Saturday, 13 August 2011

Mortifying the body to exalt the spirit. If that makes sense

My heart goes out to my Moslem friends: it’s the middle of Ramadan and in these latitudes that means the dawn to dusk fast lasts for around eighteen hours each day. And it’s going to get worse for the next couple of years, as Ramadan comes earlier and therefore includes more and more of the year’s longest days

It wouldn’t be so bad if the fast merely meant taking no food, but anyone following it strictly also takes no drink. Eighteen hours of dehydration? And this is supposed to be good for you?

In the heartland of Islam, the day never gets muuch longer than thirteen and a half hours, which means that the fast doesn't become quite as excruciating as it can here. But like all religions, the rules are the rules, and if you live by them you have to live by them in their rigid entirety, in spite of local conditions.

It puts me in mind of so many other bizarre restrictions imposed on their followers by organised religion. Take my own, Jewish, cultural roots for instance. Danielle, who likes milk in her coffee, couldn’t have it at an otherwise wonderful dinner at a Jewish friend’s. We’d had meat with the meal, so naturally no milk could be served.

We of course accepted the constraint with the best grace possible – with complete equanimity on my part, as it happens, since I prefer my coffee black, but that doesn’t stop me feeling for Danielle – and nodded our heads as though the word ‘naturally’ somehow summed things up completely. But what was ‘natural’ about it?

The basis of the interdiction is in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 14:21. It tells us: ‘Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.’ That, by the way, is the King James Authorised Version of the translation which people keep telling me is wonderful for its ‘poetry’. It always me wonder whether they’re confusing ‘poetry’ with ‘incomprehensibility’. What on earth is ‘seething’? Apart from the state into which such obscure language puts me?

Deuteronomy: making sure you understand the law.
When you can make sense of it
Let’s assume, as other translations do, that it means ‘cooking’ (New International Version: ‘Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk’. Less poetical, is it? At least I know what it means).

So we’re not supposed to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. It’s not clear to me just why that should bother the creator of the universe and legislator of all life but, OK, maybe that is one of the miracles of the Godhead – infinite in his scope but able to focus on a matter of infinitesimal, even baffling, detail. So fine. As it happens I wasn’t planning on cooking kid in its mother’s milk anyway. We’d not eaten goat at dinner. And it was cow’s milk we were planning to put in the coffee.

But the wise have decided that applying the restriction from Deuteronomy means that you can’t serve any kind of milk at the same table, within three hours – some schools of thought say six – of using it to serve any kind of meat. Naturally. If I can’t see that, it’s just further evidence of my denseness, already displayed by my inability to appreciate the beauty of the King James Bible.

Incidentally, can you stand a little more poetry? Here’s the rest (actually the start) of Deuteronomy 14:21: ‘Ye shall not eat of anything that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God.’

Isn’t that nice? Don’t eat carrion yourself, it’s unclean, and you’re holy. On the other hand, if in your holiness you can make a buck or two by selling it to a foreigner, hey, why not? We’re not working to some kind of anti-business agenda here.

Not sure I understand the holiness any better than the poetry.

Meanwhile, back to my Moslem friends. Nearly half way, guys. Good luck with the rest. And just remember – at least you’re not living in northern Norway or Canada, where the sun doesn’t set at all in the summer.

What on earth do Moslems do in those regions, actually? Move away? Or try to fast for the entire month?


Anonymous said...

In these times of rampant materialism and violent destruction on behalf of getting the right pair of trainers, perhaps a little self-denial is not such a bad thing after all. It's common across all religions, and a world without religion seems to be one purely given over to materialistic selfishness. We need to learn to be able to live without from time to time; not all of us can have everything we want all of the time, even if it comes down to a little bit of milk in our coffee. Perhaps the fulfillment of the act is the understanding that goes beyond a basic, materialist reading of the text and understands the 'poetry' a little more deeply.

Anonymous said...

