There is a problem in religion and it can be summed up perhaps quite well in one of these humorous children’s stories which sometimes have a good point to them. A man with a very bad temper died and his little nephew was told that “Uncle Tom has gone to heaven”. So he said, “Is he shouting at the angels?” His parents said, “No, dear. No. Uncle Tom’s … smiling now. He’s going round and he’s in heaven. Think of him like that”. A little time later the mother said, “You think of Uncle Tom now, don’t you, like that?” And he said, “Well I try – always smiling – but it’s not Uncle Tom”.
Now this is the problem. What is it that worships? What is it that’s going to heaven or hell? “Am I going to heaven with all my faults?” “Oh well, no. Some of them will be less. Perhaps all of them will be wiped out.” “Well then, what will distinguish me, if I’m a perfect soul, from all the other perfect souls?” One teacher gives this example [writing on the blackboard]. Supposing [I write] this ‘I’. Well, other people would write their ‘I’ [differently], and then others would write it sort of more carelessly, and others more carelessly still. It’s still recognisably ‘I’. But if all the faults are removed, all the carelessness is removed, then it’ll just be [like the original ‘I’]. And he says this is why all the descriptions of heaven are so boring – because they can’t think of anything. Hell is interesting. Things are going on there, people are all different. But in heaven they’re all perfect and they’ve all got these long robes. Well, the kids used to look through father’s Doré illustrations of the bible. Hell was interesting, even purgatory; but in heaven it was all robes and nothing happening – a few harps around, but you’d soon get tired of those.
What is it that’s going to heaven, that’s going to be blessed? And our problem is, ‘Am I going with all my faults, or are my faults going to be corrected? And if my faults are corrected, what will it be?’ It’s been pointed out by a critic, whom I’d better not name, that Shakespeare couldn’t create a saint. Everything else he could create. And it’s a Tolstoy remark that in all novels the villains are much more interesting than the good people, because the author understands about villains, as we all do. He doesn’t understand about good people. So the heart of religion comes down that we have indications of a ‘Here Am I’ from the beyond, which come in inspiration in our lives and in blessing in our lives, when we follow, to some extent, the religious path. But the problem is the Self, the soul, what is that?
Now I thought I would take the examples mostly, as I said, from Islam, because it doesn’t have associations and might be new to you. Something is trying to express itself to our limited condition, understanding and being, through the great religious traditions. Not only of course in the writings, but something’s trying to express that there’s a difficulty. A rabbi gave a talk some time back and he said that when he was young he’d held onto this phrase, ‘Though he tally, I will wait for him’. And he said what an inspiration that had been to him when he was young. ‘However long he delays, I will wait for him – longer!’ Then he said, “I’m sixty now, and I still say it but it’s worn a little bit thin”. And we have a medieval proverb: ‘Young saint. Old sinner’. He’s very devout and earnest when he’s young, because he has this great hope. Then [that hope] thins out and, finally, he turns against it. Another example: in these great religious traditions we can see there is the formal statement of the Lord, the Judge, the Father of the Universe and also sometimes the Mother of the Universe – compassionate, but also strict. But there’s something else which begins to express itself and then in many [traditions] (the examples I’m giving are from Islam), something else comes through and is expressed and then has to be put back into the official position.
For instance, David is regarded as a prophet in Islam and in one of the accounts of him he’s asked to give judgement in a case. Two litigants come before him. They are quarrelling, and David who’s famous for his justice sets himself down to hear the case. Then an ecstasy begins to come over him and he says, “Two men, quarrelling. Yes, I see them. But God is everywhere. What am I seeing? A war between two fingers of God. How can I judge?” He begins to speak and then, in the classic it says, somebody pulled his sleeve and said, “Oh great prophet, I have not the least doubt of His unity”. Then David comes to himself. He says, “Now, yes. Present the arguments on each side and I’ll give judgement.” So something begins to come. There’s a change. A war between two fingers of God and then he’s pulled back and he gives judgement on this basis. The reason is that human beings, as we stand, will not be able to live on this basis, or we think we can’t live on this basis.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Hearts of Religion
Part 2: There is a problem in religion
Part 3: Bayazid, the Sufi mystic
Part 5: Keep on keeping on