Passing Between the Clashing Rocks - Part III

Passing Between the Clashing Rocks: the Heroic Quest for a Transcendent Identity


  The common accusation that religious faith is a ?superstition? or an ?invention? or ?construction? of the human mind to invest a pointless universe with meaning, purpose and conscious design springs from the outmoded fundamentalist ideology of materialistic scientism and no longer reflects the discoveries of cutting edge science which are themselves confirming the existence of a deep underlying purpose in the way the universe is ordered. In a recent article, Paul Davies explains why scientific discovery does not make the cosmos seem increasingly pointless: ?The universe?, he concludes, ?is ordered in a meaningful way, and scientists seek reasons for why things are the way they are. If the universe as a whole is pointless, then it exists without reason. In other words, it is ultimately arbitrary and absurd. We are then invited to contemplate a state of affairs in which all scientific chains of reasoning are grounded in absurdity. The order of the world would have no foundation and its breathtaking rationality would have to spring, miraculously, from absurdity.? 

  The nature of our identity, essential nature or fitrah is beautifully illustrated by the discoveries of the Irish physicist John Stewart Bell. Bell?s work, now supported by numerous experiments, shows that, contrary to Einstein?s golden rule that nothing can travel faster than light, things have ?non-local? effects that stretch out instantaneously through infinite distance. The movement of one atom in this galaxy can immediately affect one in another galaxy, as long as they began by being associated in a way called ?entanglement?. Bell showed that this action at a distance is not just an idea, but an essential aspect of reality.

  There are profound philosophical and spiritual implications arising from this discovery, which has been called the most important discovery in science. Every particle in the Universe was once entangled because they all came out of the Big Bang together and share identical origins. Every particle retains a ?memory? of every other particle in the Universe, and thus every particle in a profound way ?knows? what every other particle is doing at all times. In his holographic model of this interconnected Universe, the physicist David Bohm shows that each bit of the Universe ? including each of us ? contains the entire Universe, so that Blake?s notion of seeing the world in a grain of sand is not at all a poetic fancy but an accurate observation.

  We too, like every particle, share identical origins. This is precisely where our identity lies, in that primordial nature which originates from the divine singularity. And because it originates from that singularity, in which everything is entangled, our identity is in essence the same as everyone else?s, even though the diversity of forms is infinite.  It is only our forgetfulness of our essential nature and its divine origin, and our heedlessness in failing to fulfil the burden of trust placed upon us which causes us to stray from our fully inclusive human identity.

  Brian Thorne eloquently reminds us that we are so accustomed to associating the deadly sin of sloth with laziness and idleness that we forget that it means forgetfulness, regarded by the ascetics as the greatest of all sins. According to Thorne, forgetfulness, which is a kind of blind slumber, is ingrained in the lives of modern Western men and women, and is ?fast becoming the collective neurosis of our contemporary culture?. It is as evident in the frenetic hyperactivity which characterises modern life as it is in its more obvious manifestation as blank inertia. Thus, as we go about our business, ?striving, competing, achieving, performing, outwitting, texting, ?phoning, e-mailing, moving, shaking, driving up standards, rooting out dead wood, downsizing, conferencing, pre-empting the market, doubling profits, appraising, evaluating, improving efficiency, fast-tracking, monitoring ? the list of frenetic activities and judgmental processes is endless?, in the midst of all this we are in fact in a state of deep slumber, or sloth, because we have forgotten the one thing that is needful. ?Verily, in the remembrance of God hearts find rest? (Qur?an 13:28) and ?remembrance of God is indeed the greatest? (Qur?an 29:45), for ?Verily we are for God and verily unto Him are we returning? (Qur?an 2:156).

  Thorne quotes the French Orthodox scholar Olivier Cl–ment?s chilling description of the destructive power of forgetfulness: ?I may forget that others have as deep an inward experience as I do; I may never stop for anything; I may never be captivated by music or a rose; I may never give thanks ? since all things are rightly mine; I may forget that all things are rooted in mystery and that mystery dwells within me. I may forget God and His creation. I may no longer know how to accept myself as a creature with an immeasurable destiny. I may forget death and the possible meaning beyond it. All this amounts to a spiritual neurosis which has to do?with suppressing the ?light of life? which gives meaning to others, to the smallest speck of dust as well as to myself.?

