zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Of Quantity and Quality I: weighing man against book

Of Quantity and Quality I: weighing man against book

[ by Charles Cameron ]


It may be that the hardest thing for a human to wrestle with is the correlation of quality with quantity.


I’m writing this post by way of a response to the comments of J Scott Shipman and Fred Zimmerman on my earlier post, Burning scriptures and human lives — but as I said in a comment of my own there, not in a point by point fashion, more in the manner of a meditation. Our conversation grew out of a discussion of the killing of humans and the burning of Qur’ans, and perhaps I should say at the outset that in my view, the burning of sacred books is in general a pretty offensive business, the taking of human lives in general even more so.


If, however, we wish to know our enemies, as Sun Tzu advises, let alone to love them, as Christ suggests, we might reflect that what is happening these days in Afghanistan in many ways resembles what was happening in Europe a few short centuries back:

A little later, after the definition of the dogma of transubstantiation by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, a new libel surfaced, known as host desecration. According to this calumny, the Jews obtained a consecrated host from the mass, with the assistance of a Christian who retained it from the administration of communion, took it to their synagogue or homes and subjected it to every indignity, including trampling on it and sticking pins into it. … The accusation was made for the first time at Belitz, near Berlin; all the Jews of the town were burned. One hundred instances of the charge have been recorded, in many cases leading to massacres.

William Nichols, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, pp 239-40

William Gibson is frequently quoted as saying, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” – and by the same token, the past is still with us, and no more evenly distributed.

For myself, I don’t see how I can condone or judge those whose values are as radically different from my own as those Christians, these Afghans – or the “religious but unstable” woman in Spartanburg County, Tennessee, who chained up and burned her nephew’s dog because it had chewed her Bible and was clearly a “devil dog”. Thankfully, it is neither mine to condemn nor to forgive.


I value human life way more than I value any physical book – and I revere those insights, not infrequently found in scriptures, which encourage love, wonder, compassion, insight, wisdom, peace, generosity, gratitude and praise…

I revere them enough that I can understand Sir Thomas More preferring to surrender his own life rather than to go against that which his own traditions, scriptures, and sacraments had taught him to venerate. Likewise, I can find no fault in the Zen of the monk who famously burned a wooden statue of the Buddha when the firewood ran out… a tale that is worth repeating:

In a famous zen story, a travelling monk was resting in a monastery during a cold night. He took down a wooden Buddha statue and used it as fire wood.When the resident monks saw what he did, they became very angry and demanded to know why he did that.

He replied “I am looking for sarrira (holy relics).

The monks then laugh and exclaimed: “How can one find sarrira in a wooden statue?”

In reply, the travelling monk then said “Well then, can you pass me that other wooden statues also?


I once climbed the many stairs and stood on the small platform atop the head of the great 6th century Buddha of Bamiyan, which just ten years ago was demolished by the Taliban, and I remember that day with great affection.

Historically speaking it is a tragedy for the world and the Afghan people that the Buddhas were destroyed.

What Buddha taught, remains, however. What the Beatitudes taught, remains., despite what dogs may chew. What the Qur’an teaches remains, beyond the pastor’s fire. What the host at the Eucharist embodies, remains…

It is in the sense of what I have written above that I wrote, “The value of one human life is the value of the world. The Qur’an is indestructible. It is deeply inadvisable to threaten, attempt or facilitate the destruction of man, world, or book…”


Mind you, I am not suggesting that others should share my view – my own life experiences just don’t encourage me to use scriptures or credal statements against others until I have first “removed the beam from my own eye”. In the meanwhile, I take my inspiration where I can find it.


And find it I do in this comment on my previous post, from Jimpa:

Books are paper and ink and can be republished. A human life is a miracle of creation (regardless of whose theory is used to explain it.) There is only one of each of us there are no copies of anyone, even cloning can not create a replacement.

To me, this gets to the spirit and clarity of the matter.


But there’s also its soul, its blues if you like, its duende – and I find that quality – another voice in the music of inspiration, perhaps, in this impassioned post by Abu Muqawama, aka Andrew Exum:

The crime was horrific, and the mob outside the jail was angry. They had gathered before and demanded the death of the man inside, but a conservative cleric, who ran a religious school for boys, had appeared and told them all to go home and repent before God. Because the men in the mob were all religious and obeyed this particular cleric, they went home as he had ordered. When the crowd returned a few days later, though, while that cleric was away preaching elsewhere, they fought their way past the guards and found the man for whom they were looking. The man was from a minority group in the area, and though he was actually innocent of the crime of which he had been accused, that did not stop the violent mob from beating him horribly, tying a rope around his neck and throwing him off a bridge while hundreds cheered.

The year was 1906, and the place was my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The name of the man killed was Ed Johnsen, a black man who had been accused of the brutal rape of a white woman, Nevada Taylor. (The conservative cleric? Well, that madrasa he founded has produced several U.S. senators, governors, businessmen and one dyspeptic defense policy blogger.) …

The reason I mention the story, though, is because it popped into my head when I read my friends Dion and Maria’s account of what had happened in Mazar-e Sharif a few days ago when several innocent United Nations workers were brutally murdered because some fundamentalist crank in Florida thought it would be a hot idea to videotape himself burning a Quran. It was not that long ago, we should remind ourselves going into a discussion of what happened in northern Afghanistan and why, when the ugly kinds of mob scenes we saw in Mazar might have also happened in the United States. (The last lynching of an innocent black man of which I am aware took place in the American South in 1981.)

I see those two posts as working together like head and heart — the “soul” and richness of feeling in Abu Muqawama’s post adds depth to the “spirit” and clarity of thought in Jimpa’s. To have a high standard of measurement is fine — to forget one’s own human frailty, not wise at all.

