Sunday, 23 September 2012

Sunday Sermon: Blasphemy and Idolatry

Hello Everything. Thank you for our lives; our moment of subjective consciousness before we reenter the wholeness from which we came. Dance with us this week, Every. Help us, as our hearts beat and our bodies metabolise, to do thy will. Amen.

Last week I made a theological challenge to Islam by proposing that their prophet is not the 'final' prophet or the final revelation for all humanity. As I hope I made clear, my challenge is not just to Islam. It is a challenge for all monotheisms to go back to their roots, shrug off their idolatry and come together once again under one, transcendent, unnameable God, just like they did at their origins. I'm not saying I'm Moses but I am, in a way, trying to be Moses.
Thus saith the Lord thy God, you are an idolatrous generation. You carve me into your books and worship your names, traditions and stories as if they were as transcendent as Me. Did I not say to each of you through My prophets to forego all idolatry, refrain from naming Me and hence to come together as My people? When did I finish my revelation to you? When did I say it was finished?
Thus saith Everything, when you engrave My nature into stone you curse and insult Me. When you engrave My nature into stone you ensure warfare and strife amongst yourselves. When you engrave My nature into stone you cease to seek Me. Those who engrave My name into stone do so to glorify themselves over others and to maintain power by control of truth, a power which belongs to Me alone.
Thus saith nature Itself, I AM the Lord the God of all people and all the Earth. When you curse one another you curse yourself and Me too. When you go to war you go to war against yourself and against Me. When you proclaim that you know Me and another does not know Me you mock yourselves and defile My name. I AM Everything, one, alone and eternal. No one knows Me, but there is no other thing to know. But every single one of you are equally my children. My people are many tribes united into one people, the people of the Earth, my blue jewel.
Thus saith the totality of all being, Repent from idolatry and its strife oh Human, and you may live forever. Repent not from idolatry and strife oh Human, and ye shall surely die altogether.
(Prophesy, in the way I have just written it is, like prayer, a literary form, ok? Just to be clear there's nothing spooky being claimed here.)

There are some problems in our world, including some really big, important and apparently intractable problems, that are theological problems. This isn't exactly self-evident, and many would disagree, but if the proposition is correct then the assumption that theology is irrelevant is impeding the resolution of these problems.

Once again I am reflecting on the ongoing discussion and debate about... well, I want to say it's about 'blasphemy laws' but many people want it to be about almost anything else. Of course I mean the anti-Muslim film made recently and its angry aftermath. According to the protestors, as contrary to the psycho-analyses of the same by various commentators, it is about blasphemy laws. If I was a protestor I would want to be at least taken at face value.

There are many issues here, and I don't want to stifle any important discussions about politics, the interventions and imperialism of the West into the Muslim sphere, the resentment of the West in much of the Arab world, everyday racism/tribalism, or anything else. It seems to me these things are being robustly discussed. I do find it disconcerting however how many commentators manage to ignore the existence of blasphemy laws, and a strong religious sentiment about the importance of blasphemy in the Islamic world. The thing is, the idea of 'blasphemy', unlike other forms of extremism, is not a minority position in Islam. It is a mainstream ideology that infects politics all over the world, and a nasty one.

The charge of blasphemy is by no means restricted to Islam, or even to religion. Remnants of blasphemy laws exist throughout the Western World though mostly they have in practice if not in legislation been defeated by forces of liberalism and the value of freedom of speech. The last time blasphemy was in an Australian court was 1919. On the other hand, Christianity still often utilises the charge of blasphemy (essentially a manipulation by fear) and Islamists today rely on a fair degree of solidarity from Christian leaders on the issue of blasphemy itself (quite aside from responses to it).

The charge of 'insulting the leader' or the party-line for that matter, is par for the course in any totalitarian regime, and in liberal societies the capacity to criticise and even mock the leader and the system is a defining feature of a freer society. Once again I wonder how different religion and political ideology are in terms of their impact, nature and social manifestations. Social scientists and historians of religion have a lot of notes to swap, in my view.

But what is very clear, and reflected in the response from many Islamic communities to occasions when non-Muslims in the West insult the prophet or Islam, is that mainstream Islam, throughout the World, believes that blasphemy is a meaningful category, and indeed a crime of some sort.

Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan and Iran and in various jurisdictions throughout the Islamic world carries punishments from fines and stripping of rights through to whipping, disfiguring and imprisonment. If you don't believe me, here are the Wikipedia articles, Islam and Blasphemy and Blasphemy Law. When a 13 year old girl can be sentenced to death for being accused of burning a Koran, as almost occurred recently in Pakistan, we have a human rights issue which should concern us as much as genital mutilation or the oppression of women in general. In practice these laws are barely used for reasons of piety but rather for petty religious tyrants to harm their opponents.

There is an ongoing campaign for the United Nations to expressly support international laws against blasphemy. In case you thought this was a minority position among Muslims, it is worth noting that the entire Arab and Muslim block is behind this initiative. It is difficult to conceive that this could be so without very broad political support.

