Went to “The Aramaic Jesus and the Sufis” today. I’m tired because I was up late again last night, but I want to record my thoughts after the workshop before I forget them.
The guy leading it has written many books and is a Sufi teacher I think. He was very likeable, not in any dramatic or over-the-top way, but just quietly inspiring. He was another one of those people that just exudes contentment. The day was spent with him teaching us things, and reading things, interpersed with singing in Aramaic and Arabic and – shock horror – even dancing of sorts.
I was very pleased to hear about the diversity in early Christian traditions, and that the Aramaic tradition is still ongoing in small numbers although largely unknown to western Christians. They have other gospels and other stories about Jesus passed down orally that are unknown to us in western churches. A lot of the stories about Jesus in the Qur’an come from these traditions which Muhammad would have been exposed to while managing Khadija’s caravan business. There is much agreement between their view and the Islamic view on Jesus, and Aramaic Christians are pretty much unitarian. Although the Qur’an asserts that the Jews did not kill Jesus, it doesn’t explicitly say that he didn’t die, and the traditional Islamic position on this used to be that it meant he went willingly to the cross rather than being forced. The Qur’an also endorses the virgin birth and the second coming.
An interesting point was made that religious traditions start with diversity and then cohesion occurs and uniformity emerges later. Ideas about returning to an earlier “pure” form of a religion are common but the reality was probably that religion in the early days was a lot more messy than people like to think.
The Sufi take on “la ilaha ila allah” (there is only one God) is that it speaks of universality, of the connectedness of all people. Rather a different perspective from “our religion is right and all of yours are wrong”, or “you’d better not associate anyone or anything with God”. I wondered how it was possible to see universalism in the Qur’an. I think they interpret a lot of it in its historical context. When I see the harsh words of a punitive God, it scares me away, but this guy paraphrased them in a humourous way, as if he was completely comfortable in his understanding of God. I remembered preachers doing a similar thing with Old Testament stuff.
I actually kind of enjoyed the simple dances, they were what I would think of as Hebrew style, in a circle, going round with steps. I wasn’t crazy about having to hold hands with people though. One dance even involved embracing people! That was really extremely tough for me, to embrace strangers. But I managed.
At lunchtime I found myself realising that I still wasn’t getting anything out of the singing, and that the love for God that I used to be able to feel was not forthcoming, because I no longer think I know who God is. Or even whether God is, really. I’ve enjoyed discovering information that undermines the simplistic views I used to hold, but where does it really leave me? It leaves me wondering whether God’s hand was at work in the whole mess of history. It leaves me wondering what the truth about God is, and how it should be understood. It leaves me in limbo.
I asked myself why I am so happy to learn about alternative histories of religion anyway. It wasn’t just today: I recently relished finding evidence of a big ideological clash between Paul and the original apostles which is smoothed over in the writing of Acts; and I was pleased to read in someone’s comprehensive summary of the doctrine of the entire Bible that the notion of the trinity and of Jesus’s divinity is not Biblical at all, and neither is the idea of hell being a place of eternal torment. (Whether I believe in any of this is not the point; the point is, I am happy to see that there are a variety of plausible positions.) I am also happy to reject the idea that there is something special about the 4 gospels that made the cut and were canonised at the Council of Nicea, as compared to the other historical literature that didn’t. Islam treats the ahadith (historical sayings about the life of Muhammad) in a probabilistic way based on historical evidence for their authenticity; it’s not a simple pass/fail; and ordinary Muslims know about this. Why has Christianity treated its literature in a much less rigorous way, and come to regard the process of recollection, writing, and compilation as having miraculously been absolutely perfect to the extent that the New Testament can be viewed as the word of God?
I suppose the reason I relish all this is that it quite nicely justifies my abandonment of evangelical western Christianity. If I’m honest, which I haven’t really been with myself for a long time, I’ve continually wondered whether I made the wrong choice. Whether I should have just been stronger, and kept praying, and been obedient, and I would have found the way. Whether I’m at risk of going to hell now.
I don’t think I really got much from the singing and dancing until the very last one. I don’t know why but something in me just connected with it and I didn’t want it to end. I think my icy heart softened a little bit, and I caught a glimpse of the beauty of surrender and of fellowship. I felt that in singing the words, I was acknowledging that actually, I’m not afraid of any of it. Aramaic, Arabic, any of it. And I’m prepared to believe that God might be in there somewhere.
Because the thing is, although it’s become hard for me to believe that there is any one pristine, clear-cut path to God, I can’t rid myself of the idea of God. I don’t want to. Even if it’s not true, I’d rather believe in something good and never know I was wrong. As long as it is good. That’s what I am being so careful of.
I feel that after this workshop, my preference in religion is tending towards the simple, because the simplest of messages – love your neighbour as yourself – is the hardest, and anything else can easily become a red herring, a distraction from that hard task. He mentioned a verse from the Qur’an telling people to keep the message simple and not let it get turned into culture and politics (or something to that effect). But I am somewhat torn between on the one hand, this simple approach with its off-the-cuff morality, and on the other, my appreciation of the practical benefits of rules. I suppose I think that rules might have protected me from the nonsense I put myself through in the past, and as I’ve said before, I just think they are incredibly sensible. Having said that, they are not bullet-proof, and applying them in an extreme way across society can make them look far from sensible… so the jury’s still out.