Blasphemy

I’m surprised how strongly the idea of blasphemy can occasionally effect me, even if the rational part of my mind tells me it’s an irrational concept.

I remember being really struck by a particular scene in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man: Stephen, now an atheist, is talking to his friend about the issue of taking communion. As an atheist, he feels it would be ridiculous to take part in such a ceremony, however, he knows that refusing to do so would upset his mother. His friend suggests that the simplest solution would be to just take communion for the sake of his mother. As he doesn’t believe in it, it won’t do him any harm. Stephen however is uncomfortable with this solution because, as his friend eventually makes him admit, he is afraid of the God he doesn’t believe in, being angry with him for taking part in a ceremony to honour a God which he doesn’t believe in.

This is of course completely illogical, and yet it struck a chord with me because at that time I was struggling with the idea of prayer. I no longer believed in an interventionalist god, but I could still see the pragmatic benefits to prayer: prayer can be soothing, relaxing; it’s a kind of meditation. It’s a ritual that can help us organise our thoughts, and look beyond ourselves. I knew that at that time in my life, prayer could have been beneficial to me. But I didn’t pray. I’d like to be able to say I was just being rational and had no need for prayer. If I’m honest though, I have to admit that I was worried about the god I didn’t believe in accusing me of hypocrisy.

Spirituality and religion might, for some, be a black and white, true or false issue, but for many I’m sure it’s much more grey and fuzzy. Involving rational thought processes as well as feelings, intuitions and experiences.

I hadn’t thought much about the issue of blasphemy for quite a while. Perhaps I thought I’d become rational enough not to worry about it. Then, a few nights ago I experienced it again. I recently bought a book of Sufi poetry, and have been reading and meditating with them. The poem I happened to read that evening is the shortest in the book. It’s by Mansur Al-Hallaj and it’s really more of a statement than a poem, but it’s a powerful one:

I am the Truth

As I meditated on these words, my thoughts drifted to the words of Jesus:

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life

I guess in some ways you can’t escape the religion you were raised with. In my state of post-meditative calm I began to think of these words differently to how I’d been taught to interpret them as a child in church. I thought about them in relation to Buddhism and the idea that the key to enlightenment is within ourselves. Perhaps each of us is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Saying these words aloud stirred something deep and powerful within me, but I also felt a sense of blasphemy. I’m sure many Christians would consider it blasphemous for individuals to take the words of Jesus and apply them to themselves. Even though I wasn’t claiming to be a new messiah, but simply expressing the idea of finding spiritual truth within ourselves.

I haven’t considered myself a Christian for several years, and yet this idea of blasphemy still affected me. I think a teensy-weensy part of myself was even worried about being struck by a lightening bolt of divine rage. So much for my oh-so-rational brain.

Still, I’m glad I was able to push through the fear and continue my free-thinking explorations. I’ve found out since that Mansur Al-Hallaj was executed for his blasphemous statement. I feel lucky that all I have to deal with is the residual, abstract fear of a god whose existence I doubt.

It’s led me now to wonder about the ideas of blasphemy and sanctity. Should we always fight against fear of blasphemy and break down barriers to freedom of religious and spiritual thought, or is it important for some things to remain sacred?

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