This article was originally published under the name Chris Duggan in the Guardian newspaper’s Face to Faith column in June 2007.
These days in the Church of England, “let us pray” usually means “sit down”, whereas a Roman Catholic congregation will take this as an invitation to stand up. This is a trivial example of a favourite pastime of mine: translating words and concepts between religions. Mahmoud Ayoub, a Muslim scholar with a deep knowledge of Christianity, once drew a parallel between the Prophet Muhammad and the Virgin Mary: the prophet brought the Qur’an into the world, and the Qur’an can be seen as the incarnate word of God. It’s much more than a sacred text: its written and spoken Arabic form embody its meaning, and any translation is seen merely as a commentary on the original. Reciting the daily prayers taken from it, with the appropriate movements, could be compared to taking holy communion.
The comparison may offend some Muslims and Christians, and history is stuffed with battles fought over creeds and single texts, even over single words such as filioque (“and from the son”) in the western Christian creed – does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son? Few now even understand the terms of the debate, let alone the passions it engendered.
In a world dominated by Middle East conflicts, it is more urgent than ever that words and creeds emerge from the trenches and dare to divest themselves of the armour that is designed to shore up a reassuring sense of identity, under the guise of religious faith. This process has always been a central concern of the mystical tradition of all the world religions: those who penetrate to the heart of their faith invite their coreligionists to go beyond words and concepts to a level of experience that escapes definition.
It is at this point that the dialogue with atheism and agnosticism begins. Ibn Arabi, a hugely important thinker from medieval Andalusia, where Christian, Jewish and Muslim ideas freely cross-fertilised, preferred al-Haq to any of the other 99 names of God in the Islamic tradition. If this is translated as “the Truth”, it sounds like a metaphysical entity. If it is translated as “the Real”, or just “reality”, transcendence is brought down to earth, where it belongs.
This can spark a train of thought about just what we mean by God, and whether all that believers attach to that loaded word is really the preserve of theism. Is it too much to argue that to speak of God is idolatrous? To avoid the word completely may be impractical for believers, but to hesitate to name what is beyond words is a good discipline. The Jews have long insisted that the letters YHWH that denote God should not be pronounced. I find substituting the word “life” for “God” in religious texts very illuminating.
It is tempting to think that the mystic’s “cloud of unknowing” is some transcendental, floaty experience that has nothing to do with the unknowing of the agnostic. And yet the position of the atheist or the agnostic, rejecting any notion of God as a concept that can be defined, has much to teach religious people who think they have the source of everything sussed. So does the inquiring scepticism of a scientist approaching nature with an open mind.
Ibn Arabi is not popular with fundamentalist Muslims, but fundamentalism may be another religion we need to translate from. What are we to make of fundamentalism finding security in its certainty that the opposing camp is wrong? Is there a non-pejorative word for that in the language of pluralism?
An image stays in my mind of Richard Dawkins, a high priest of fundamentalist atheism, in his documentary The Root of All Evil? He could have been a sixth-century Celtic monk as he flung his arms wide in a wilderness to bear witness to what some might call the glory of creation. Do we dare translate “Creator God” to “the big bang” or “evolution” and back again, to see what might be lost – or found – in translation?
© Chris Fewings 2007