Thursday, August 18, 2011

This sorry scheme of things

Bible-centered folks often start explanations with, “The Bible tells us…” The quotations which follow this phrase sometimes address the topic directly, but more often there’s a lot of inference involved. The Bible gives a lot of specific injunctions about what to eat and how to build an ark of the covenant, but very little about bioethics.

What would a religious document look like, I wonder, that actually told people how to live? If an all-seeing God intended the document to be a guideline for people not just in 600 BC, but for all ages, what would that instruction manual contain?

It could be a lot shorter and less repetitive, for one thing. The hygiene rules could focus more on hand-washing. I hope the moral rules would still include some version of the golden rule, which is useful enough to appear in most major world religions. I hope it would emphasize kindness.

On the poetic side, Biblical prayer could also use some improvement. The words Jesus specifically tells people to use are now known as the Lord’s Prayer. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good prayer. It doesn’t have any particular theme, and gives the impression of being a mishmash of phrases from Jewish prayers. The only bit of poetry in it (thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory) doesn’t appear in any original text and was tacked on later. The Muslim and Jewish daily prayers are also pretty convoluted and not especially good poetry. My understanding is that in both cases they’re quotations from religious documents that somebody decided would be good to recite every day, not cases where the document says “God told us to recite this text every day.”

If one were trying to pick a prayer for everybody to recite, what would it be? Something like the Prayer of St. Francis would be my pick. I like that it hints at actions we can take.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy . . .

It would be nice if this really were St. Francis’s prayer passed down over seven centuries. But its earliest appearance is in 1912, and it wasn’t connected with St. Francis until 1936. Maybe I just like it because it’s in a modern style, and in a few hundred years it will seem terribly dated.

Actually, maybe daily meditation would be a more sensible, and less time-sensitive, thing to prescribe in a religious instruction manual.

In the words of Omar Khayyam (or more accurately, FitzGerald riffing on Khayyam):

Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits--and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

1 comment:

David said...

When I was a kid, I would daydream that in the digits of pi (it would have to be something truly eternal like that) coded in some kind of universal language, was an infinitely long message from God, one that, like you're suggesting, would be universally applicable to all times and places.