a multitude of perspectives with which to view the world, and that diversity allows people to choose how they view the events of their lives. Dogmatic orthodoxy, which too often accompanies monotheism automatically, ossifies symbols which - to my taste - are really better experienced internally, as the still small voice.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Rational Contextualization & a Digression on Zen

As preparation before I begin actually reading the Qur'an, I am reading No god but God, by Reza Aslan. It's a book that ought to be required reading for every American because it so clearly demystifies the religion. It provides an excellent historical background, always connecting the historical issues to the modern crisis. Whenever there is a controversial issue, Aslan is careful to provide an equal look at both sides. He does not downplay the violence and fanaticism which some believers have taken from the text, but he provides what he calls "rational contextualization" to show that either those believers were following their own agendas contrary to the example and words of Muhammad, or that they were acting in a specific context that was never meant to carry beyond the specific incident. This helps to explain things like Muhammad's own wars, or the number of wives he married. The book also completely clarifies issues like veiling women and other practices that can seem unsavory from an American perspective.

Seen through this rational context, Islam is no longer something to be feared. As a matter of fact, Aslan provides numerous parallels with Jewish prophets and with Jesus (Muhammad himself did this as well), and I was able to provide several more from my own reading of the Bible. David, Joshua, Abraham, Jacob - all were violent men, and all supported and practiced polygamy. Moses was incredibly violent, and the prophet Samuel once hacked a man to pieces. Christians and Jews who say that Muhammad was barbaric, or created a "religion of the sword," need to read their own Bible more carefully before making such claims.

As a matter of fact, Muhammad's laws actually served to decrease the violence of war, in the same way that Hammurabi's Code ("an eye for an eye") was not barbarous, but served to limit the legal retribution. Rather than killing someone for punching you, you simply got to punch him back. It was the first attempt at limiting revenge, and thus the first step towards a fair legal system. Muhammad recognized the law of retribution (which was current among the Arab tribes at the time), but also encouraged his followers instead to forgive whenever possible. He himself did this on numerous occasions to the dismay of many of his followers, who felt they had a right to the spoils of their victories, or to punish traitors.

As is the case with Christianity, certainly, and other religions to a large degree, the specific words and actions of the Prophet (or Jesus or Buddha, etc.) are taken out of context and applied to a completely different context in which they do not belong. Aslan argues eloquently for looking at the whole picture - for seeing the specific part of the text in light of the historical, political and psychological aspects which led to the text, and then weighing that against the example set by the Prophet's own actions and a mature understanding of the entire Qur'an. Of course, this requires one to set aside one's own agenda in the search for truth, and that runs completely counter to any type of fanaticism.

Perhaps it would be true to say that this is one aspect of what is required by submission, which is what Islam means. Not only do we submit our bodies and souls to God (and this may be what goes through the mind of a suicide bomber), but we submit all personal and political agendas as well. And of course, this is much more difficult. It's what the Buddhists seek in the disintegration of the ego, searching for the experience of non-self. But the ego is notoriously slippery. As soon as we seek to destroy the ego, we have to realize that the ego is what wants to do this. It's the most remarkable shape-shifter, and will operate under any number of selfless causes. The agenda to have no agenda is an agenda nonetheless, and while being selfless may feel altruistic, it's ultimately the highest form of self-gratification.

Aslan puts all these issues into an illuminating context, which helps dispel falsehoods that are common in the American view of Islam. I'll be interested to see if the Qur'an addresses the issue I've raised here about submission and ego. All the religious texts I've read so far deal with this either explicitly or implicitly, but some more subtly than others. Jesus' message was entirely about this, but the popular feel-good way of studying the Bible today simply fortifies one's agendas and prejudices. I had several students last semester who wrote that God loves Moses above all others, which very well may be true, but then you have to explain why God tries to kill Moses right after introducing himself through the Burning Bush. And until you find the true answer to this, as opposed to the right answer, you haven't fully understood the episode.

Let me explain what I mean by true vs. right answers. In the mythology course I taught this spring, we studied Zen Koans, and actually did some koan practice and interviews. (Zen Master Seung Sahn gives the clearest explanation of koans I've ever read.) I am by no means a Zen Master, so it was all simply an experiment (you don't have to have a degree in architecture to build a tree house), but one of the things we discovered was that in the old koan stories, Zen Masters only accepted true answers, not right ones. For instance, when a student asked Joshu if a dog has buddha-nature, Joshu said, "Mu," meaning, "No." According to everything the Buddha taught, this answer is not right. Everything - rocks, trees, animals, garbage - has buddha nature that is simply waiting to be realized. But the true answer depends on what was happening in the moment between Joshu and his student at the time. Perhaps Joshu sensed that the student was talking about his concept of a dog, rather than an actual dog. And concepts - which by their nature prevent us from realizing enlightenment - do not have buddha nature. If the student had asked him, "Does this dog, right here, have buddha-nature?" then Joshu would have had to say yes - as long as the student was not talking about his concept of the dog.

