Sunday, December 25, 2011

So this is Christmas

This bit of doggerel was written twelve years ago in the Bingara Caravan Park, in between enthusiastic scribbling of a fantasy novel that was ultimately doomed by my foolish resolution to fill a a 320 page notebook with handwritten first draft before putting fingers to keyboard. In 2004 I baldly inflicted this poem-like-object on you: this Christmas I want to give a more extended autobiographical gloss.

In that last week of the 1900s - I am too pedantic to say 'of the 20th century' - we were on holiday visiting relatives, but we lived in a predominantly Arabic suburb of Sydney. We had moved there about six months before and I was still in the first flush of finding it particularly splendid, a feeling that never really abated. I loved hearing Arabic pop music in the street, trying to make out Arabic street signs and Arabic graffiti, buying rosewater and pistachios at the corner shop, and seeing people going by whose clothes indicated to the world that they believed in something.

In 1999, as well as living next door to an Arabic video shop and eating manaqish za'atar at least once a week, I was both trying very hard to believe the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and spending a lot of time talking with a Baha'i friend.

Central to the Baha'i faith is the idea of progressive revelation. There have been a number of Prophets, each appointed by God for a particular time, and the torch of revelation is metaphorically passed from one to the other through the millennia.* An obvious question I asked my Baha'i friend was: If revelation is progressive, how is the revelation of Muhammad superior to the revelation of 'Isa?

Since I ask questions not (usually) just to stir up trouble but because I want to know the answers, I had already come up with an answer that satisfied me before I asked the question.

The Gospels are pretty much in agreement with Margaret Thatcher's famous observation 'there is no such thing as society'. They are addressed to individuals as individuals and contain no plan for how society might be ordered in a more Godly fashion. If everyone lived according to the literal precepts of the Gospels, society would collapse into chaos. Something like this can be seen from the history of some of the more Anabaptist-infected corners of Europe in the early years of the 'Reformation'.**

Nearly 1300 years of painful experimentation elapsed between the Crucifixion and Dante's De Monarchia. While I am a great admirer of the ideal of Christendom, the articulation of Christendom as a social and political system was a very long time coming, and it was never implemented to the extent that the Chesterbelloc would have us believe.

On the other hand, Islam is an appeal to a community, not to individuals. It is a plan for building a more Godly society. This plan was immediately implemented with significant success. Despite all the other points of difference where the Gospels seem to be in advance of the Qur'an as a revelation, it can be argued that this one difference outweighs them all, particularly in times and places where Christianity has signally failed to establish a Godly society.

The poem-like object draws a parallel between two cases where the emphasis of Christianity on the individual has resulted in a dysfunctional society and this superiority of Islam over Christianity could be argued.

In the pre-Christendom Roman Empire of the East, living as directed in the Gospels was institutionalised as the monastic movement. Huge numbers of people chose this way of life, concerned for their salvation as individuals. Unlike the later monastic establishments of Western Europe, these early monks and nuns engaged in little economic activity and were essentially parasitic on the rest of society. The most able intellects were diverted into futile theological disputes and we now remember those centuries mostly for their incessant religious discord. Then the Muslims came and conquered the better half of the empire.

In the post-Christendom West, the evangelical sects emanating from the rebel colonies are similar to the monks of the byzantine Near East in their obsession with individual salvation and their propensity to theological hairsplitting and discord. Like the monks of Egypt, they have been ineffective in ordering wider society on a more Godly basis. Society has become as decadent and genocidal as the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

So then, this sincere doggerel written twelve years ago at the flood of the theoconservative tide in my soul.*** If we cannot have Christendom, if we are too pathetic and divided for that, it is better that we have Dar-al-Islam than go on the way were are going. 

* Not that I think this analogy is helpful, see: 'Why I am not a Baha'i'. 

** Note Prod-baiting scare quotes on 'Reformation' in a transparent attempt to goad Nato into commenting if he ever drops by.

*** But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

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