The name of Mohsen Amir-Aslani probably doesn’t mean anything to you. He was executed recently, aged 37, in Iran where he’d been imprisoned for the last nine years. He’d been leading sessions reading and interpreting the Qur’an but had been found guilty of heresy and insulting the prophet Jonah. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale - rather than as the Iranian religious authorities required, a literal account of a man who’d spent three days in the belly of a giant fish.
I share this event with you in sorrow rather than anger, not in the spirit of a polemic against the wickedness of Iran, or the intolerance of Islamists – there’s a noxious superabundance of that kind of rhetoric as it is. But my sadness is not only because of the needless death of one more human being in the name of so-called ‘religion’, but because of what it tells us – as if we didn’t know – of the dangers involved in reading religious texts the wrong way. What do I mean by ‘the wrong way’?
If you are dong heart surgery, or defusing a bomb, there are manuals filled with very precise details of what you need to do so as not to kill the patient, or blow yourself up. Although there is a human element in both procedures - you can do both carefully or carelessly and the results might be very different - there is no doubting that the words on the page detailing how you are supposed to proceed have to be understood literally and followed to the letter if things are to go well. Interpretation, improvisation, around the text is not forbidden – but it’s not advisable if you want things to go smoothly, because those are texts which are written, and ask to be read, with precise attention given to the plain meaning of the words. There are right and wrong ways of reading how to proceed in an operating theatre or while dealing with an unexploded bomb.
We know that much blood though has been spilled, over the centuries, by those who believed that religious texts, religious narratives, had to be read as if they were life-and-death instruction manuals. The belief that they were - and that you had to read them as if they were - is part of the tragic history of all the monotheistic faiths. ‘I believe that this book contains the truth because my religion tells me it is so; my religion tells me that it is so because it has a book that says it contains God’s truth’ – this is the circular logic of fundamentalist thinking and it’s a virus that has infected, and continues to infect in various ways, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
When Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition in 1633, accused of heresy because he was arguing for the Copernican view that the earth moved around the sun – that the earth was not the central celestial body around which everything revolved – one of the texts used against him was from the Biblical Book of Joshua, which contains a narrative where the sun is ordered to stand still. In the sacred logic of the Inquisition, you’d only command something to stand still if it has been moving. Therefore the sun must move round the earth, not the other way about. That had to be true because the Bible is a holy book that only contains the truth and Galileo’s heresy is clear when he arrives at a view of the world contrary to what is inscribed in scripture.
That the Bible contains elements of storytelling that draw on Middle Eastern myth and legend, as well as wordplay, puns and all the ingenious literary inventiveness of their human authors, was a heresy in Christianity at that time, as it still is in certain strands of Christian thinkin; as it still is in many strands of Islamic thinking; and is even the case in specific parts of the Jewish world to this day. The Jewish fundamentalists on the West Bank stake their claim to Palestinian land on their reading of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah states that God gave the land to the Israelite people and their descendents for ever – and although the boundaries of the land vary from text to text in different books of the Bible, such contradictions are irrelevant to a world view that is not all that different from those Iranian so-called ‘religious authorities’ – that the texts are divinely given, and they are true in a literal manner.
And even though literal interpretations of the Bible were always in Judaism played off against allegorical readings and homiletical readings, and mystical readings, even though the plain meaning of texts was always only one of four different parallel modes of reading and interpreting that all texts inspired - a way of thinking about texts that made the narrowing down of texts to only one meaning theoretically impossible – in spite of all this richness of what the tradition calls ‘midrash’, this midrashic imagination in relation to texts as vehicles capable of multiple meanings seems quite absent from Jewish fundamentalist discourse about the land of Israel: the boundaries of that land and who should live there. This is a betrayal of Jewish thinking - not the first time in Jewish history it’s happened, but the latest incarnation of it and the one with the most harmful and destructive consequences attached to it: for the Palestinians in their daily lives; and for the Jewish people in multiple ways, not least the integrity of their soul.
Baruch Spinoza was, famously, excommunicated by the Amsterdam elders of his Sephardic community for teaching that God was identical with and equivalent to the order which governs the universe. He wrote about “God, or Nature”, and held that God was not transcendent, over and above humanity, but that God was a principle of law, the sum of all the eternal laws in existence; that God was inherent and imminent in all things, material and spiritual; and that intuition and spontaneous knowledge reveals the presence of God more than the acquisition of facts. In developing this way of thinking about Judaism he was giving a philosophical language and framework to what Jewish mystics had been teaching for centuries, a religion of radical immanence. But out of the mouth of, and the pen of, this young man, this outsider – he was of Portuguese descent – it was too much for the religious authorities of the day to accept.
But this excommunication was his liberation. He was free then to think his own thoughts and he developed ways of thinking objectively about the Bible – about its historical background and its use of literary genres – that opened up a whole new historical-critical approach that fed into the Enlightenment critique of dogmatic religion based on inerrant holy texts. He made it possible for us to think about ways in which religious texts contain truths which are psychologically rich, morally true - or morally complex - to think about the symbolism of texts, to use texts creatively, imaginatively, not for their eternal claims to truth but as ways of helping us toward more life-enhancing ways of living rather than ways of living that are imaginatively impoverished, or intellectually reductive.
So we can read this week’s Torah narrative of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9) as a parable about human omnipotence and presumption – about the urge to have bigger and better, and the limitations of this way of thinking. Or we can read it as a parable about the problematic nature of having only one dominant language - whether it the language of fascism, or communism, or neo-liberalism: God looks down and says, as it were, ‘when everyone is united in one way of speaking or thinking there’s trouble ahead’. Mono-dimensional thinking breads fanaticism. The way forward is through multiplicity – many languages, many ways of thinking: pluralism. Babel, like Jonah, are mythic narratives: if they have truth in them it is not the truth of literalism but the truth of the imagination.
How often it is that it’s the so-called heretic, the outsider, who comes along and shakes up the tradition into new and interesting shapes, who liberates a religion’s imagination when it gets stuck, as it does – that’s what the Baal Shem Tov did in eastern Europe a hundred years after Spinoza, when he started that religious revivalist movement known as Hasidism (and he had probably never heard of Spinoza). That energy from the outside has stirred up Jewish thinking over and over again, often resisted by the powers-that-be (Hasidic leaders were often banned from preaching by their Mitnagdim opponents well into the 19th century). So, to adapt a phrase, blessed are the troublemakers, new interpreters, language players – they keep religion alive, fresh, on its toes. Blessed are the myth-rakers, myth-makers, risk-takers – they keep religion from going stale. They keep us honest.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on October 25th 2014. Some ideas in this sermon are indebted to Alan Wall, who shared with me a text of his entitled 'Bad Reading Habits'; texts also consulted include Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God' and 'The Bible: the Biography'.]