Whilst our system of government is a conservative enterprise, limited as it is by the rule of law and by a mostly static constitution, it is none the less an open system. There is a clear process by which the constitution, in light of new understanding or changed values, can be altered. It does not happen often but it does happen. This is the case with most modern democratic systems. Even the constitution of an oppressive nation like Iran has encoded within it the means for constitutional amendment. Although in the case of the Iranian constitution certain fundamentals, such as the state religion, can not be altered.
Much of religion has often struck me as a somewhat closed system of thought. Judaism, Christianity and Islam and are each centered on a set of scriptures (the Torah, the Gospel and the Koran) that is closed to amendment and revision. They are not intended to be amended or updated. Although clearly the Gospel and the Koran are presented as extensions of the Torah. Not being terribly religious I wouldn’t much care about any of this except for the fact that a large quantity of people on this planet are religious, some of them deeply so. It concerns me that people should wed themselves to a system of thought that is closed. In some regards it actually offends me. We should be open to new ideas and if the new ideas are superior we should abandon old ideas.
Over the last decade, whilst remaining an atheist, I have acquired a more nuanced understanding of the Christian faith. One thing that has become apparent is that whilst the written Bible is a closed text, the Christian faith relies on more than this written doctrine. It has a substantial oral tradition that evolves and supplements the closed text. The text of the Bible has an openness called “open to interpretation”. In fact a great amount of effort is expended trying to sell one form of interpretation over another. For instance whilst the Bible says that woman should not speak in Church (1 Corinthians 14:33,34) alternate interpretations based on the context of this passage allow contemporary churches to rationalize their way around the decree. Stories that if taken literally would represent quite a dire conflict with contemporary values are taken as allegoric or limited to a specific context and any such crisis is averted. To me it seems a strange system but who can question the enduring nature of something that has stood for over 2000 years. In one sense it creates a necessary illusion of consensus amongst people who in fact have quite a lot of disagreement.
One book about Christian history that impressed and influenced me greatly was “In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture“. It is primarily about the translation of the Bible into English and the challenges, technical, political and otherwise. One aspect that struck me was the difficulty in shifting meaning successfully between languages and the problems of literalism. Specifically the problem relates to idioms. For example in English we may refer to somebody as “hot under the collar”, however a literal translation of this idiom into another language would be hopelessly devoid of the correct meaning. Our language, and most languages, are sprinkled full of tens of thousands of such idioms. Some more examples of idioms are “sprinkled full of”, “the wrong end of the stick”, “it makes your blood run cold”, “step up to the plate”, “at the drop of a hat”, “burst out laughing”. Whilst the Bible is open to interpretation it is also open to translation. Both in good ways and in bad ways. A faithful translation maintains the literal meaning without translating the literal words and idioms or omitting things that are assumed in one language but which need to be made explicit in another. The word “spring” for example has multiple meanings and a lot depends on context. A “spring” might be a hole in the ground from which water may flow. A “spring” might be a compressed metal coil. “Spring” may be a season of the year. And the idiom “a spring in his step” means something slightly different again.
My exposure to Islam and the Koran is vastly more limited. Obviously the media has been a primary source of my understanding. Given the medias performance on other topics this gives me some pause. Also I have had a few personal encountered with adherents of Islam, unfortunately most of them left bad impressions. One of them I actually sued. Obviously the events of 911 nearly a decade ago have sharpened and contextualized my interest in this religion and the Koran.
The original language of the Koran is Arabic. Arabic is not the native language of most Muslims. So it stands to reason that there is room for many problems in translating the Koran, let alone the subsequent interpretation. Both translation and interpretation seem like important considerations in how this religion will play out over time. So it was with some fascination that I listened to a podcast in which Muhammad Abdel-Haleem, a moderate Islamic scholar based in London, outlines why and how he wrote a new English translation of the Koran. If you are interested in such matters I commend it to you. You can find the podcast by clicking here.
None of this has enlightened me as to why we should take religion seriously. However I do take it serious in so far as it influences the life of a large number of people. It remains interesting because people, their beliefs and their behaviour is interesting.