“Not a good day,” said Carol as she came in the door about midday. It was not a good day; it was a bad day; nothing seemed to go right. I was supposed to write a sermon today, and it went very badly indeed. Carol had her own problems. Of course plenty of things did go right today or at least didn’t go wrong; but when one or two particularly bad things happen those things can make the rest of the day seem all bad. We took a long walk in the evening twilight, the low clouds threatening rain which never came, and we talked it all out. By the time we got back I almost felt worse than before talking it all out; but we ate dinner, and I sat down to read in a good book, and all the things that had gone wrong receded from consciousness. Forgetfulness is a gift from the gods.
That innocent look!
Hermes had stolen the cows;
as Apollo thought.
is inside every cairn.
Stack up stones, he’s there,
ready to guide you,
patron god of travellers.
But I’m suspicious:
he’s mischievous, too,
the trickster god. If fog comes
and you leave the path,
or if your map proves
to be utterly wrong, if
you somehow get lost:
you should blame Hermes.
Or thank him. For all you know,
you’re better off lost.
When you come to die,
that’s when Hermes shows up next.
With his magic wand
he touches your eyes.
Next thing you know, there’s Charon
demanding his fare.
You spit out the coin
they left on your tongue, so you
can plead with him; but
he’s already gone.
Winged sandals are fast. You’re stuck
on the banks of Styx.
A couple of weeks ago, we went in to Seven Star books in Central Square, Cambridge. Though it’s known as a New Age bookstore, Seven Stars has the best selection of new and used books on world religions that I have found in eastern Massachusetts. I found a two-volume copy of Hymns of the Rgveda translated by Ralph T. H. Griffiths, from Munshiram Manoharlala Publishers, New Delhi. The book is simply a wonderful artifact in and of itself: the typical off-white paper used by printers in India, fingerprints where the printer picked up sheets before the ink was fully dry, a dust cover with a tessellated leaves-and-flower motif in pale green.
This week, I’ve been dipping in to the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda, a collection of hymns to ancient Vedic gods and minor deities, is considered one of the oldest religious-literary works in the world. I find some of these hymns fairly incomprehensible, like this one which praises frogs (Book VII, Hymn 103):
1. They who lay quiet for a year, the Brahmans who fulfil their vows,
The Frogs have lifted up their voice, the voice Parjanya hath inspired….
3. When at the coming of the Rains the water has poured upon them as they yearned and thirsted,
One seeks another as he talks and greets him with cries of pleasure as a son his father….
6. One is Cow-bellow and Goat-bleat the other, one Frog is Green and one of them is Spotty.
They bear one common name, and yet they vary, and, talking, modulate their voice diversely….
According to Griffiths, Max Muller saw this hymn as a satire on the priestly class. Maybe, but it seems more likely to me that we are simply missing some cultural referent that prevents us from really understanding what the hymn meant originally. Some words from the past must remain forever obscure.
Yet there are other hymns in the Rig Veda which I find moving and thought-provoking, such this hymn about creation (Book X, Hymn 129):
1. Then was no non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
2. Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
3. Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit. …
6. Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
7. He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he does not.
These are words from the past which still speak to me with the same sense of wonder, the same sense of confronting the unknowable, with which they spoke to the priests and followers of the ancient Vedic religion, when this hymn was first sung three millennia ago.
Today I have been reading in Introduction to World Religions, consulting the sections on African traditional religions for this week’s sermon. But while I was having tea this afternoon, I flipped to the section on Judaism, and read this:
The Talmud is at pains to blur any distinction between holy and profane. Even more striking is that it is not concerned with answers. It is far more concerned with the process of answering them. One of its most celebrated passages captures this tendency and is worth citing at length:
On that day, Rabbi Eliezer put forward all the arguments in the world, but the sages did not accept them. Finally, he said to them, ‘If the halakah is according to me, let that carob-tree prove it.’
He pointed to a nearby carobtree, which then moved from its place a hundred cubits. They said to him, ‘One cannot bring a proof from the moving of a carob-tree.’… [Two more miracles were performed by Rabbi Eliezer in a bid to have his argument accepted.]
Then said Rabbi Eliezer to the sages, ‘If the halakah is according to me, may a proof come from heaven.’ Then a heavenly voice went forth, and said, ‘What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakah is according to him in every place.’
Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, ‘It is not in the heavens….’ [Deuteronomy 30.12. Rabbi Joshua goes on to explain that since the Torah has already been given on Sinai, we do not need to pay attention to a heavenly voice.]
Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah. He asked him, ‘What was the Holy One, blessed be he, doing in that hour?’
Said Elijah, ‘He was laughing, and saying, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” ‘
Talmud, Bava Metsia 59B
In other words, God’s children are grown up enough to argue with him. For the rabbi it is even a responsibility. In this sense, the Talmud captures something essential not just of the historical period, but also of the ongoing life of Judaism: God is in the argument, and he [sic] may well be found in the delight of vigorous human discourse.
pp. 285-286, Introduction to World Religions, Christopher Partridge, general editor (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2005; U.S. edition of The New Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions, 3rd edition).
“God is in the argument.” I can agree with that, although I’d argue with the Talmud about the reason for agreeing: I don’t feel the need to accept that because the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, we can therefore ignore a heavenly voice; I’m happy simply to challenge the notion of God’s omniscience, and to advocate for the possibility that humanity has matured enough to be able to argue with God. Nor is saying “God is in the argument” sufficient; there’s more to religion, and humanity, and divinity, than argument. Nonetheless, I find myself convinced by the idea that God is in the argument.