Of course, we can't know what was going on in the minds of Joshu and his student, and so we still have not arrived at the true answer. The answer just presented may have been a true answer for Joshu, but for us, it can only be one of many possible right answers. The essence of Zen is that everything is always present, and the koans are meant to guide our minds toward this truth. This became extraordinarily clear to me when I interviewed one student on a koan about Bodhidharma, who brought Zen from India to China. The koan asks, "Why does this fellow have no beard?" My student struggled with the koan for several minutes, and then I got my statue of Bodhidharma and showed it to him. Any picture of Bodhidharma has a beard (see below), and my student kept saying, "But I can clearly see that he does have a beard."

That answer was right, but not true. So I kept asking him, "Why has this fellow no beard?" The statue I have is made of bronze, and it's fairly reflective, so I held it close to his face as I asked him. Finally, the light dawned, and he found the true answer.

"Why has this fellow no beard?"

"Because I shaved this morning."

True answers always point to the present and to our own authentic natures. Right answers are logical and accurate, and are useful in science, but not in matters of the soul. They do not feed our need for authentic understanding. And as long as we seek right answers rather than true ones, we will remain hungry. The koan asks us to remember that stories, literature, religion, etc., are never about some event in the long past. They are always about us - here and now in our present situation. When we look at them historically, we use them to justify our current agendas. When we look at them in the present, they transform our consciousness and dissolve our agendas so that we integrate ourselves with the world rather than seeking to dominate it.

Perhaps you will indulge me one more story before I go back to Aslan's book. One of the most famous koans is when a novice asked, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" and Joshu answered, "Look at the cypress tree in the courtyard." I assigned this to one of my students, and she spent a while working on it, but then finally said, "I've got nothing. I can't figure it out."

"What are you trying to figure out?" I asked.

"I just don't get it. The answer makes absolutely no sense."

"It's not supposed to make sense," I said. "It's an instruction."

"What do you mean? An instruction for what?"

"It's telling you what to do - where to find the answer."

"But where do I find it?"

"Look at the cypress tree in the courtyard."

"What cypress tree?"

"Well, we don't have cypress trees out there, but I think an oak would work just as well."

"Just look at the oak tree? The oak tree is going to give me the answer?"

"I don't know. But that's what Joshu is telling you to do."

So under slight protest, she went out in the courtyard of the school - in clear view of all of her schoolmates as they sat in class staring out the widows - and she sat for five minutes looking at the oak tree. This caused a bit of a stir inside, because people don't do that these days. People don't sit looking at trees all by themselves in a public place. Several students walked by and asked me if I had assigned her to do that. When I say yes, they asked why, and I told them, "She's trying to find out why Bodhidharma came from the West. You should go join her!" None of them took me up on it, but they were grateful to be able to write it off to the eccentric teacher rather than thinking their friend had gone loony.

When she came back in, I asked her what happened.

"Nothing," she said. "Absolutely nothing at all."

"That's not true," I said. "You were out there for five minutes. Something must have happened: feelings, thoughts, observations..."

"I've never felt so alienated from a tree in my entire life."

"A-ha," I said. "There you go."

"What do you mean?"

"That's your answer."

"What's my answer?"

"Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?"

"Because I feel alienated from a tree?"

This was the true answer for her, and she passed her interview. Bodhidharma historically came to China after standing in a cave staring at a wall for nine years, during which he tore his eyelids out so that he wouldn't fall asleep. He then threw them outside the cave, and they sprouted as tea leaves, which help monks stay awake to this day. He brought Zen to China, and so historically, that is the right answer. It's such an obvious answer that it's frustrating to be asked for another one. But it's also an answer that does nothing at all for us. It does not connect us to Bodhidharma, or to Joshu, or to ourselves or our environment. Once she realized that Bodhidharma came from the West to cure her alienation from nature, my student saw the koan correctly. She was the novice, and I was functioning as Joshu. On a different day, the roles could easily be reversed. When we know our correct relationship to the story, we can mine its treasures, and at that point, the story is no longer a curiosity. It is life-changing.

The historical, political, social and psychological context that Aslan provides is invaluable in terms of how it makes me feel closer to Muhammad and the early Muslims. It opens up a possible relationship and sense of identity with them which is the first step toward true communion. It has cleared away many misunderstandings and unconscious prejudices I have had, since I was raised in a culture where the vivid face of radical Islam makes seeing into its heart uncommonly difficult. When I finish reading the book, my vision will be clear enough to approach the Qur'an on its own terms, to find its true answers, and my authentic place in it.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Face of Islam in Small-Town America

Since I was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, I had a firm historical grounding when I taught my Hebrew Bible course last year. However, I have no such grounding for Islam. The history of the Middle East was not taught in my school, as we focused more on US history, even in World History class, where the entire subject matter revolved around what had affected us directly. When I was in school, the Ayatollah Khomeini was considered a grave threat to the US, and so Donald Rumsfeld and his buddies were stockpiling weapons for Sadaam Hussein. But of course, we didn't know that then.

