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Infinite in faculty, quintessence of dust

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — on the cutting off of hands, the eternal life of martyrs, and the vast and petty nature of we poor amazing humans ]

As you know, I love apposite juxtapositions between religious texts – if you’re into cognition, it’s called pattern recognition, in Jung or Plato it would be familiarizing oneself with the archetypes, and in terms of creativity it’s “one swell foop” of analysis and synthesis, an oak in an acorn, insight in a nutshell.

At times, as here, the comparison presents a significant similarity that “sees things” from a very different vantage point from our everyday selves – a refreshing and salutary reminder, perhaps, from high altitude, even if it’s not the street-level view we require to navigate life’s many smaller obstacles and minor goals.


Here are two such comparisons that have served a somewhat different purpose for me –- showing me that aspects of another religion’s practice that I find shocking have echoes in my own tradition. I do not claim these correspondences to be exact — but if we allow them to be, I believe we may find them illuminating:


My hope is that such examples can help us to approach the “other” with greater respect and understanding — where we agree, and even where we strongly disagree.

In the way of peace. For it is written in the Injil, in the Gospel (Matthew 5:9):

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.


But to return us to the high altitude view from which we began, I’ll give Shakespeare the final word:

   HAMLET: I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

They are being sincere, even if they are not being accurate

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — disentangling religion / politics braids in Pakistan and elsewhere ]

image credit: Pakistani cartoonist and artist Sabir Nazar


Blog-friend Omar Ali writes:

The state will make a genuine effort to stop this madness. Shias are still not seen as outsiders by most educated Pakistani Sunnis. When middle class Pakistanis say “this cannot be the work of a Muslim” they are being sincere, even if they are not being accurate.

The “madness” he’s discussing is the extensive killing of Shia Muslims by Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, and I’d recommend both his own article on 3 Quarks Daily and Bahukutumbi Raman‘s on Raman’s strategic analysis as offering detailed background for a topic I addressed from a different angle in Ashura: the Passion of Husayn.


It’s Dr. Ali’s final sentence in the quote above that interests me, though, as you’ve probably deduced already from the title of this post:

When middle class Pakistanis say “this cannot be the work of a Muslim” they are being sincere, even if they are not being accurate.

I haven’t quite known how to say this succinctly before, but I think Dr Ali hits a whole array of nails on the head.

Religions are mostly preached to whoever listens — and those who listen can be a pretty diverse lot, particularly across continents and centuries. The upshot is that religions generally wind up being interpreted in a variety of ways to suit the wide variety of human temperaments and situations.

Et voilà! Members of a religion who see it as a force for peace will tend to say of those who dismay them by using it as a cover for violence, “this cannot be the work of a member of my faith” — and they are being sincere, their understanding of their own religion is as peaceable as they say it is.

They are being sincere — even if they are not being accurate, and their religion as a “big tent” across cultures, classes, continents and centuries, also includes sincere people whose views are radically and violently opposed to theirs.


If Walt Whitman can say it, you’d better believe it can be said of religions with a billion or more adherents:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Battling bus ads revisited

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — today’s “shout it from the rooftops” is “advertise it on the bus” — the wars of sound-bite religion, plus special extra, the perils of dehumanization ]


I am pretty sure that when Sojourners puts up an ad saying Love your Muslim neighbors” (above, right) it’s a religiously motivated act with political implications, but not quite so sure when Pamela Geller puts up an ad that’s certainly anti-Hamas and likely anti-Muslim (below), whether to consider it religiously or politically motivated: the two things aren’t always easily untangled.


But hey, at least in Portland according to this AP article, the Pamela Geller ads were posted in response to this one, which I’d tend to characterize as politically motivated, with a plausible religious undercurrent:


Of course, there are other maps.. including this one, from American Trial Attorneys in Defense of Israel:


Okay, I’ve been on about ads as a medium for religious dispute for a while now [1, 2], and frankly I don’t know why we need seminaries in Oxford, Qom or Dharamsala if all you need to know about a religion can be found on the side of a bus…

But it does get confusing, eh?

For instance, when Mona Eltahawy defaces one of Pamela Geller’s ads, is she erasing freedom of speech, or hate speech — or freedom of hate speech?


Look, here are a series of ads that CAIR has just put out, using the term “jihad” in a way that’s both a legitimate meaning of the term within Islam and compatible with western democratic ideals:


And here are Pamela Geller’s reworkings of the same series of ads, using the term “jihad” in a way that’s both a legitimate meaning of the term within Islam and entirely incompatible with western democratic ideals.

