Monday, April 24, 2006

Fatwahs and immaculate conceptions

Given how religions are based on The Truth, it’s surprising how coy their élites can be about the nature of that Truth. When The Guardian reported the Judas Gospel story it emphasised the populist bit, that Iscariot the bad guy might have been the good guy after all, because he was acting on the boss’s orders. But though it mentioned Christ’s crucial quote, “For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me,” it didn’t explain its appalling heresy for Christians who believe in the Nicene Creed. That is to say, “the man that clothes me” means that Jesus, if we are to take what He says as fact, was not a man, but a god disguised in the flesh of a man. His words would give credence to what some say they saw after the crucifixion, the spirit of Christ hovering above the cross, laughing at all the idiot humans gathered round its base who thought that He was dead.
The enormity of this revelation is not so great now that Christians understand how theology can only be an embarassment in the modern world, but in the three hundred and twenty five years following Christ’s death huge numbers of people made war on, tortured and burnt huge numbers of other people in a squabble over just this fundamental heresy, and Jesus’s manhood was not fully established (in the eyes of most believers at least) until 325 AD.
Likewise, of more recent significance, some twat has resurrected the Salman Rushdie fatwah. And what was that about? Well, those who shape Muslim thought are quite happy for the unlettered rank and file of fellow believers, operating at about the intellectual level of The Sun, to think that Rushdie’s crime against the Prophet in The Satanic Verses was to say that he went with loose women. Heavens above - how many great male figures of all religions didn’t go with loose women at one time or another? The whole Greek pantheon, for a start, give or take the gender specificity of the term “woman”; Gautama, Saints Antony, Augustine... Paul - even JC himself according to the films, which know as much about it as anybody does.
Though one cannot expect the followers of Islam to agree that their Prophet was in good company in this respect, nobody is pretending he was a cold and asexual man.
No, the sin of Satanic Verses is clear, simple, and much worse. In the story, the Prophet’s amanuensis (remember the Prophet himself did not read or write) decided to change the odd word of the Angel’s revelation, first just an “a” or a “the”, to see if Muhammad noticed when he read it back to him. When he didn’t, the amanuensis grew a little more adventurous.
The Word of God is supposed to be immutable and sacrosanct. But if Zâid ibn Thâbit was messing about with it, what does that make it? Provisional and slippery. Clearly the kind of lads who rushed around Bradford burning things couldn’t be entrusted with any such dangerous idea. Much better to say it was because the Prophet went with loose women. (Or even prostitutes. But this too is dodgy ground. What are the however many virgins contractually available to martyrs in Heaven but compliant bodies provided by the house?)
The Immaculate Conception of the Christians is interesting for a slightly different reason. It’s all a bit tacky, and they don’t really like talking about it at all. A lot of Catholics, and this isn’t just ignorant peasants, used to think until quite recently that it referred to the precise process by which the Holy Virgin became pregnant. I knew even an ex-priest who thought this, and maybe that’s what they were taught, to save awkwardness (this same guy, an old friend, left the priesthood one cold wet night when, as a very junior servant of Christ’s cause on Earth, he'd been out to administer the last rites, found a cold wet and starving mother and baby on the street and brought them in to the priests’ house ("Fathers" waited on by nuns) for warmth and a meal. The senior men of God told him to put her and her baby back out on the street again where she belonged. At three o’clock the next morning my friend got out of bed, packed his few things, and walked out. “What, the house...?” I asked. “No,” he said, “the whole package.”)
The Immaculate Conception wasn’t invented until 1854. The question had been raised of how the V. Mary could have been permanently and essentially without sin as, since Eve’s trifling indiscretion, every human being in existence had been and would ever be conceived in sin.
This was an embarrassment. There was no doubt that Mary’s parents had been at it in the usual way preparatory to her conception, with unCatholic bodily secretions and maybe vocalisations and all the rest of the unfortunate business. What to do? What to do? In 1854, Pius IX went and asked God, and God told him that Mary had official exemption from the curse of Eve. She had been conceived without sin.
But then the Curia might anticipate the questions of the great gullible unwashed (the kind you might find in the street of a wet cold night.) “Conceived without sin? And exactly how would you set about that, father? Tell us the method and maybe we could be giving it a go.” No, inform on a need to know basis, but best hush it up as much as possible.
The only religion which seems to avoid this kind of muddle is Hinduism. There you can worship what deity or demon you want, with whatever attributes you wish, and nobody seems to need to kill you for it. Hardly a proper religion at all in fact.

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