Why Do Holy Books Cause Holy Wars?

So much international conflict surrounds the sacred scriptures of three major religions of the world; I think it is important to understand some of the significant similarities as well as important differences. Today I’d like to compare three holy books; the Quran, the Islamic bible, the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, the sacred Jewish scriptures we call the Old Testament, and the Gospels and Letters, the New Testament. Don’t worry; we won’t be comparing these Holy Scriptures to decide which is better. We'll try to understand why reading them superficially can cause war.

The Quran is the Holy Book of the Muslims.
It is so holy to them, that any translation from the Arabic is considered inauthentic. Children study it in Arabic in madrassa worldwide, and the memorization of the suras is a holy commandment for Moslems. The Quran has much in common with the Old Testament, and many things in common with the New Testament. Throughout history all three Holy Books have been used in unintended ways, as well as for the purposes for which they have been handed down. The same three books that inspire saints, monks, holy men, Sufis and healers have been used by people whom we call fanatics or fundamentalists to frighten, control, injure, dispossess, terrorize and murder others.

Today I’d like to open up a discussion of how this is possible; how can reasonable people be motivated to such radically different purposes from the same Holy Scriptures? To do this we need to go back to an understanding of language, of the meanings and understanding of words. For all three belief-systems The Word is very special. For Jews, The Word of God spoke all into creation. For Christians, Jesus is identified as The Word. For Muslims, the Quran itself is The Word. And as important as understanding the role of words and language in human thought, we need to think about how human beings have developed in our understanding of complexity over the millennia.

For example, imagine discussing particle physics with a 12th Century Venetian businessman. Or how would you explain the space-time continuum to a 14th Century Spanish priest. Or, imagine describing traveling to the moon to Lorenzo Di’ Medici. Even Albert Einstein was laughed at or ignored by most European and American scientists for years. The fact is we need time and familiarity to prepare us to accept new and deeper levels of understanding. Our mental and cultural ground has to be slowly plowed and harrowed before new ideas can be understood. It takes step-by-step developments in language, culture and science to prepare us for future developments. We human beings cannot arrive cold at an understanding of new phenomena. Each discovery, as it percolates through the culture, opens our minds a little more, and prepares us for the next advance.

Maybe it’s just the exotic and strange becomes more familiar with time and discussion. Maybe each piece of new language, new concepts, prepares us for the next level of advancement. Maybe our brains develop more neural connections as we struggle with more complex ideas. I don’t know how it works, but you have to agree it is very difficult to jump too far too fast. In a similar way, mankind as a whole cannot move from the words and language of kindergarten to the words and language of graduate school without interim steps. And only a few thousand years ago, we were all in kindergarten. So, what has this got to do with Holy Scripture?

Scripture was our first teacher. And an amazing teacher! Scripture met us in kindergarten and began our education. And, without a jot or tittle changed, the Holy Books continue to teach us today. How can scripture do this? How can scripture introduce us to new ideas, deeper ideas, more complex ideas that open our minds, change our hearts and deepen our understanding of what it is to be and think like a human being?

Here is what I think about how scripture instructs us in new ideas even before there are words to describe these ideas: Scriptures deepen our understanding by teaching us new concepts, new ways of reflecting. Scripture opens up our brains to deeper, more complex ideas than simple pleasure and survival. We are used to thinking of scriptures as moral teaching, as the revealed word of the divine. And, yes, scripture is that. But scripture teaches more than morality. Before words are coined that refer to deeper perspective on the world around us and the world within us, scripture introduces us to those new ways of thinking and conceiving ideas. For example, without the words, "Unconscious, Sub-Conscious, Thanatos, Death Instinct, Interior reflection, Internal enemies" we could not conceive of or begin to deal with these inner realities. We would continue as unwitting servants of our inner forces. Words are important. Without language framing and referring to an idea, the idea is too fuzzy or abstract for us to understand or cope with. But, where do the words come from? How does humanity advance in depth and complexity?

Here is an example. When we talked this spring, we discussed the book of Psalms, with those curious “parallel” or “double-speak” phrases. We noted how, not just Psalms, but all through the Original Testament, the Old Testament, everything is said twice. One book called Deuteronomy, which means “the second time.” In it the Law is repeated: the Law is read a second time. Let me remind you of Parallelism.

