Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dave Sim's blogandmail #62 (November 12th, 2006)

If good befalleth you it grieveth them, and when ill lighteth on you, they rejoice in it. But if ye be steadfast and fear God, their craft shall in no way harm you. For God is round about their doings.

Sura 3 "The Family of Imran"

Verse 116

Nine-page letter from a long-time correspondent (who I will leave to identify himself if he so chooses, and I imagine he will—he's a deep believer in God, as you will see, and we tend not to have obsessive interest in privacy: you can't hide anything from God and His is the only opinion that matters so what need for privacy?), the most significant part of which, coming in the midst of my own personal though largely temporary crisis was…er…actually, let me run the "scholar from Senegal" part, first.

Also at the college, we recently had a scholar visiting from Senegal. He teaches West African literature there. He is very, nationalistically proud of Senegal and one of his lectures, to which I took my students, was about how Senegal is a model of stability in Africa. He attributed it to the fact that the country is poor (no one covets what little Senegal does have) and a national demeanor of friendliness and, as he put it, "jokingness". There, he said, if you have trouble everyone knows to defuse it with the "jokingness".

He also told me that Senegal is 95% Islamic. Armed with what I have gleaned from your writings about Islam, I asked him whether the sects get along. "Oh, Yes!" "Well," I asked, "Do you have any Wahabbite cells and what do you do about them?"

"No! We have no Wahabbites," he retorted.

"What?" I said. "How do you prevent them?"

The scholar told me that in Senegal, while there are Sunnis and Shiites and (I think) Kurds, everyone is in suffis (sp?), a term with which I am unfamiliar. Furthermore, he said that everyone believes in the book and the book says, "you to your faith, me to mine," which I repeated with him. He said that they don't have Wahabbites because everyone believes in the book and, thus, they simply don't allow Wahabbites. The whole book disallows them, he implied. Or I inferred.

Could it really be that simple?

Depends on what you mean by "simple". The term is Sufi and it means an Islamic mystic, the equivalent would be a Kabbalist in Judaism. Because the concept is arguably pagan (let's put it this way, I would argue that any form of mysticism is pagan by nature) it is pretty much tailor-made to offend against the faith of devout Muslims whose ambition is to eradicate paganism, on the model of Muhammad destroying the 360 idols that used to encircle the Grand Mosque in Mecca (the Taliban were obviously thinking of the same model when they destroyed the two giant Buddha statues). Of course you don't eradicate paganism or even idolatry by destroying statues. Paganism's natural adjacent square of sanctuary is always going to be mysticism. If you aren't permitted to build and worship a statue of a god-nature then you just describe it in more nebulous terms. A good example is God's emanations (or as I would call them "emanations') where you establish that there's a Godhead and then from there God has "many excellent names" and attributes—there are Muslim traditions that there are 99 of them. In fact Conrad "Fawning Canuck" Felber sent me a news clipping about a Muslim super-hero comic where the individual characters had one each of the 99 attributes. There aren't 99 characters—cumulatively that would mean they were God and that would be blasphemy, but doing say a dozen attributes would just be a role model kind of gig. Well, pretty quickly you get into very nebulous territory that is very close to Hinduism where the god Ram has many different attributes, each of which manifest in a different way. To me, no matter which way you slice such a thing, you're still joining gods to God, which the Koran is very specific in denouncing. To me, even using the term Godhead means that you are off the reservation (so to speak) which is why I'm very specific in my prayers to say "One God, having One Name, One Face and One Aspect which is God." To me, there has to exist a context beyond our perception where God is a Unity, a single indivisible Being. That's usually when someone suggests that it sounds as if I believe that the totality of the universe makes up, or constitutes God. No, I don't think that's the case. God is God. God created the universe and God, by definition, is omnipresent everywhere in the universe but I would assume that He is also omnipresent elsewhere, in within and around contexts which we are unable to perceive. That raises the question of what the nature of those different contexts is. My answer—my personal answer—is that since I can't perceive those contexts, they aren't pertinent to me. Why even think about contexts I can't perceive when I can pray to God, instead?

Your scholar friend may be right but I suspect that any context where God becomes wedded to mysticism is fraught with great peril. To me, YHWH is always lurking and looking for exactly these kinds of mind games to make use of. My question would be "How could I differentiate between which of those 99 aspects is God and which of those 99 is YHWH?" Given the very simplified and uni-dimensional nature of men, I don't think I would have a clue. Even the formal address at the start of every Sura, "the most gracious, the most merciful" is derived from YHWH's self description in the book of Exodus when he/she/it physically reveals him/her/its self to Moshe. I use it because it is a scriptural reference, but only in association with the Name of God. I would never refer to God, apart from His name, as "the most gracious" or "the most merciful" because the inference could be drawn that I am referring to YHWH in doing so. To me, there is a very narrow definition which avoids blasphemy. God is God. God is omnipotent, but I worship God, I don't worship an emanation of God that is named Omnipotent or omnipotent or "omnipotent". In all permutations where there is One God Having Name One Face and One Aspect which is God, that is the God that I worship.

When you move out of those narrow confines and the further out of those narrow confines that you move, to me, the more you are joining gods to God. You could certainly have a lot fewer conflicts—as it sounds to be the case in Senegal—if you accommodate all mystical perceptions of who and what God is: what would you have to fight about? But I don't think I would describe something that all-encompassing as Islam, or as submission to the will of God or obedience to the Koran's injunction not to join gods with God. Essentially it seems to me that what you are doing is letting YHWH in the back door and continuing to perpetrate the misapprehension that there's no difference between YHWH and God or that they are two sides of the same coin. God is God. Outside of that simple Truth, to me, lies madness. And to me that's where mysticism resides: madness.