  Yet, as the Qur?an makes clear in several places, all human beings have innate knowledge of their divine origin and are able to perceive the existence of their Creator, even if this instinctive cognition is subsequently blurred by living in the wrong way. We are told, for example, that before the manifestation of creation, God took from the loins of Adam all the souls that would be born in the world, and asked them to testify: ?Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, we testify.  [Of this we remind you] lest you say on the Day of Resurrection: Truly of this we were unaware.? (Qur?an 7:172).

  Once we understand that we all partake of the same essential human nature (and, again, this is confirmed by recent biological science, which finds that we all share 99.9% of the same genetic material), exclusivism, mono-culturalism, and of course racism, are totally discredited. We all share a common identity as human beings, and, beyond that, a common origin within the source of all Creation.

  I distinguish here between exclusivism as an isolationist, divisive and potentially hostile mentality and the validity of an exclusive commitment to a particular faith community which by no means prevents active engagement with other faith communities in the spirit of true pluralism, which goes far beyond mere ?tolerance?. As I shall go on to suggest, it is precisely that commitment to a particular path that gives us the means to encompass universalism. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of distinguishing between the different force and emphasis of related words of this kind.

  I am not saying here that we should gain no sense of meaning, pleasure or worth from belonging to a group of people, whether that group is bound together by faith, culture or ethnicity, or indeed, by other more immediate adhesives such as family, age, and occupation. And I am most definitely not saying that we cannot find universal truth or discover our full humanness through commitment to a particular faith community. Quite the opposite. I count myself as a Muslim, and aspire to be a better one.  I am not one of those ?universalists? who believe that adherence to a marked out path and its formal requirements limits our ability to grasp universals, for I follow what is actually a deeper esoteric tradition which upholds that it is only through the mediation of forms that the human being has any access to the Essential Truth. Neither am I one of those ?syncretists? who believe that new paths can be manufactured by cobbling together the bits of other paths which we like and ignoring the bits that we dislike, as if we can make up an artificial language, a kind of religious Esperanto, from words and grammatical structures gathered from a medley of languages. The Qur?an makes it clear that we should accept the whole of the message: ?Those who are deeply rooted in knowledge say: ?We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord?? (Qur?an 3:7)

  Furthermore, made-up languages never seem to work. ?Apparently there are more people with an interest in Klingon, the made-up language developed for the Star Trek television series, than Esperanto, because Klingon is a language which dynamically and organically expresses the character of a particular community, completely fictional as it is.? As Diana Eck, Director of the Pluralism Project, and Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University puts it, true pluralism is not a ?global shopping mall where each individual puts together a basket of appealing religious ideas,? flattening our differences and reducing every tradition to ?the lowest common denominator? or ?the nicest platitudes.?

  But what I am saying is that if we derive the totality of our identity from belonging to any group, if our sense of identity is totally determined by our identification with that group to the extent that we lack any sense of self apart from that group identity, then we are in danger of forgetting the common origin which we all share with all humankind. This is the way to the isolationism, intolerance, prejudice and self-righteousness which fuels the clash of civilisations, or rather, the war of barbarisms. This is the way to the hubris which dares to claim a monopoly on truth or goodness, and which condemns all those who follow a different path. And this applies to all fundamentalists and ideologues, whether religious or secular, who seek to imprison the human spirit by claiming sole ownership of the truth.

  The Qur?an explicitly denounces those who commit ?crimes of arrogance? in ?desiring to appropriate God for a narrow community. There is no reason to suppose that the Qur?anic reprimand to other communities that they cannot base their claims to superiority on the achievements of their forbears, should not be applied to the post-Muhammadan Muslim community: ?That is a community that is bygone; to them belongs what they have earned and to you belong what you earn, and you will not be asked about what they had done.? (Qur?an 2:134).?