There are two versions of Creation: creation in Genesis 1 is told again slightly differently in Genesis 3. We are shown pairs of two brothers with entwined lives: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau are entwined pairs of brothers. There are two great Exiles from Israel and Judah: Two Temples in Jerusalem, two Pillars of the Temple, Two Kingdoms - Israel and Judah to the South. The Godhead is spoken of in two parts: God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

Statements are doubled; lessons are repeated with slightly different words: even within the same sentence linked by a colon. Many books have been written exploring this technique. But I believe Parallelism is more than a literary technique; Parallelism is used all through the Old Testament as a teaching method.

Last time we talked about Psalms in particular. We talked of how parallelism introduced humanity to the idea that there was more to life than what appeared on the surface to our eyes and ears. The repetition, the parallelism; the same thing said slightly differently from a slightly different angle is for more than style reasons. Nothing is accidental in the Bible. Parallelism leads us to reflect on what else this might mean, the reflective level. The parallel repetition is designed to cause the reader to reflect on what else is going on: what is going on inside himself. Parallelism teaches there is an addition to the outer world, an inner world, an inner life, a life of reflection, of thoughts and even enemies existing within each person – as well as in the world around us. This was a pretty new idea back then, 2,500 years before Freud. Today, we have words for this interior struggle. But, oh, the wisdom of the Word of scripture that opens us up to understand a parallel world within.

This was a new idea to humanity 2,500 years ago. We were primitive. Language, words, only referred to objects and actions visible on the surface – tree, rock, sand, water, heat, eat, drink, love, enemy, plant, live, die. The Word of scripture opened up a primitive people’s minds to the concept there was an interior life, an internal world of the mind of internal struggles and fears. Thoughts we repress, that don’t fully appear in our conscious minds, yet impel us and drive us. This “double speak” is one of the great secrets of the Old Testament. It awakened the primitive human mind to new concepts of reality. And mankind is still struggling with this lesson even today.

Today we want to explore the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible uses doubles: the Greek Gospel uses triples. The Holy Family is three. There are three synoptic gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke. Parables are grouped in threes. There are linkages of three sayings or parables for meaning. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say I am.” Three times Jesus orders Peter to feed his sheep, his lambs and his sheep. Three times Peter denies Jesus. On the Mount of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah who represent the Law and the Prophets of the Original Testament, are joined by the Son – making three. And of course, the Godhead is now revealed as trinity, three: Father and Holy Spirit as before, but now also revealed in the Son. The two become three.

What’s the hidden meaning? Why Two in the Old Testament and Three in the New Testament? We remember the Old Testament secret: In the Old Testament, the first statement is dealing with the exterior world, with what’s going on around us. The story, the narrative of what is actually happening with people and places. This is all true and you can take it as historical fact. The New Testament adds a third level.

The Threes of the New Testament
The New Testament has something similar to “double speak”, but something new - "three speak." Why three? Yes, trinity. The Father and Holy Spirit as in the Old Testament, and now the Son. Why three of everything? Here is a possible explanation: In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, the purpose of Parallelism was to wake us up to something new despite the primitive limits of language of the time. We didn’t have words to explain or even acknowledge the interior, reflective life of humans. God wanted to lead us to develop an understanding of the world inside us as well as the world around us. The inspired writers of the Old Testament used these literary techniques as a way to open us up to the complexity of the “inside of us” mental life. Now we sort of understand these multiple dimensions in humans as the conscious, the pre-conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious. We are still trying to clearly understand it, but we know it is real – and important.

In the New Testament, the purpose of “Threes” may be similar, but the purpose goes farther. The reason for three is quite possibly to lead us to reflect on not just the internal world and the external world, but on another sphere, a divine or spiritual reality, a world above and apart yet connected in some mysterious but powerful way to the physical world we see, and to the internal world of our thoughts and deepest feelings and longings.

