Saturday, March 10, 2012

And The Word Made God

There are countless pithy epithets on the power of words to create our realities; you know, to frame what it is we in fact see and thus believe the world to be.  There are reams of academic text from neuroscience to cultural theory; linguistics to new-age mysticism.  We know how important this stuff is.  I have often used the subtle example of the difference between the English and Spanish ways of denoting the age of people.  In English we say "I am forty-two years old."  In Spanish I would say "I have forty-two years."  The attitudes to age and issues of ageism in Spain and pretty much all the Hispanophone countries I can think of are distinctly different from Anglophone culture.  It's ridiculous that we can call a child "five years old".  They are not old at all.  And at seventy years old, boy, we're starting to identify with those things that 'old' connotes in its negative aspects of aging and impending decrepitude ... towards death.  Yet if we have five years, it's a good start, and at owning seventy years, wow, we're really getting some good experience and wisdom under our belt!

Lately there is a single phrase that's been really niggling; I think in large part because I hear it every time I watch the news, and it's always associated with some crisis or other.  I have been wondering how the use of the phrase, its seeming ubiquity and its deliberately repetitive reinforcement of its claim might be affecting us all. Might especially be affecting those who use it, who are instructed by their religion and peers to use it, who believe it is required of them by God.

"Allahu akbar" has to be the most abused redundancy on the face of the planet these days.  "God is great." I mean, if indeed you do believe there is such a God, then he is by any definition great, greater, greatest, however you want to parse it.

Let me be clear. Tempting as it is to use the cute preface of "I'm not being racist but ... " that does not adequately explain my intention in singling out this phrase.  Of course, Islam is not a matter of race.  If you need to pigeon-hole my discernment here then call it religionist, but note please that I have no greater or lesser judgment when it comes to the harmfully co-opted or acted-out memes of other religions.  And I do not judge any religion or religious practice as being better or worse for humanity per se than any other. Surely I can talk about a practice of one religion only without unduly wasting great swathes of words in political correctness? Let these last few sentences be disclaimer enough.


"Allahu akbar!" As the speaker detonates a bomb. Or fires a Kalashnikov in the general direction of another human. Or throws a rock at police. Or fearfully, over and over, trembling as shells rain down around their home. Defiantly, as a chant, in a riotous funeral of another 'martyr'.  It would be so easy to make this a very long list.  In every instance though, what is being invoked is the greatness of God.  The phrase is so important in Islam that it even has a name; the takbir.  In some rites of prayer in parts of the Muslim world the leader of a congregation may call out "takbir!" to get the crowd response "Allahu akbar."  It is said in the obligatory and personal prayers of Muslims, it has found its way onto the flags of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and it is now of course famous for its use in times of distress and as a battle cry.

Here's my question: What sort of God is this phrase making?

Let us for a moment assume the the holy writings that act as foundation texts for the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, known to Western Christians as the Old Testament) are on to something with regards the relationship of God and The Word.  Let us remember the now well-known facts around how we create our realities through our choice and use of words (among of course other things) and recall that pivotal moment in Western culture, the point at which the mainstream woke up to the fact of our empowerment to choose what sort of experience we had of the divine: The moment Bart Simpson played Metatron with his devout neighbours, Rod and Todd Flanders, using wireless tech.

Bart (through the radio): "Rod, Todd, this is God"
Rod: "How did you get on the radio?"
Bart: "Whaddya mean, 'how did I get on the radio?' I created the universe! Stupid kid."
(Rod and Todd fall to their knees as supplicants to the radio, hands clasped to breasts)
Todd: "Forgive my brother, we believe you!"

The BartGod tests their faith by telling them to walk through the wall which he will remove (facebump!) "haha, later."  Then he tells them he has a job for them, to bring forth all the cookies from their kitchen and leave them on the Simpsons' porch.

Rod: "But those cookies belong to our parents!"
Bart (grumbling): "Do you want a happy God or a vengeful God?"
Rod and Todd (together, quickly) "Happy God!"
Bart: "Then quit flapping your lip and make with the cookies!"
Rodd and Todd: "Yes sir!"