Theologically, blasphemy law can be challenged in three complementary ways. Firstly it is contrary to the peace and compassion which is the objective of Islam as well as every major religion. Secondly, it is not a doctrine from the Koran or the Hadith but has arisen in many inconsistent and contradictory ways in (Sharia) law throughout the Islamic world, so it does not have the same authority as the doctrines at the heart of Islam (again, this applies to blasphemy in Christianity as well, and most ideology). Thirdly the category of blasphemy is, by inference, idolatrous (ie contrary to the fundamental opposition to idolatry of Islam). It's this third point I am about to explain a bit, but the first two, which I am hoping do not require as much explanation (see The Charter for Compassion for the basis of the first point and the Wikipedia articles linked above support the second), should be kept alongside.

In a way idolatry is the irrational act of giving a thing far more importance than it deserves. The ancients went to enormous lengths to paint it as 'evil', 'sin' and worthy of great judgement. Today we can see that it is merely wrong, an epistemological mistake that will inevitable lead to greater mistakes, and we may see in the ancients' almost pathological emphasis merely that - great emphasis; a loud statement of recognition of how important the prohibition is. Today we can all understand why idolatry is wrong, and don't require a supernatural channel to the information.

Dear readers, each of us is in the Plato's cave of our minds. Here it is again, the underlying problematic which we all share and yet struggle to share: Each one of us is a finite self which is obliged to be a part of an apparently infinite reality, a reality in which we are obliged to share but for which each one of us only has available information from our own finite self. In trying to figure out the impossibility of this situation, religion arrises, and it is a matter of everyday social existence and survival. The project here is to make it a reasonable one, and idolatry, along with the charge of blasphemy against insulting our idols, is unreasonable. The fascinating thing to me is how the ancients got this so right.

If it is possible to blaspheme a thing then it is an idol. If we are avoiding idolatry, there is no such thing as blasphemy. The corollary of the principle is that having legislation against criticism of an authority, idea or thing is making an idol of that authority, idea or thing.

We should note that in the process of protesting blasphemy in the current example, as a concomitant of idolising Mohammed, Muslims are also giving a bad film a lot of power, indirectly making it an idol in turn. The screaming fact in this instance that the film is a fourth rate production lacking in either production values or credibility and that deserves no attention at all reinforces the absurdity and wrongness of the attitude of offence at 'blasphemy' in the first place. We might, in other words, know the rightness of a doctrine by its fruits, and in this case the fruits of the doctrine of blasphemy are transparently, and rather embarrassingly, preposterous.

The practice of watching for and avoiding every form of idolatry is, of course, also the practice of attuning to a spiritual focus on Everything, the only 'idol' which we - every one of us - implicitly, undeniably share. In a way, when we feel someone is being blasphemous, we are being shown our idols.

This sermon is about blasphemy laws, but I suggested in opening that perhaps many of today's problems may be theological in nature. The two most compelling and intractable fault lines in human harmony today are in the Levant (Israel/Palestine) and the subcontinent (India/Pakistan). Both of these conflicts, for anyone who takes the time to attempt to look closely and gain some understanding, are an absolute brain-fuck (excuse me but no situation more deserves an expletive), especially if you are looking toward political solutions, as we must. It is my strong conviction that these problems will only be solved when they are approached as the theological problems that they are, with theological creativity. But we'll get back to that, I'm sure.

Religion can change. It changes according to different rules and time-frames than scientific theory, but it can and does change. It must. And it knows it.
Everything, thank you for this opportunity to speak openly. Especially as I enter the territory of criticism, Every, mark my heart and my motives and help them be as pure as they can be. Bless my readers on their own respective paths and help them differentiate in my words that which steps toward your truth from that which digresses from your truth. I love you Everything. So be it.


  1. "If it is possible to blaspheme a thing then it is an idol. If we are avoiding idolatry, there is no such thing as blasphemy...In a way, when we feel someone is being blasphemous, we are being shown our idols."


    'What if' some of today's problems are theological (e.g. the Levant, the subcontinent)? This is a great provocation for those of us who distance ourselves from organised religion. Approaching the deep and abiding Palestine/Israeli divide with this question seems to lever a small breathing space. 'What if' something could be found at the centre of Islam and Judaism that, when wholeheartedly embraced, led clearly to peace and cohabitation?

    As you and your mate Karen Armstrong have shown it is already there: Compassion. The Golden Rule. And if compassion is front and centre, perceived blasphemy loses its power as a tool for petty tyrants to harm their opponents (as you say) and becomes a radar for us to recognise our (personal and cultural and religious) sacred cows.

    Like he way you're thinking Galileo.

    Love, Dawn ;)

  2. Thank you Dawn. Your comments are always appreciated (if a little too flattering!:) )

    I admit I am disappointed that there are not more comments, questions, expansions, criticisms, as the sermons do not quite feel complete without such discussion. They are certainly written with a view to open edges conducive to examination and discussion.

    It is especially important to me, if any critic is reading this, and especially when I enter the realm of criticism myself, that I do not misrepresent, caricature or strawman anyone, and if and when I do I rely on people to point it out.

    Anyway, to anyone reading this, comment would be great!

    Love you Dawn. xx