A little research goes a long way...

seethe [siːð]
1. (intr) to boil or to foam as if boiling
2. (intr) to be in a state of extreme agitation, esp through anger
3. (tr) to soak in liquid
4. (Cookery) (tr) Archaic to cook or extract the essence of (a food) by boiling

Let us examine this a little further:

To seethe in one's own milk


To stew in one's own juices

or even,

To try to find the solutions to one's own problems without looking beyond one's own terms of reference or experience; to be narrow-minded, exclusive, prejudiced.

Really, once you start to look beyond the 'poetry', all sorts of ideas can be revealed. It just takes a little time and a great deal of understanding...

David Beeson said...

Living without from time to time is I'm sure an excellent idea - but please remember there are a lot of people who have no choice in the matter, who live without all the time - either without even basic necessities (viz Somalia) or without things that are necessities but which they see so many others enjoying but are constantly beyond their reach (viz some of the English looters).

I'm not terribly impressed with people who 'do without' milk in their coffee because of what is at best a deeply dubious interpretation of a text 3000 years old addressing nothing essential to our lives today (how often does any of us get called on to eat carrion, which is what that passage in Deuteronomy starts with?), while continuing to live in other respect a profoundly materialistic life. It feels to me that they're ritualistically giving something up that matters very little to them and that salves their consciences when it comes to being as materialistic as anyone else in the rest of their lives. You want to give something up that matters? Stop driving. Minimise your use of water. Give up meat altogether.

If religion is what would help prevent our sinking into materialism, the evidence of our world rather suggests that it's failed lamentably, wouldn't it? Everywhere we go we see the impact of religion, and our societies are no less materialistic for it. Europe is perhaps the only part of the world where religion has receded in recent decades and it doesn't seem any more materialistic than, say, the USA where religion is far more powerful.

I'm not convinced that a world without religion would be much more materialistic than the one we live in. It might however be a world without religious wars, which would be no bad thing.

On the poetry thing - yes, I'd worked out that 'seething' meant 'boiling' or 'cooking'. I'm just not convinced that using the term makes the writing any more poetic. Or more useful as a guide to life.

Dan Butter said...

I suppose one could ask how many churchgoers took part in the riots.

As to a world without war, religious wars were tiddlers compared to political ones - look at the 20th century, hard to find a religious war there, but the most destructive period in human existence. Should we ban politics too?

Aren't wars really about power and commodities? However you dress them up, we always end up fighting over the same things. Too easy to knock religion all the time, though tiresomely fashionable.

Awoogamuffin said...

Yes, courageously anonymous poster, I thinking going without can be a good thing. I, for one, spend many months resisting the desire to get on my high horse. You should try it too.

Awoogamuffin said...

"I thinking"? I should go over my comments before posting...

Anonymous said...

I salute your courage, Awoogamuffin, for identifying yourself so... clearly... er...

By the way, you may call me Anon, if you wish.

David Beeson said...

Hi Anon

You're right of course that in talking only about religious wars I was being crudely simplistic - I should have talked about wars fought over belief in general, which seem to be the cruellest. The cruelty flows from the absolute certainty of being right, and it doesn't matter whether you think you're justified by God or by some secular force, such as history (on which many Communists called) or race (for the Nazis).

In either case, the damage is done by the certainty of being right. My favourite comment on the problem comes from a man who was actually deeply religious himself and capable of being highly intolerant on occasions, but a principle isn't necessarily wrong just because the person who stated it couldn't live up to it: it's Oliver Cromwell's appeal to the Scottish Presbyterians, 'I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken'.

Yep. Things get really bad when you think you couldn't possibly be wrong, because then anything goes. Allow for the fact that you might not be right, and suddenly killing for your ideas sounds pretty silly, doesn't it?

So I suppose my objection to religious wars is really an objection to any war based on faith - the blind acceptance of something seen as true without rational basis.

Now believing that you shouldn't cook a kid in its mother's milk seems to have very little rational basis. Believing that acceptance of that principle means you can't have meat and milk on the table at the same time is doubly irrational. Fortunately, no-one kills anybody over it, so I limit myself to poking a little mild fun at its irrationality. But I insist on my right to do that, and I don't think that I'm being any the less open-minded by doing so.