  It is surely also the case that there is no essential difference between the coercive black and white assertion that ?either you are with us or against us? (i.e. a good person or an ?evildoer?) and the assertion of those Muslim jurists (claiming the authority of past experts in the application of Shari?ah law) that those Muslims who do not regard non-Muslims as kafirs (i.e. non-believers) become kafirs themselves. The Qur?an makes it clear that the successive revelations given to Prophets, including Jesus and Muhammad, were given to reaffirm the purity and universality of the primordial message which had been distorted by adherents, as, for example, in their claim that they held sole ownership of the truth and that it was only to them that salvation was to be granted. According to Karen Armstrong,  ?the militant brand of piety, often somewhat misleadingly called ?fundamentalism? [which] has been developing in all the major world religions for decades, and [which] has latterly become more extreme?is rooted in fear?Almost every day in our newspapers we see the perils of hatred and bigotry, when they are given divine sanction by people who distort the very tradition they are trying to defend.?

  Let me offer another nuanced distinction which might provide us with another useful rudder to help us steer in the right direction. This is the distinction between identification and commitment.  Identification is the limiting process by which our essential nature becomes subsumed and imprisoned by a narrow identity; commitment is a liberating process which enables one to engage one?s whole being with the particularities of a chosen way in order to find, through the orientation provided by that way, the universal and essential realities of which that way is an expression. I associate ?one?s whole being? here with the Heart, in the sense denoted by the Arabic word qalb. This is not the heart of sentiment or emotion, but our innermost core, the organ of spiritual perception, and the bridge between Spirit and Soul. In Islamic tradition, God, speaking through the Prophet Muhammad, tells us that only ?the Heart of My faithful servant does encompass Me?.

  Following a path exclusively is totally reconcilable with the search for a universal identity, and, indeed, the means to its attainment for countless spiritual seekers and spiritually developed beings from all religious traditions, but the exclusivism promoted by a defensive, backs-to-the-wall religiosity, which misappropriates God for a narrow community and denies that other paths are also expressions of the Self-disclosure of God is necessarily a constriction of the heart, and is therefore incapable of encompassing divinity.

  Differences and tensions between faiths, cultures and communities cannot be solved by retreating into hostile isolation. Walid Saif, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Jordan, has been critical of those Muslims who are preoccupied ?with protecting a threatened identity? and who define ?the collective self in terms of differences and contrasts?.  Saif was writing in the context of Christian-Muslim dialogue, but let us be clear that in the wider context of this conference his criticism should apply to any manifestation (whether Muslim or otherwise) of what he calls a ?defensive identity crisis? and its outcome of ?enclosure and exclusion?.  Saif continues: ?A truly secure Muslim [and, I would add, a truly secure member of any faith community] is inclusive and appeals to common principles and values based on a universal conception of humanity?Moral messages gain more credibility and communicate themselves more persuasively when they are put in the service of the people, without exclusion and without proselytism.? 

  We also need to dispense with the unchallenging mediocrity of mere tolerance. As Diana Eck has passionately argued, true pluralism is an active process of engaging with diversity and plurality as a ?truth?seeking encounter?, not merely passively acknowledging or tolerating the existence of plurality or cosmopolitanism or even ?celebrating? it, as the clich頷ould have it.  Eck is surely right that as a style of living together ?tolerance is too minimal an expectation.? Indeed, it may be an ?expression of privilege? for the majority, or even a ?passive form of hostility,? a kind of ?shaky truce.?  Furthermore, ?it does not require us to know anything new, it does not even entertain the fact that we might change in the process.?

  Omid Safi agrees: ?I don?t want to ?tolerate? my fellow human beings,? he says, ?but rather to engage them at the deepest level of what makes us human, through both our phenomenal commonality and our dazzling cultural differences.? Safi?s etymological analysis of the negative connotations of the word ?tolerance? is revealing: ??words are powerful vehicles in shaping our thoughts, and there are often more layers of meaning embedded in words. The connotations of ?tolerance? are deeply problematic?the root of the term tolerance comes from medieval toxicology and pharmacology, marking how much poison a body could ?tolerate? before it would succumb to death. Is this the best that we can do? Is it our task to figure out how many ?others? we can tolerate before it really kills us? Is this the most sublime height of pluralism we can aspire to??

