Beyond the elitist discourse
by Jesse Hove
It doesn’t matter if you have specialized in the finer points of philosophy, a holy text or are a resident expert in everything Star Wars. Those who have studied a topic to a level of elite knowledge seem to almost inevitably find themselves in semantic debates virtually no one else cares about. Is there such thing as free will? Are the bread and wine in the Christian tradition the actual body and blood of Christ? When coming out of hyperspace, how far away should you safely position yourself from the destined star system?
In the 11th century, Muslim theologian Ghazali found himself surrounded by what he perceived to be meaningless theological debates around the finer points of Islam’s beliefs. The theologians spent day and night trying to falsify the positions of their opponents. After all, what could be more praiseworthy than exposing heretics and defending true doctrine?
But they were missing the point. The truth of Islam, for Ghazali, should manifest deep in the heart of the community. Before critical enlightenment thinkers like Descartes and Hume even existed, Ghazali rightly suggested that true religion cannot merely be broken down into rationalized definitions.
In the Christian tradition and western society, the Bible has been poked and prodded with rationalization and historical contextualization to the Nth degree. From academic arguments of historical credibility, to just about every argument imaginable, the Bible has been used to try to support position after position. But these words were meant to go beyond historical arguments and political discourse; they were meant to penetrate our soul. They were meant to show us that the goodness of God is all around us. Each page surprises us and draws us into a spiritual reality beyond our own rationalization. We are pulled into participation with God. These are not words that are meant to be forced upon us for a grudging and painful memorization. They are meant to be eaten, chewed and gnawed on as they form our soul.
Take for example the Qur’an. The Qur’an is commonly misunderstood in the West as something that can be translated into English and then read in the same way you read your local sports page, or favourite magazine column. But even an armchair curiosity in the Arabic to English translation of the Qur’an shows why Muslims insist that a true reading can only be in the original Arabic.
If you take, for example, the opening passage and Islamic Lord’s Prayer, it is just 29 words in Arabic, but anywhere from 65-72 in English translation, and the more you add, the more meaning seems to go missing. The Arabic has a poetic, almost rhythmic quality that speaks to the oral recitation of the text. It sends shivers down my spine when it is chanted out loud, and begs to be felt more tha analized. When I hike into the Rocky Mountains and see water and light trickle down the mountainside into vast green, I feel surrounded by and connected to the Qur’an’s understanding of paradise, described as “gardens watered by running streams.”
The danger in how we read these texts is that they can be twisted into propaganda or reduced to mere data. We shut out their organic life, and try and control them for the sake of our own agenda and profit.