I've learned through trial, error and adversity to trust God always to provide what I need.

A case in point: Recently, I received a non-renewal notice from my landlord for when my lease is up at the end of the month. In ____, it's legal to blacklist tenants for owing back rent and even, technically, for being late with rent. Thanks to my brother, who once got into a tiff with the landlord (where he and I were both on the lease) so badly that they called the police on him, he got us evicted from there. Hello blacklist! For both of us.

So, when I got the non-renewal notice I started looking for places unlikely to be members of the ____ Apartment Association. Of the few places in the newspaper listings, I checked out a couple in a bad part of town. It was not a pretty prospect.

For a brief period, I began to panic. And then, the familiar calm came over me that reminded me to just trust God. The next day, I got a call from a lady on whose answering machine I had left a message a week prior. Would I still like a room? "We have a nice house, all bills paid; I only like to rent to mature people; I can usually tell if I want to rent to someone and you seem like someone I want to rent to."

It's close to where I live now, closer to the bus line, less expensive will all bills paid, free cable (which I refuse to pay for), nice home, nice neighbourhood.

God most certainly does provide, it might seem simplistic to you, but I stopped counting such "God provides" moments long ago. Stopped counting, stopped panicking; just sat back and trusted.

I would definitely agree. I would even extend it to physical ailments which at one time, I would have considered as having a physical origin. If there's something wrong with me physically, there must be an organic cause that can be determined and corrected. It was only after coming to belief in God that I realized that any time I had determined the origin of a physical ailment and corrected it that something else would go wrong with me. Gilda Radner's It's Always Something, the title of her book about finding out she had cancer. I think it was far more self-revelatory as titles go than she seemed to be aware of. Cancer is just the ultimate net effect of refusing to recognize that belief in God and religious observance—the correcting of underlying bad assumptions and replacing them with good assumptions—is the only real hope that any of us have. And that evading seeing it that way just implies greater and more severe consequences. Once attained to as a system of belief (at least in my own experience), it means that any kind of physical suffering is either expiatory (the alleviation of sinful net effects through suffering those effects physically), exculpatory (freeing of one's self from consequence through the acceptance of consequence), or vindicatory (the alleviation of net effects through the endurance of unwarranted or excessive punishment disproportionate to the sins which generated them). Malcolm Muggeridge's encapsulation of what he saw as Dostoevsky's grand underlying Christian theme: "Accept suffering and be redeemed by it." The point is two-fold: You have to accept your suffering and be redeemed both by the suffering and by your acceptance of the suffering. To the atheist, this is ridiculous. If you're in pain, you go to the doctor and get him to look at you and he prescribes a pill and you take the pill and the pain goes away. It just never seems to actually work that way in the vast majority of cases. The symptoms can be suppressed or eliminated but if the physical pain is a consequence of wrong decision-making all you're going to do is trade one set of symptoms for another set. In my own view, God only subjects people to the bare minimum of consequences of their actions and choices that He has to. He only escalates those consequences when the message doesn't get through—and I think going to the doctor is one of the surest examples of the message not getting through. When my mother was going through all of the consequences of her own choices that she had made and on one of my last visits to her, I said, "You know, there's always prayer." And she replied, with the air of someone discussing the rattling of chicken bones over her gangrenous toe "Yeah, there's always that."

I do think it's important to share these observations with each other as God-fearing men since we live in a society surrounded by people who think that trusting in God is a lunatic choice and trusting in doctors and pills is always the wisest choice. In that sense, society is no different from the individual. The more a society evades what is actually going on and develops the consensus that God is irrelevant, the more all parts of society—including us—are going to suffer from that collectivist choice and the more we are going to be relentlessly battered into adopting the consensus view that the core of our greatest problems consists of a shortage of doctors, a shortage of efficacious pills, free medical coverage.

I like to think that I really didn't NEED your reminder about trusting in God—genuine fear of God and trust in God have to come from within and they have to be bedrock solid when the Chicken Littles of the world start insisting as they always do that the sky is falling—but there's no question that coming on a day when I was once again under a relentless barrage of being made to feel clinically insane and culpable for everything back to the Suez Crisis in 1956, it was very nice to have it there. I continue to work 12-hour days with very little, materially, to show for it but it seems to me a key element. That's what I want the record to show if I die next year, in five years, ten years, fifteen years. He worked twelve-hour days and was relentless in championing God in an environment where that was pretty universally agreed to be not only career suicide but a recipe for being deemed clinically insane. Far better to give hope to the God-fearing through emphatic declaration than to give the mobs of atheists yet another victim because he had no one to connect with in a time of being tried and tested

I also strongly advocate reading Scripture aloud. During my own trial, I read the entirety of Sura 2, "The Cow"—it runs a good twenty-seven pages—aloud and could feel even trace anxieties slipping away as God's living word crowded the atheists back out to their (appropriately, I think, and as far as I know I am entitled to my own opinions the same as the atheists are) marginalised place in my life.

This Week and Next (November 19)

Scripture at the Registry Theatre returns

122 Frederick Street in Kitchener

1 pm


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Aardvark Vanaheim, Inc
P.O. Box 1674
Station C
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada N2G 4R2

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