The Jolly Pilgrim, Part 1, musings 6
This is an excerpt from the book, to add content for the ‘Religious Architecture’ section. The excerpt was mainly written in the Croatain infection hospital, in Zagred, where I read the second half of the Bible, a bit before starting the Qur’an.
To claim that a book was directly, deliberately and uniquely inspired by God, that God is perfect and can do anything and that the book in question contains His complete and eternal message for humanity is a very big set of claims. One would expect such a book to be – at the very least – comprehensively spectacular and overflowing with transcendent wisdom.
After reading the Bible in its entirety my view is that, whichever holy spirits inspired its authors, the words they wrote have the signs of humanity stamped all over them. Reading what those words actually say (as opposed to what other people say they say) was most enlightening. The whole thing is considerably more confused and ambiguous than I’d previously been led to believe.
For example, the reputation of the city of Sodom comes down to a single incident. Lot’s house is surrounded by locals who want him to send out his guests so they can have sex with them (Lot instead offers his virgin daughters). Whether or not Sodom was actually full of raging homosexuals is difficult to judge (though for millennia it’s been interpreted that way). However, God is evidently pissed off as he destroys the city with burning sulphur.
I was under the impression that King Solomon was a paragon of goodness and wisdom. The only story I knew was the one with the two women, where they both claim a child; Solomon threatens to cut it in two, then awards the baby to the woman who objects. What I hadn’t understood is that that’s the only wise thing Solomon does. Apart from that it just goes on (for pages and pages) about how wise he is, along with gushing about how many chariots he’s got, his 700 wives, 300 concubines and the slave labour he uses to construct prestige buildings. He doesn’t actually do anything else wise.
The Book of Psalms contains 150 intensely beautiful religious poems. However, with a handful of exceptions they deal exclusively with a few closely related themes: God is great, the righteous man will seek God, the unrighteous will be punished, God will protect the righteous, and the righteous will triumph over the unrighteous.
Here’s an excerpt from Psalm Nine:
The Lord reigns for ever;
he has established his throne for judgement.
He will judge the world in righteousness;
he will govern the peoples with justice.
It’s gorgeous stuff, but it doesn’t seem very substantial to me. It doesn’t provide concrete instructions on how to conduct oneself, and the overwhelmingly most important difference between righteousness and unrighteousness is belief in God. But if being righteous means saying you believe in God and believing in God involves being righteous then the arrangement is circular. Unless, of course, one is prepared to be a little more specific about what one means by the word ‘God’.
Jesus is marvellous. He is against elitism and materialism and in favour of humility, compassion and love. Fabulous. I also note that he makes it pretty clear that if you’re rich then you’re going to go to hell. Unless, of course, you can get a camel through the eye of a needle. Jesus is very specific about it and it’s mentioned three times.
St Paul seemed to write most of the New Testament. I didn’t like him. He goes around proclaiming willy-nilly who will, and will not, go to heaven. This is downright cheeky as such things are clearly a matter for God. Whereas Jesus says things like ‘Love thy neighbour’, Paul says things like ‘I don’t like the following people …’. The list of people Paul doesn’t like is long and includes homosexuals (who commit ‘shameful lusts’), women (who must be silent and submissive) and people with long hair (which I personally felt was just creepy).
I had not anticipated that studying the Bible would trigger my conversion, but I had expected more in the way of world-illuminating insights. As regards that expectation, I must admit to a pang of disappointment. Glimpsing into the minds of those Middle Eastern holy men was fascinating, but if the voice of the divine is hidden in their ancient words then I could not make it out.
The evening of the day after I drew these conclusions, I had dinner with one Dr Santini. Among the matters we discussed was her Catholic faith. She told me about how that faith had given her great strength and how she had witnessed it guide so many people through, and make sense of, the trials, tribulations and struggles of birth, life, marriage and death.
There’s a position on religion which holds that it is mere ancient superstition, programmed into each generation by the next. I don’t regard that as a very thorough narrative. It is true that many evil and preposterous things have been said, and done, in religion’s name. Yet, as a phenomenon, it has been central to the human adventure and key to many of the most awesome things we’ve accomplished.
Isn’t the underlying point that this universe we all live in is profoundly mysterious and wonderful, and that something extraordinary and magnificent is clearly going on – right here, right now – on this planet?
An excerpt from the travel and philosophy book, The Jolly Pilgrim.