A Dream for the Season – The God of Big Things
I woke up the other morning to the sound of voices arguing over the nature of divinity. Not something I normally do. But it’s Christmas, and I’m conscious of the message of faith struggling to make itself heard through the noise of rattling tills and jingling bells.
I’d been thinking about rockets raining down once more on Gaza. Of explosions, screaming children and righteous justifications. Of the Pope’s condemnation of the Curia, the Vatican’s civil service, as suffering from “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”, “Feeling immortal or immune”, “Suffering from existential schizophrenia”, “Committing terrorism of gossip” and “Becoming spiritually and mentally hardened”.
I’d been reading about the religious scholar in Saudi Arabia who had the audacity to question the origin of the requirement for women to wear the face veil. To back up his assertion that the practice is cultural rather than ordained by God, he appeared on TV accompanied by his wife, duly uncovered. The sheikh’s beliefs were greeted with a chorus of disapproval, and even death threats.
In my half-awake state, I imagined a giant debating platform like a floating Rubik’s cube. No matter how you rearranged the squares on each face of the cube, the same squares would be there in different combinations: full of Muslims, Christians, Jews, doubters, atheists – believers and sceptics of all stripes. All seemed to be talking at the same time. None of them listening.
The occupants of a red square were arguing about the face veils. “The idea”, they said, “that God, the all-seeing and all-knowing, busy as He is creating and destroying galaxies and universes, would be remotely concerned over whether the females of one species on one planet out of the trillion He has created should cover approximately eight square inches of their anatomy with a piece of cloth – but only under certain circumstances – is fanciful, to say the least.”
“God’s universal attention is entirely logical”, came the reply from a green square. “He is everywhere, so why would He not be concerned at the behaviour of each and every creature he has created, which is why he has sent prophets to us on order to relay His word?”
“In which case”, replied someone from a yellow square, “His word is being pretty widely ignored on this particular cosmic truck-stop. So tell us – are the billions of women who show their faces and bodies to the world condemned to that other universe He created, known to us as Hell? And what about people who have eaten and drunk prohibited things over the ages? Are they all roasting away in the other place?!”
To which the believer in the green square answered that only God will determine the punishment due to those who break His laws. “We, his creatures, can only warn of the risk you run when you disobey Him. And where He has mandated us to punish on His behalf here on earth, so you will be punished – if we can get our hands on you.”
“OK,” came a shout from a white square, “so tell me why He waited billions of years to create a species intelligent enough to understand His word? Or did the dinosaurs, the birds, the termites and the sabre-toothed tigers receive instructions from prophets of their own species that they could understand and follow? By what holy book do elephants, sharks and hyenas live their lives? And why don’t chimpanzees circumcise their male offspring?”
“Those are dumb questions,” a voice cried from a black square. “A billion years and a single second are one and the same to the Creator. So he didn’t wait a billion years as we understand them. And anyway, He created our world in a week eight thousand years ago. And all the evidence to the contrary – the dinosaur bones, the carbon dating, the 40,000-year-old cave paintings – is an illusion designed to test our faith.”
“For what purpose?” came a question from the yellow square. “Why would our faith need to be tested? If it was so obvious that a woman is worth half a man, that religious rituals must be observed without exception, that non-believers and apostates should be killed, why aren’t we all following God’s ordinances?”
By now I could no longer tell from which square the words were coming. Arguments seemed to be raging from every direction.
“Well that would be too easy. Man was put on earth to prove his worth, and to make it all the more difficult God sent Satan amongst us to sow doubt and discord. Going to Heaven is a reward, not a right. You have to earn it. Otherwise what’s the point of our existence?”
“So life is an obstacle course? And all those children killed in Peshawar get a free ticket because they haven’t even started the serious hurdles. And the suicide bombers, the preachers of hate, the oppressors of others in the name of religion get to go to Heaven? For what? To blow up the sinners there? Of course not, I forgot – there are no sinners in Heaven. So presumably there are no rules, because with no sinners there don’t need to be any.”