The God of love versus the vengeful God meme has long been at the core of the charge of systemic and codified hypocrisy levelled at the Big Three religions, and indeed has been held as a central 'mystery of faith' by many devout scholars through the ages.  I'm imagining now what it would be like to be a citizen or soldier at this moment on either side of the Syrian civil war or in the recent Libyan uprising.  Each desperately, fearfully, arrogantly invoking the greatness of God as they try to murder another human or wet themselves in abject fear (or both simultaneously). Is it that they are trying to convince themselves that they are doing God's work?  That God is on their side?  Or has it gone beyond that, into a form of religious nihilism where they are only dumbly reacting in accordance with orders or cultural dictate, no longer sure of God's role or judgement and merely hoping that by invoking His name they might be absolved of whatever sins they commit in that moment?  Is it now just a magic talisman against the bullets?

A little of all of these things, I suspect.  Watching the subtitled news, I have learned enough of the various languages commonly associated with militant Islam to pull out certain key words and phrases, and the translations I'm sure are pretty good.  What I see so often in vox-pops and the endlessly repeated theme of grieving woman or man railing against the cruelty of an oppressor (imagined or real) is a sureness that God shall surely punish the transgressors and bring justice in the end.  A certain arrogant pride that they have the moral high ground, and thus, shall prevail.

History of course paints a story not usually consistent with that idea, when studied properly.  It is less and less true in this day of information freedom that the winners are those who get to write the definitive version of history (with their own built-in moral superiority as part of the narrative) even if this age is also the apogee of spin and marketing savvy.  We know with increasing certainty that the good guys do not in fact always win.  Not at all.

What happens when you call out the greatness of God as you pray humbly, and also as you kill?  When you throw stones at the occupying police forces, even as those same police chant the very same words in rhythm with the crack of their riot sticks on tender young bones? Two men whose eyes meet down the length of a city block in Homs, for that still moment framed by the crosshairs in their identical telescopic sights in their identical sniper rifles, before they squeeze their identical triggers, simultaneously muttering (so as not to queer the shot) "Allahu akbar" and experiencing a split second later what for all we know might be an identical flash of light as their so, so unique and individual brains are rendered paste by the expanding jacket of their fellow man's bullet; what God is it they are thinking of?

Here's my thought experiment for today.  What if, instead of shouting "Allahu akbar" in anger, or wailing it as a supplicant in mourning or distress, we were to say "Allahu behebak"?  "God is love."  I say 'we' because really, let's remember, this may be an Islamic meme, but it's a part of all of us.  Might a trigger not be pulled?  Might a hatred not be stoked?  Might a skein of empathy and what the Buddhists call 'loving-kindness' be felt connecting a person on one side of the conflict to one on the other?

I don't know either.

I am a spiritual man, but not a religious one.  Still, I know enough to know that if we do, as I suspect, create our Gods in our own image, and solidify their attributes with our chants and repetitions, that we are making a vengeful God who constantly fails in his duty of care to us; that we must surely not be worthy of His love, or conversely that we truly have made a God who requires of us to kill in his name.  That he wants us to do harm to one another.

If I were a religious man, I too would want a happy God.  That's why I would build the God out of the Lego blocks of Love, not 'Greatness.'

I'm looking forward to what my Desi friends have to say on this.


  1. ahh, well now. this seems to me to be a question of the intent of god, or perhaps rather our perception of it (and thus of ourselves). if god is all, the murder and the love, should it matter which way we fall? what about surrendering to the oblivion of "it's all one, it doesn't matter"? but somehow, i believe that it does. it matters for how you build your world, for how you live the time that you have. but any "name" -- be it love or greatness -- blinds us to the other 999... ;-)

    - o

  2. Well written, sir. One's god is exactly what one makes it out to be. There are thus billions of gods out there, all reflecting the exact same beliefs as their creators.