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03/29/2003 Archived Entry: "A Frog In the Well…"
A pair of young missionaries recently accosted me at my home. They claimed that I was not enjoying the true pure gifts from God. I didn’t need to hear the rest of their pitch; obviously, I could not “enjoy” said gifts until I was indoctrinated into their particular order, so I told them, “via con Dios” and returned to whatever it was I was doing (digging up the dandelions in my front yard, I think).
Missionaries and evangelists are often cited as cultural icons of freer societies such as America; a matter of due course in the multi-faceted non-secular societal infrastructure. We joke about them sometimes and some people even entertain themselves by engaging in a little bit of doorstep theology. But, in other places and other times – such an encounter could mean trouble, even death.
Evangelical ambition is the pursuit of those who feel they must save the world. In milder times, the act of ‘saving’ could mean cleansing the sinner through baptism, in harsher times the task requires the killing “infidels” wherever they may be. Okay – that’s a thinly veiled reproach of certain pernicious Islamic teachings – but Christianity has certainly had its days of darkness – and there is always potential for more.
The problem is that Religion (and I am deliberately using the proper noun to connote a specific cultural character) sometimes gets lost in its own forest. Evangelism is fine, under normal circumstances when it is no more than an annoyance to those who choose to ignore it, but left unchecked by non-secular rules of behavior and governance, it is a ravenous creature whose appetite for Purity is as endless as God’s eternity.
I was once a member of the Anglican Catholic Church and have since converted to Lutheran. My wife and I left when one bishop threatened another with a shotgun during a particularly harsh debate over the sustained purity of Mother Mary after the birth of Christ. Not only could my wife and I not tolerate the expressed violence of that totally ridiculous and prolix debate – we found that we could no longer countenance an environment that would allow the debate to emerge in the first place. Yet, the predisposition toward ‘purity’ is ever present – no matter what sect or denomination you may belong.
Religion seeks to cleanse God’s creation of the temptations that makes us sinners. Anything that violates scripture and Law is therefore sinful and therefore wrong. However, the problem with such notions of purity is that it is often the result of narrow observation; something akin to looking at a picture through a straw.
The observer may only see a jumble of colors, or perhaps an elbow, or the corner of a table – since the observation doesn’t make sense, the observer may leap to judgment that the rest of the picture must also be nonsense. However, with the straw removed, we discover that the picture is actually a masterpiece painting, or a portrait of somebody we love.
How can religious Purists (and note, that I refrain from calling them fanatics, which bears a wholly different connotation) profess that faith alone has given them the insight to define the whole of a culture based upon the actions of a few? How can anyone rest judgment against one society without appraising its role within the ages old story of human civilization?
Since we know that the human reaction is to bring order to chaos, we can assume that Purists will have a heightened sensitivity toward anything that assails their ideological and idiosyncratic expectations of human behavior. Citations of religious lawlessness can come from a host of observations – indeed there are wide swaths of non-secular society that bears great resemblance to a complete breakdown of morality. No matter the observation and the weight of apparent immorality, how can the Purist rise above the rest of man? Who shall call me sinful and judge me unworthy of God’s grace? My fellow man, or God?
Within Purity itself there seems such diversity so as to be almost countless: the Bible produces laws of Moses, of Abraham, Jesus Christ, Solomon – followed by the ascribing religions and sects that have diversified to such an extent that one might assume that they were following different scriptures and Laws. Yet in each is a stalwart claim to Purity.
Add to the Purist’s error in observation, are his intentions, which are categorically and egregiously wrongful. On simple terms, it seems that the religious Purist wishes to enact a cleansing of whatever may seem out of bounds from religious doctrine, however upon closer examination we find that they seek a cleansing of the principles that allows it to occur. The Purist not only observes how we live, but the environment in which we live; the Purist does not only seek to correct what we do, but to correct our diversity.
One can only assume that good intentions originate in following God’s Law – these rules, after all, are the basis of nearly all civilization: thou shall not kill, thou shall not steal, and so on. However, while the Purist achieves believers, he also foments the righteous few who will go on to undertake the evangelical mission with greater fervor.
Take for example Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim philosopher who wrote a religious treatise in the 1950s that illustrates a “hideous schizophrenia” of Judeo/Christian life that allows the belief that God's domain rests in one place and the ordinary business of daily life in another. This, of course, is fodder for nearly all Purists who cite the American Constitutional separation between God and what it regards as the state (render unto Caesar). The American example of course is a distinction that has allowed diversification to flourish, but it is also the precise source that some Purists have targeted as the root of insidious and worldwide impurity.
In their final error, and one that exposes them for what they truly are, Purists such as Qutb take on such a high mantle of righteousness that they discard the very notion that God is above mankind as judge, witness, and creator. Therefore, we can only conclude that these perceptions of Purity and all acts thereto have nothing to do with man's desire to live as God wished, but more about men’s desire to live as God.
Purists can only achieve their ideals through the destruction of diversity - they seek to homogenize the world through secular ideals that are mistaken for sacred mission. Take the word "jihad" where we find that within Islam there is great disagreement over its meaning and intent - on one hand it is defined as a personal struggle to cleanse oneself of evil; another, widespread bloody conflagration to cleanse the world. Again, there are similar problems with Christians and Jews who press the issue of Sin in society as an indication of widespread social and cultural depredation and degradation of the human condition; but oh, how the straw narrows when they argue for causes and cures.
Qutb's logic is narrow to the extreme because he views the "Christian error" as both enigmatic and monolithic, which it is neither. The Reformation, propelled by Luther, sought to expel the horrendous and systemic propagations of the medieval Roman Catholic era (i.e., 1100AD through 1500AD). Since then 'Lutherism' and other outgrowths have sought to re-establish man's relationship with God by prescribing themselves to new tests of grace, re-examinations of Gospel, and so on. Similar 'revolutions' in thinking have also affected the Jewish state - thus making irrelevant the argument that any perceived Judeo/Christian “error” is in any way self-perpetuating and self-sustaining. It is unlikely that Americans will never abolish the separation of God and State, but the character of its citizens could make that distinction irrelevant (In God We Trust).
Like many puritanical philosophers, Qutb is at minimum myopic, but in the extreme sense, he is also quite dangerous. It is through his philosophy that I find quite the type of “hideous schizophrenia” that frightens me most: that of implicit and frenzied fanaticism. The basis for Qutb’s thinking are the teachings of Abd Al-Wahhab who held to an even more provocative notion that all who do not ascribe to the pure form of Islam MUST be put to death. Wahhab and his current followers reason further, that only through the death of infidels may mankind achieve purity and thus earn God's grace. Wahhab had a very loyal disciple by the way; his name was Muhammad ibn Saud - the fore bearer of the House of Sa'ud which is now the ruling family of Saudi Arabia.
Greater philosophers than I have long since demonstrated that diversity itself is an ideal example of God's creation - one need only examine the wild natural beauty evident on Earth, and if Earth isn't enough, the cosmos above. Chaos? It certainly seems that way to one looking through a straw, but isn't Chaos itself God's own design? Therefore, aren’t the fully diversified cultures of mankind the purest example of God's own world? Should we put ourselves in a position to judge what is Chaos and what is pure? Are we not Men, and not God?
The Japanese have a saying: "The frog in a well cannot know the ocean." I assert to all Purists wherever they may be, whatever they preach, that Man lacks the ability to appreciate what – from the view of the straw - appears to be Chaos, but may actually be greater beauty beyond our imagining.
I submit to you that we are but mere frogs in the contrast of God. -HP
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