[ to be continued in Of Quantity and Quality II: weighing man against world ]

8 Responses to “Of Quantity and Quality I: weighing man against book”

  1. J. Scott Says:

    Hi Charles, This post is enlightening, and we are in agreement on your points (just about all of them). I believe I better understand the "sense" of your first post, but I’m not sure about the use of "correlation" between quality and quantity. [We discussed your first post at our dinner table this evening, and the juxtaposition of man vs world stirred quite an exchange.]
    My going-in hunch is our "world," as it were, is but reflection of the "men" who inhabit; bringing with them their virtues, flaws, religion, faith, love, hate, envy, superstitions, biases, and prejudices [just a bit of a long list of  stuff]. The Gibson quote will be, I believe, forever true in the world of man. The juxtaposition between man versus book is accurately represented by Jimpa’s comment; but that said, I would submit much goodness and much madness [and as my late-grandmother would say "meanness"] has come from men using those books as justification for whatever (good or bad). I plan to come back to this post tomorrow, but our values are in no small measure but a reflection of that in which we find meaning—-stuff we believe; but some values mean more to one group, than another—more meaning, more determination, more faith/belief [throughout time] often results in more meanness wrapped in the pages of those books—sadly, often the good books.
    I feel I haven’t touched "the hem of the garment" here, but did want to get an oar in water. More to come…this is an excellent post!

  2. zen Says:

    "William Gibson is frequently quoted as saying, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” – and by the same token, the past is still with us, and no more evenly distributed."
    Good observation. History layers like cultural sediment

  3. Fred Zimmerman Says:

    Hi Charles,  Another interesting and thoughtful post. My only point of disagreement is with the gentle-minded "let’s not be quick to judge, the past is unevenly distributed…" line of reasoning.  In my view, it is actually quite easy to reach a tough-minded judgment that the belief structures which produce actions of this nature in Afghanistan and the Islamic world need urgently to be changed profoundly, just as they need urgently to be changed here and elsewhere, wherever they are found in time.Again in my view, the truth is that our "war aim" is the transformation of Islamic politico-religious culture to a more tolerant, secular, Enlightened culture, just as Western civilization has been transformed over the last 250 years.  Obviously, burning Korans undercuts this "war aim", and fighting three simultaneous wars against Islamic countries may not be the best approach, either.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi, Fred:
    Oh, I too certainly hope (and work) to see "belief structures which produce actions of this nature" change profoundly — my particular kind of "gentle-mindedness" (as you nicely put it) is just the way that I approach that task, given my sense of my own gifts and limitations…
    It’s not prescriptive.

  5. J. Scott Says:

    Interesting exchange; John Gray makes a pretty compelling case that the neo-cons (and I wince when I hear the words) co-opted the "utopian" vision of the left by using force to coerce Mid-East countries into modernization.
    Not "prescriptive" at all.
    More to come.

  6. J. Scott Says:

    Hi Charles, Above I said I agreed with most of your post. Here’s where I disagree: "For myself, I don’t see how I can condone or judge those whose values are as radically different from my own as those Christians, these Afghans…" I believe when people cloak themselves in religion and perpetrate barbarism in the name of that religion we must condone or judge. Terror was visited on our shores. We ignored the threat for at least a couple of decades, and finally had no choice. Our execution has been mixed-to-wrong-headed, and our government/media has done a poor job educating Americans about the true threat. If a people’s value system insists on our subjugation, then I believe we have to judge them—that is; take their word and act accordingly. I know there are good people in the Middle East who want no part of the violence, however we rarely hear from them as they are silenced by their leadership/religion. As you know, there are Middle Eastern/Central Asian nations with the means to visit violence on their people and on us—and many of those populations have no moral conflict in the use of suicide bombers against their enemies. I judge that as immoral—however, my point of departure is that I don’t believe we should do any more than is necessary to protect Americans.
    I believe that a certain amount of judicious and thoughtful judgement would serve us well. Going back to your comments about dying for ideas—(I believe Sharansky said:) "If you’re not willing to die for anything, you’re not living for anything meaningful." The West has led the world in improving the lot of mankind—we need more wisdom in the West; for good judgement is, in my estimation, a mark of wisdom.
    Must say I have truly enjoyed these two posts! Many thanks!

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Scott:
    I’m careful to say "for myself, I don’t see" and "given my sense of my own gifts and limitations…"  I am only speaking for myself. That’s what I mean when I say my position is not prescriptive…
    Let’s come at this another way.  The word judgment can mean (at least) two sorts of things: let’s call them assessment and condemnation.  I do plenty of assessment, but don’t find myself in much of a position to do condemnation. 
    But then it’s my calling to be a poet, not a judge — and I don’t even speak for all poets.

  8. J. Scott Says:

    Hi Charles, I understand/understood your position. I offered my disagreement because with that snippet and offered my take because I thought it relevant (perhaps it wasn’t—and I worried I’d offend).
    Assessment and condemnation is a good order to present two views of judgement, and I attempted to provide my assessment and why I found some wanting—my assessment might not be perfect, but I’m not sure I could believe otherwise.
    For the record, I think the publicity-hound in Florida is a nut and should be treated as such—following that line of thought, those who inflame the primitives to kill, "to make things right," make a mockery of their calling as "leaders." As a world, I believe we’re still trying to figure out how to use media—it is easy to categorize all media as sensationalist, as indeed many are [and some of those outlets are entertaining], but last night I read with amusement a line from The Rise and Fall of The Man of Letters (John Gross) the following: "Critics of mass culture have a trick of weighing the worst of the present against the best of the past…"—-and your posts here came to mind. These freaks and curiosities [ghoulish outliers] sell copy, so I don’t see us escaping the fools among us anytime soon.
    Keep the poetry coming; color me daft, but I didn’t know you were a poet:)) Cheers!

Switch to our mobile site