The thing is, there’s an enormous spectrum of beliefs and nuances of belief within Islam, and even within Salafism…

And buses and subway ads aren’t the go-to places to understand that spectrum.


But they’re worth watching to get a sense of how the public is being swayed.

Ironic, isn’t it, that as the New York Times reports, Erika Menendez told the cops:

I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers.

Hindu, Muslim, Sikh..


For what it’s worth, Sojourners could have posted an ad that said, Love your enemies rather than Love your neighbor — both are equally biblical:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

Matthew 5. 43-44

But then, that’s a bit long for an advertisement, isn’t it?


Somewhere between Christ‘s command “Love your enemy” and Sun Tzu‘s “Know your enemy” we can surely find a place for “Honor your enemy” — and that, it turns out, may be of considerable importance. Describing the work of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Lin, Mehlman and Abney write in their Greenwall Foundation report, Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy:

Grossman has interviewed many US veterans of the Vietnam War. Not all of his subjects, however, were those with lingering psychological trauma. Grossman found that some of the men he interviewed had never truly achieved emotional distance from their former foes, and seemed to be the better for it. These men expressed admiration for Vietnamese culture. Some had even married Vietnamese women. They appeared to be leading happy and productive post-war lives. In contrast, those who persisted in viewing the Vietnamese as “less than animals” were unable to leave the war behind them.

That, more generally, may be key to understanding why demonizing Islam and Muslims is such a bad idea. In Grossman’s own words:

It can be easy to unleash this genie of racial and ethnic hatred in order to facilitate killing in time of war. It can be more difficult to keep the cork in the bottle and completely restrain it. Once it is out, and the war is over, the genie is not easily put back in the bottle. Such hatred lingers over the decades, even centuries, as can be seen today in Lebanon and what was once Yugoslavia.

For fans of Daniel Suarez? Iain McGilchrist?

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — on, as usual, binocular vision, but this time 2020 as well as 20/20 ]


I’m about half way through Freedom(TM), the second of the books in the trilogy by Daniel Suarez which began with Daemon and (I believe) ends with Kill Decision — I’d have finished all three pretty much as fast as I could lay my hands on them if I wasn’t trying to write quite so much myself. As those who have read or are reading the books know, there’s a lot in there about the difference in perspective between those who have and don’t have “augmented reality” glasses.

Since I tend to like to have at least two lenses through which to view things — and am interested in general in what William Blake called “fourfold vision” — the topic itself is of interest me, quite aside from its potential to illuminate some pretty obscure corners of near future possibilities.

Likewise, I’d like to have some roughly parallel universe with which to compare the one Suarez is providing me with — and this video introducing a game called Ingress looks like a suitable “second lens” to set up a stereoscopic inquiry and arrive at a measure of depth:


I’m not looking to make a qualitative comparison between the books and the game here, just to ask if anyone with access to both would like to discuss what we can learn from juxtaposing them?


Because juxtaposition is key. Because, as Iain McGilchrist says in his speech The Divided Brain and the Courage to Think Differently:

There’s an oddity about the brain, which is that it makes all its everything that happens — the multifarious beauty of the world — come out of connections. It exists only to make connections.

Because, as he also says:

Relations matter more than things.

So that a marvelous counterpoint to Suarez’ fast-paced action-oriented techno-thriller imagination is McGilchrist’s slow-paced psycho-stiller contemplative approach:

I hope you’ll find time to appreciate them both.

Two pebbles in the pond of thought

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — regarding the idea that Islam might be monolithic as well as monotheistic, and more generally, the patterns created when concentric ripples intersect ]


Drop these two pebbles into the pond of thought, and watch the ripples as they intersect, overlap, enhance one another, cancel each other out and continue…


It may seem obvious that Islam is not, and could not possibly be, a monolithic entity — but I want to suggest something more than that fairly basic fact.

I want to suggest that just as we have all enjoyed watching the way concentric ripples fan out from the place where a pebble — or a raindrop — hits a pond, and the fascinating ways win which two or more such ripples intersect —

— in much the same way, it can be fascinating — and often illuminating — to watch the way in which ripples of thought in the thought pond intersect.

In fact, that’s the basic “move” behind all creativity.


My sources for the two quotes above:

Small Wars Journal, Disruptive thinking
Wikipedia, Islam

My sources for the two images above:

Doodles and jots, ripple effects
David Armano on “ripples of influence”

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