  The key word for both Eck and Safi is ?engagement?, and the means of engagement is dialogue - the first principle of genuine pluralism, according to Eck. ?Without dialogue and dialectic, the diversity of religious traditions, of cultures and ethnic groups, becomes an array of isolated encampments, each with a different flag, meeting only occasionally for formalities or for battle. The swamis, monks, rabbis, and archbishops [and let us add sheikhs, ayatollahs, imams and mullahs to her list] may meet for an interfaith prayer breakfast, but without real dialogue they become simply icons of diversity, not instruments of relationship.?  David Smock of the US Institute of Peace reminds us that ?The motivation for initiating The International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations was summarized in the words of the Iranian poet and philosopher Sadi Shirazi hundreds of years ago: ?All human beings are like organs of a body; when one organ is afflicted with pain, others cannot rest in peace?.?

  In an important paper on the metaphysics of interfaith dialogue and the universality of the message of the Qur?an, Reza Shah-Kazemi says that ?dialogue can itself be seen, not as contrary to the Muslim duty of bearing witness to his faith, but in an age when? ?the outward and readily exaggerated incompatibility of the different religions greatly discredits, in the minds of most of our contemporaries, all religion?,  a call to God which is based on universal inclusivity rather than dogmatic exclusivity is much more likely to be heeded. The Quranic discourse explicitly refers to the fragility and illogicality of confessional or denominational exclusivity, and affirms truths of a universal nature, doing so, moreover, with an insistence and in a manner that is unparalleled among world scriptures. It is therefore uniquely situated, in intellectual terms, to assist in the resolution of the contemporary crisis precipitated by mutually exclusive religious claims?.

  We need to add that triumphalism of any kind is also a pernicious outcome of an inability to reach out to the ?other? and to engage in dialogue, and it is sad to observe the popularity of a genre of triumphalist contemporary films which distort history and prey on rudimentary jingoistic and patriotic emotions, hyping them up through emotive images, pseudo-epic music and tear-jerkingly sentimental dialogue.

    David Smock quotes this powerful statement by Diana Eck: ?One world cannot be built on the foundation of competition and polarization between the superpowers. One world cannot be built on the foundation of science, technology and the media. One world cannot be built on Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Sikh triumphalism. One world cannot be built on the foundation of mutual fear and suspicion. Laying the foundations for one world is the most important task of our time. These foundations are not negotiated statements and agreements. These foundations are, rather, in the stockpiling of trust through dialogue and the creation of relationships that can sustain both agreements and disagreements. Moving forward?in dialogue with those other faiths we will create the foundational relationship of One World. Moving forward alone, we will not.?

  Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, in his moving conclusion to his book Talking to the Other, tells us that ?Whenever we read the Hallel, that Psalm can also be a call to us to escape the narrowness of vision that lumps all people together, that denies their uniqueness and humanity, and reduces them to a label or a slogan, the other, the enemy:

min ha-meitzar karati yah
to get out of this narrowness I called on God
anani b?merhav yah
      God answered me with a broader vision
hodu ladonai ki tov
Give thanks to the Eternal who is good
ki l?olam hasdo
for God?s love is l?olam, for the whole world,
and God?s love is l?olam, it lasts for ever.?

  Active engagement with diversity through dialogue and dialectic not only enhances the likelihood that we can all live together in peace and harmony, but also involves us in what Eck calls ?a process of mutual transformation? which goes beyond simply understanding ?the other? to a new level of ?mutual self-understanding? and a corresponding deepening of ?our own faith and our own selves?.  Karen Armstrong believes that ?far from being an exercise in damage limitation, interfaith dialogue can become a spirituality that leads us directly into the divine presence?,  and Yossi Klein Halevi has described interfaith dialogue as ?the true spiritual adventure of our generation.? 