“It’s not for us to speculate on Heaven. Nor should we try to second-guess God’s plan for us. Just be aware that He sees everything we do, and on the Day of Judgement your sins are weighed against your good works, and on the outcome depends your ultimate destination. So follow his ordinances, and if you fail to do so, repent, and hope for his abundant forgiveness.”
“Then kindly enlighten us on this point. There seem to be plenty of good people who live by lots of different creeds. What happens to them? And what about the animals? Are you saying that there is only one way to Heaven? And for only one species? And for only one set of believers?”
“That’s exactly what we’re saying. There are no variants of belief. Only believers like us, or non-believers. If you do not believe, you will be left floundering in the darkness at the end of days, which, by the way, is due any time now.”
And so the arguments went on – an increasing babble of ever more extreme positions, accusations of superstition, sacrilege, blasphemy, bigotry and intolerance, until suddenly there was a clap of thunder, followed by a terrifying roar.
“What is this Tower of Babel you have built, in which everyone speaks the same language, and yet none of you understand each other?
Do you think it pleases me to see you standing there arguing about rules, about the nature of the universe and about why your belief is superior to others?
Do you believe it pleases me to see you going about your observances dressed in your comfortable clothes, with your fat bellies, your fast cars and your well-furnished homes?
Do you think it pleases me that you seem content with your lives of comfort when beggars sit in the streets, when your brothers murder innocents in my name, when you treat those who don’t share your beliefs as lesser beings, when you live on the fruits of exploitation, of human trafficking and slavery?
Do you think your observances are more important to me than your cruelty to others, your lack of compassion, your lies, your lack of tolerance, mercy and forgiveness?
Do you think I sent Moses to destroy the Golden Calf, Jesus against the Pharisees of Jerusalem and Mohammed against the idolaters of Mecca so that you can worship at the altar of material things, while at the same time you argue about the correct observance of a thousand rituals as though your salvation depends on them?
And you, the doubters and the unbelievers, are you so arrogant as to admit no reality beyond your experience? Do you really think it matters when the earth was created and who created it? Do you really believe that there is no mystery that science cannot solve? Are your minds so closed that you can’t see the unexplainable all around you? Are you proud when your discoveries lead to the extinction of species and threaten life itself on this beautiful planet?
I am not here to reward or punish you. You achieve those things by your own actions. I gave you life. I gave you guidance for life that you have interpreted as commandments and turned into laws. You and the generations before you have twisted my words to justify your lives of comfort and privilege. You ignore what is important because to do what is important is hard. You pay attention to trivia because the small things are easy.
I will not speak to you again. Go away and think about what is important. Not about what others should do or not do, but about what you should do. And when the time comes for judgement, be prepared to pass judgement on yourselves. For I am in you and you are in me. We are one and the same. Yet I am everywhere. When you harm others, you harm yourselves. When you harm the air, the mountains, the seas and all the things that live in them, you harm yourselves. When you harm yourselves, you harm me.
So think, and act accordingly. This is my only guidance.”
By now the voice had become still and small. The arguing rabble melted into shadows. The squares on the cube turned grey and gradually faded away. In their place was a mosaic of a thousand vistas. Of the past, the present and the future, each coming into focus as I set my eyes upon them. Each was different. Some were too painful to linger on. Others were painful to leave. And as I moved from one to another, each successive landscape became less clear, more mysterious, increasingly beyond my comprehension.
I lay transfixed in my conscious twilight, trying to make sense of what I had seen. Then it came to me. I got the message.
But you know how it is when you wake from a dream. What seems vivid, real and logical to the dreamer revels itself to be – just a dream, to be filed away in the archives of the unconscious.
But dream or not, perhaps the purpose of the whole experience was to give me my resolution for 2015.
Don’t just talk. Do. And in doing try harder to make the world a better place. Not very specific, I know. But at least it’s a start.