You also made two statements that simply aren't true.

You suggested that religious wars had been tiddlers. You want to take a look at the 30-years war or the wars of religion in France and take account of the weapons available and the sizes of the populations at the time - they were exceedingly bloody. It took Germany probably the best part of two centuries to recover from the 30-years war. And the crusades!

And what's this about 'no religious wars' recently? The world is dominated by a constant background of religious war, sometimes intensifying, sometimes receding, and has been for years now - an undeclared, global war pitching Islam against 'Christianity' (where the quotes represent the fact that many supposedly 'Christian' countries are in fact highly secularised). That religious war absorbs a huge and utterly wasteful volume of resource and looks set to run and run...

It feels appropriate to wrap up by suggesting we speak again anon

David Beeson said...

I should say - my comment on the mistakes over religious wars past and present were addressed to Dan not to Anon - apologies for any distress I may have inadvertantly caused

Dan Butter said...

No offence taken, at least on my part.

However, I'd still take issue with your idea of 'religious war'. I didn't say recently - I said in the 20th Century, the bloodiest century in the history of humanity. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot - all driven by politics, and an avowedly anti-religious politics at that. Yes, older wars were bloody, and were it not for the lack of technology, may have been even bloodier still (though Ghengis Khan kind of outdid all those wars too, and he wasn't fighting for his faith), but after a hundred years (and more) of so much bloodshed, is it not a little lazy to go singling out religion when plenty of other factors should also be taken into account?

As to to present 'religious' wars, you really would have a hard time finding a Christian church advocating war against Islam - there may be a few fringe nutters in the states, but they in no way represent the mainstream. And the problems of the middle east are far more complex than simply religious fervour and should not be dismissed so lightly, as recent events in Egypt and elsewhere show. As you say yourself, their animosity is more against the secular west, and there are plenty of anti-capitalist rioters in western cities who bear similar grievances yet carry no 'religious' feeling whatsoever.

But there we go. I'm only trying to join in the debate. I guess the 'muffins' will now launch into their thoughtless insults and tear me to shreds. God Bless 'em!

Mark Reynolds said...

@David: I remember reading an article on a small community of Muslims who had settled in Iqualuit, in the far North. I believe their solution was to fast according to the length of the day in Mecca, which they did all year long, (after all, the flip side to summer starvation was not having to fast at all when Ramadan happens in winter). My relatives do something similar. I suspect the constant reminders of the geographic specificity of the origin of their religious practices was helpful in focusing on the aims, rather than the forms of the practice.

David Beeson said...

To Dan, I can only say that you make your points well - yes, I agree that many of the worst excesses have been caused by people who lay claim to no religion at all - and some of the better responses to them by people who on the contrary did - Florence Nightingale was motivated in part at least by strong Christianity, I believe there was religious motivation behind the foundation of the Red Cross and no doubt the Red Crescent.

It's probably more reasonable for me to argue not specifically against religious belief but against the certainty of being right, which has certainly driven many of the most awful persecutions and wars. The certainty has sometimes dressed itself in religious clothes but by no means always.

My real target is that aboslute, unbending and unreasoning conviction of being right. That lies behind some of the most terrible events in all our history, down the ages and still today.

David Beeson said...

To Mark, it took me a few seconds and a re-reading to understand what you meant by fasting 'all the year round'. But when I'd got my mind round a slightly unfortunate way of wording the idea, I agreed that it seemed an excellent idea - I've often wondered why they don't do the same thing further south, as in Britain. If there are thirteen hours of fasting in Mecca, then fast for thirteen hours here too.

Still I admire the Moslems here for doing the eighteen hours. Though mainly I feel sorry for them...

Dan Butter said...

I enjoyed the exchange and look forward to more of them. The healthiest and best thing of all is to debate without anger or cynicism. If we can agree to disagree, then at least we can agree on something.

Best to you!

Dan Butter said...

Having said that, I do agree with you on your final point.

To live by one's own convictions is a fine thing; to enforce them on others is at best inconsiderate and at worst tyrannical.