  To believe that dialogue compromises one?s identity is therefore a grave misunderstanding. The opposite is the case, for the progressive deepening of one?s faith and self which comes about through the process of engagement is also a progressive expansion of one?s identity into that universal space occupied by our essential, primordial nature.  Depth is not sacrificed for breadth; the openness to alternative expressions of truth does not undermine the sense of commitment to a particular faith.  Paradoxically, each nourishes the other, and this process of mutual enhancement based on a deep respect for the sanctity of different perspectives is utterly different from that variety of bland multiculturalism which, committed to nothing, actually gives us the worst of all worlds.

  Rabbi Herbert Bronstein sums up well the co-existence of commitment and engagement from within what is finest in the Jewish tradition ? and let us always remember that Qur?an 29:46 enjoins us to ?discourse not with them [followers of earlier revelation] except in that which is finest: ?There is a profound religious and historic basis to the Jewish view on interfaith dialogue. Jewish belief encompasses a dialectic between an all-embracing humane Universalism and deep commitment to a particular Jewish religious way of life and to the continuity of the Jewish people as a religious people. Between the two—namely, universal humane concern and Jewish particularism ? there is, in the Judaic world view, no contradiction. And, in fact, the ideal Jewish position is integration of the two. On the one hand, the ideal Jew is deeply loyal to his own faith, way of life, and people. There is, at the same time, a firm commitment in Judaism to God’s universal embrace, care, and love for all humanity, the ideal of loving one’s fellow human being as oneself. The Torah teaches that all humanity is created in the image of God. In the Jewish myth of creation, one couple, Adam and Eve, are the parents of all humanity. In this view God speaks to all human beings and all human communities in various ways. All perceive the one God in their own way and take different paths to the service of the ultimate Godhead. Dialogue would therefore be an endeavor to understand, on the deepest level possible, the views and positions of the Other toward the goal of ultimate harmony between all human beings, which is the Judaic affirmation of the Sovereignty of God, harmony, peace, Shalom.?

  I believe that the size of people?s hearts is directly related to the breadth of their horizons. The most constricted and stony heart is the one whose horizons extend no further than himself and the satisfaction of his own needs and desires. As the human being develops, his or her horizons progressively extend from self to family, from family to social circle, from social circle to class to tribe, from tribe to nation state, and beyond.

  Other people define themselves according to their occupations, or sometimes, in today?s world, according to their designer labels or, as a recent survey revealed, by their mobile phones. Many people find it difficult to progress further, and are forever confined by their tribal, nationalistic, occupational or ?life-style? perception of themselves. I saw a television programme recently about a couple on holiday who decided who was worthy of getting to know by the shopping bag they carried. Someone with a Marks and Spencer bag was avoided, but someone who carried a Gucci bag was actively sought out and cultivated as a social contact. This is the ultimate reduction of the human being, an identity defined no longer by the old questions, ?Where do you come from and what do you do?? but by the pressing modern question: ?Which shopping bag do you carry??

  The trajectory of the person of goodwill is the widening of horizons to fellow human beings, first to family, then to friends, and ultimately to all human beings and all life on earth, no matter what they do or where they come from. The Prophet Muhammad said: ?All God?s creatures are His family; and he is the most beloved of God who does most good to God?s creatures.? For people of faith and spiritual insight, there is a further horizon too, beyond that of the earth, which takes in the whole universe, and which all young people, if given the opportunity, always respond to instinctively with wonder. Direct observation of the night sky ought to be on every science curriculum, not simply to satisfy curiosity about the workings of the universe (as if the universe can be reduced to self-sufficient laws and mechanisms or bizarre and inexplicable phenomena), but as a means to evoke wonder and holy awe. 