I wasn't old enough then to keep up with the news, so my memories of that time are cloudy. I remember the hostage crisis that drove Carter out of office, and I remember the day that the hostages were released. I remember long lines at the gas pumps, and I have vague images of Muslim clerics all in black (always shouting, when they were on the news) and Iranians burning American flags in crowded streets. When I look back on those memories now, they make more rational sense, but in my pre-adolescent mind at the time, I saw the Muslim world the way that Bush & Co. want us to see it now. I wondered why they were so angry, why they hated us so much, and what terrible things they were going to do to my family and friends. Muslims weren't really humans to me then - they were a kind of monster, more scary than anything that lived under the bed.

Amazingly - though I have to believe I was not alone in this nightmarish vision of the Islamic world - this was never counteracted in any way. There were no Muslims in my small town, and whenever the issue emerged in class, the mousy teachers were invariably drowned out by vocal students repeating what their Confederate-flag-waving daddies had to say on the subject. While I am proud to be a Southerner in many respects, those daddies don't typically present a balanced point of view.

The next significant experience I had with Islam came during the first Gulf War. I was at boarding school then, and had immersed myself in enough literature by that time to become a pacifist. When the war broke out, I still didn't know anything about Islam, and I wasn't aware that Sadaam was so powerful because we had made him that way, but I firmly believed that war was always wrong. I had just seen the Berlin Wall come down without a shot fired, and I had cried with the rest of the world when the students in Tiananmen Square were mowed down so cruelly. I had arrived at the naive but necessary stage where I believed all conflicts could be resolved through compromise - and I was entirely uncompromising on that point.

So when the reports of the war came on - right at prime time each night - I watched, horrified, as atrocities were presented like video games. You have to remember that this was the first time that a war had been presented with theme music and graphics, and the reports of each day's bombing filled our common room with whoops and hollers, like a football game or a wrestling match. I sat in the back corner, with my black armband, the butt of many jokes to which I could not intelligently reply, since I still knew nothing about what was really going on. (Of course, I have since learned that intelligent replies don't work either.)

All I knew was that the war had to be about oil - not human rights, as advertised - since the US did nothing about Tiananmen Square or Tibet, and that it was wrong to say that only 147 people died in battle, because no one mentioned the 20,000 Iraqis who died. The sanitizing of the war offended me, as it still does today, and the theme music and graphics and WWE mentality horrified me. [I've included a side note about this at the end of this post.]

9/11 brought Islam to the attention of everyone in the US, but still in that nightmarish form based entirely on fear and anger. The black robes of the Ayatollah were now the dingy camos of Osama bin Laden, but the perception was much the same. There were very vivid faces of Islam all over the news (and the Most Wanted Playing Cards you could pick up at the local bait shop), but there was still no heart. And finally, I realized that if I was going to find the heart of Islam, I was going to have to search for it myself.


Side Note: Gulf War Theme Music

This quote from Peter Fish, who composes music for CBS, is particularly striking, and came from Harper's Magazine.
The creative brief in the first Gulf War had more to do with the conflict of cultures and ideologies—it was the Islamic or Arabic East versus the West, and so the conflict was set in those tones. The second time it was more like they were trying to promote the war the same way they would promote Terminator 3—it was like “Battle of the Megaheroes.” So the first time what I delivered was vaguely militaristic and vaguely Arabic simultaneously. And the second time it was just Techno-Ali vs. Frazier-IV, we're-going-to-knock-the-crap-out-of-them music.

—Peter Fish

Sunday, July 1, 2007

No god but God

Let me start off by saying that I am not a Muslim, and while I am deeply interested in all of the world's religions, I don't formally practice one myself. In writing this blog, I don't pretend to any special knowledge - either academic or spiritual. I am simply a curious person who feels that I will be a better citizen of the world if I better understand the heart of the world's religions.

The idea for this blog from this came from David Plotz, who did a series called Blogging the Bible for I was teaching a class in the Hebrew Bible at the same time, and truly enjoyed following the course of his discovery, as did my students. I believe he would agree that what he learned far outweighed what his readers could learn from him, and I suspect the same will be true here. However, one of the ways he learned the most was through the comments of the people who communicated with him as he read it. If you are reading this, and can shed any light on what I've missed, or if you have questions or thoughts about what you read, I would be most grateful if you would communicate them to me by posting a comment.

I've been wanting to read the Qur'an for a while now. It's one of the only major religious texts I haven't read yet, and I have a Muslim friend, Sridhara, who is going to read it with me over the coming year. I'm going to give him background on the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (and other religions or myths, as appropriate), and he's going to help me understand the text from a Muslim perspective.

At Sridhara's recommendation, I'm currently reading No god but God, by Reza Aslan. Aslan came to talk at the school where we teach this year, and impressed me with his mix of rigorous scholarship and down-to-earth nature. He approaches the subject intelligently and objectively, but without losing the personal nature that must be part of a religious discussion. In one of my next posts, I'll offer some more specific reactions to No god but God.