This spiritual reality is difficult to understand without language, words, concepts that make it understandable. And, we still don’t really have that clarity of language and idea. We speak of Heaven, and The World Above, The Great Cloud of Witnesses - the Saints around us. But we really can’t explain what that means. Certainly we cannot in scientific or physical terms. Perhaps we today need the parables and the agricultural allusions and the story-telling techniques as much as humans living 2,000 years ago needed these parables.

John the Baptist in Matthew 3 tells us, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And Jesus himself, in Matthew 4 tells us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” A third time, Jesus teaches in Luke 17, "For behold, the kingdom of God is among you." What do you think they meant by this? That the kingdom of heaven is a future thing? You’ll see it only after death? Maybe not. When Paul in 2 Corinthians tells us of being caught up to the third heaven, he says, “Whether it was in the body or out of the body, I know not.” Paul was telling us that this heaven is not a future place. It is a here and now place.

We don’t have language or words or concepts to describe how the kingdom of heaven can exist today, around us, in us, only in a dimension our ordinary senses can’t begin to see or capture. I believe the triple structure of the gospels is designed to awaken us to the possibility of the reality of strange and wonderful things our ordinary eyes can’t see. The way the Old Testament awakened primitive humanity to the reality of an interior world, I believe the New Testament is aimed at awakening humanity to the reality of a super-world co-existing with our ordinary world stuck in time and space. Faith, of course, is the way to prepare us to enter this world – in this time as well as the next. But, there is no point in my trying to invent words to describe this reality. The New Testament does a much better job.

Now let’s look at the Quran. The Quran in many ways has similarities to the Old Testament. When it was written, in about 600 AD, the language of the Arab world was a simple language. There were words for clouds, mountains, desert, heat, enemies, food, water, and shelter – in addition to many florid adjectives. But, like the language of the Hebrews a thousand years earlier, there were no concepts for the inner life, the internal struggles and fears and battles humans are called to fight. The Quran is a brilliant book. It has inspired great faith among millions and for many, like the Sufis, the Dervish and other Islamic mystics, The Quran has opened up a deep inner life of contemplation.

So we can ask the simple question, “How can the book that inspires the poetry and contemplative prayer of Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, also inspire Sunnis to kill Shiia’s, and Moslems to kill Christians. The question is: why is The Quran used by so many as justification, even a call to physically fight against others, to terrorize and intimidate, to kill, to cause suicides? Here is some food for thought: Perhaps like over-simplistic, overly fundamentalist literal and superficial views of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the Quran is subject to the same literalist, overly simplistic, surface interpretations. The language of Arabia in the Sixth Century resembled the “object-oriented” language of the Hebrews of 1500 BC. The Sufis understand the Quran to refer to the enemies and infidels within the person. This is the personal hajj and holy war every Muslim is called to wage. Not to slaughter others in order to bring them into submission.

Failure to understand the deeper meaning of the calls to battle leads well-intentioned believers to wage war against the wrong enemy. Rather than addressing the interior enemies, our lack of faith, our skepticism, our internal drives to self-destruct, simplistic reading of scriptures can lead believers to turn outward, and find others to attack. Psychologists call this "projection". Without an understanding of the deeper meaning of the warnings and calls to action, we have a powerful tendency to turn the battle outward. It's easier to name an external enemy and go to war with "the other", than it is to look at the devils holding you prisoner inside yourself.

And is this spiritual militancy so different from the simplistic interpretations of Jewish and Christian scriptures - which have been twisted to call for crusades and triumphalist versions of Christianity that Jesus would have wept to see? So, before condemning the misuse of the Quran by Islamic fundamentalists and legalists, consider the beam in our own eyes.

Skaneateles theologian Gustav Niebuhr, in the preface of his provocative recent book, Beyond Tolerance writes, Religion itself is often conflated with a spiritual militancy (conservatism is not the right word). Niebuhr later quotes the Dalai Lama, When you discover the deeper value of your own tradition through actual practice, you will come to recognize the value of other traditions as well.

Let’s each of us struggle to expand our thinking to embrace the deeper truth of the peace of Christ, rather than a vision of armies marching for Jesus. Let’s each of us try our best to grow as deep, complex human beings. Let's wage war against our own internal enemies. And maybe then, our mature example will help others see the deeper and higher truths on the pages of their own Holy Scriptures.

And now it’s time for your comments and questions…