  That sense of wonder and unfathomable mystery, and the humility that it inspires, is a vital dimension of spirituality. Muhammad Asad refers to the call in the ninety-first surah of the Qur?an (Ash-Shams) to reflect on ?the inexplicable grandeur of the universe - so far as it is perceptible and comprehensible to man ? as compelling evidence of God?s creative power?. As well as the night sky, it could be any experience of that sense of limitless multiplicity which anyone who looks at nature with an open eye can perceive, but whatever it is, it is a point of reference with something infinite, unfathomable and limitless, which is far beyond the practical, and even the moral dimension of human affairs. 

  Albert Einstein said: ?The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.? 

    We have a responsibility not only to instruct the minds of our young people but to awaken in them their inner spiritual capacities and to plant the garden of virtues so that they can embody and express the divine qualities or attributes. The Prophet Muhammad said: ?Imbue yourselves with divine qualities?. This will depend on an educational process which encompasses an experiential dimension, a process of applied spirituality which gives opportunities for inner work and development. This alone can bypass the over-emphasis on ?personality? and the forms of conditioning and ingrained habits and patterns of thought that obscure the human soul or essential self, and this alone can turn latent (often atrophied) faculties into functioning ones. Such obstructive forms of conditioning may be psychological, social, cultural, intellectual, or, indeed, religious, and we need to realise that academic and religious institutions can also compound the effects of conditioning through conventional intellectuality and religiosity. And it needs to be said, too, that the reduction of so-called ?character education? to saluting the flag and singing patriotic songs is a poor substitute for truly moral, let alone spiritual education.

  I recently heard a discussion in the BBC radio 4 ?Moral Maze? series about the advantages and disadvantages of faith schools in which a well-known atheist ?philosopher? said that he thought teaching religion in schools was ?intellectual abuse?. I would say that the real abuse is to deny to young people the spiritual dimension in their lives and the source of meaning and meaningfulness this provides, to disconnect them from their essential nature, to give them no means of expressing the natural wonder they have in their souls and no means of activating and developing their highest spiritual capacities. We only have to look around ourselves to see the consequences of this deprivation in our contemporary culture.

  The assertion of the atheist is also contradicted by research by the UK Professional Council for Religious Education published in September 2001. This showed that among secondary school students aged 11 to 18, those who enjoy religious education (RE) and see positive benefits for their own lives from studying religion outnumber those who are negative about RE by four to one.

  The report also gives examples of statements by students which show that many students also like RE because of the opportunities it gives for expressing opinions, improving communication skills, acquiring knowledge of other faiths, developing inter-cultural awareness and sensitivity, developing the skills of philosophical enquiry and reflection, and pondering the meaning and purpose of life. Adult prejudices should never be allowed to interfere with the education of young people.

  The development of mankind has always been in the progressive expansion of boundaries, such that more and more people see themselves today as members of a global community rather than citizens of a nation state. It is therefore logical to suppose that the destiny of man is to inhabit the larger universe, to find his relationship with the whole of creation and ultimately with the origin of that creation. Some people think that this connection with the universe (if not with its origin) will eventually be literally accomplished through space travel, but the deeper reality is to find that relationship within ourselves.

  ?The truth is out there? says the X-Files, and those of us who are educators certainly want to encourage a spirit of enquiry and a sense of wonder about the world in which we live, and other worlds too, but the deepest, the most essential Truth is not out there at all, but within ourselves, in the core of our spiritual identity as human beings.  ?He who knows his own self?, said the Prophet Muhammad, ?knows his Lord?, confirming the ancient Greek injunction to ?Know thyself? and the saying of Jesus that ?The Kingdom of Heaven is within you?. No matter how far man actually travels in his physical engines, if he has not developed in himself the higher faculties which make him truly human, if he has not, with the grace of God, made that inner journey, his outer journey will lead only to further technological advancement which, as always, can be used either for good or evil. ?Verily, never will Allah change the condition of people until they themselves change what is in their souls.? (Qur?an 13:11). 

  The passage between the Clashing Rocks can only ever be fully accomplished as that inner journey, because it is only in the human heart (in the deepest core, the qalb, of his being) that the opposites can be united, and, in the words of hadith qudsi it is only ?the heart of My faithful servant? which ?can encompass Me?.   
Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
August 2003