In an earlier piece (‘For us, there is only the trying‘) I observed that one of the insights that come with being a writer is the tentative nature of all writing, that it is always an attempt, and to that degree, never certain of success.
I have been considering the implications of this insight since. One way of looking at it is that whatever you may read has originated in the same way as what you are reading now – that is to say, at some point, someone has engaged in what Eliot terms ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ in order to express some thought, idea, insight, revelation or vision.
In other words, whatever extraordinary experience may have led up to it, and however singular the mind seeking to express itself, the piece itself – the text, the writing that others read – passes through the same door, as it were, as every other text, however humble or exalted, to come into existence.
This has a particular bearing on what we call sacred texts, not least because a different account is often given of their authorship – they are said to have been ‘written by no human hand’ to emanate directly from God or from angels. It is important to see that such attributions are not descriptions but part of the attempt to express the fundamental importance that these texts are held to have: to put it succinctly, we do not value texts because they are sacred, we call them sacred because we value them.
That might seem at first sight no more than a playing with words, but it makes a crucial distinction which I will try to elucidate in the remainder of this piece – briefly, that sacredness is not an inherent quality, but a judgement we make by relating the thing in question to a wider narrative, fitting it into a story we already know.
Let us consider two scenarios. In the first, we are asked to represent (for a film, say) the creation of some sacred text. To avoid controversy, we can make it a fictional sacred text: let us suppose that it is a book said to have been written ‘without human agency’ and held to contain the guiding wisdom of a particular people or culture.
How this is represented will vary according to the skill and imagination of the film-maker: the end result might be ludicrous or awe-inspiring: we can picture shining figures or disembodied fiery hands that inscribe the text with a finger, or we might have the text appear letter by letter on the blank page, with or without an attendant laser-like ray of light; doubtless there will be sound effects or music to accompany the process.
All this, as I say, may be more or less well done: a real artist might have even unbelievers saying that they found the representation persuasive – ‘I don’t believe it, but if I did, I could picture it like this.’ (In this connection, we could consider Pasolini’s ‘Gospel According to St Matthew’ the work of a (presumed) atheist, yet praised by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano as ‘the best film on Christ ever made’).
The second scenario is a real-life encounter with an incident such as the one discussed above: one day, by chance, we enter a room, let us say – or better still, come on a stone table in open moorland under a clear sky (so no scope for any concealed mechanism) and there (with others) we witness a text appearing in a mysterious way that seems to involve no human agency.
What are the similarities here, and what the differences? We have the same sort of event, but crucially there is a context for the first: it is part of a story we are already familiar with, and we are also familiar with the notion of sacred texts and divine messages (regardless of whether we actually accept the verity of them). By way of illumination, we can imagine someone without that background (from a non-literate culture, say) and ask how much (or how little) they would take from the same scene.
The fact that it is a fictional sacred text does not matter, either: we understand it as a sacred text in the story, because we know about actual texts that are regarded as sacred; we are familiar with the concept. If we did not have that concept, it would probably be puzzling, though we might gather that a marvel of some sort was intended (and the role of marvels, a staple of stories yet (by definition) seldom encountered in life, should be borne in mind here). In any case, as the film proceeded, we could see the role played by the text, and make inferences from that, though again they would draw on our familiarity with human culture and religious practices. In short, we would read the creation of the text as part of a story, one we were already familiar with: we would know where it fitted in.
In all of this, the content of the text would be taken for granted: we could suppose the kind of thing it might say, not least because the major human religions have a similar core, centred on compassion, seeing oneself in the other.
Now consider the ‘real-life’ incident. What inferences would we be prepared to draw solely from the manner of the text’s appearance? Certainly, our curiosity would be piqued: we had witnessed something marvellous, not easy to explain; doubtless we would be very keen to read the text and see what it contained.
However (and this is the crucial point) I think that whether we were sceptical or inclined to believe, we would agree that the actual content of the text was what mattered, rather than the manner of its appearing – its content is what we would use to form a judgement and reach a conclusion.
Now add a further refinement – let us suppose that the text is a bald and unequivocal instruction to slaughter all the members of some rival sect or group with which we have had uneasy relations in the past, occasionally spilling over into violence.
How would that be received?
Doubtless there would be the enthusiasts who are always keen to be licensed to do something terrible – that, I fear, is a strong streak in human nature. However, I like to think they would be in the minority, not least because this is not the sort of thing that sacred texts typically enjoin: it does not fit the familiar narrative. Interestingly, there is a ready-made counter, available from within the familiar narrative itself, to those who point to the marvellous circumstances of the text’s appearance as evidence of its divine origin – might it not be diabolical in origin instead?
And here, if you like, the devil comes into his own, or rather, we see the genuine usefulness of the concept of an enemy (which is all that ‘Satan’ means), a contriver of snares to lead us astray, one always seeking to turn our good to ill – within the narrative where God might speak to us directly through signs and marvels, it allows an escape clause; ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ as Shakespeare reminds us – not every voice that impresses us as supernatural is divine.
My point is this: the marvellous circumstances, though they might impress us and incline us to a particular view, are not in themselves conclusive: no certain inference can be drawn from them – and that goes for any signs and wonders. Taken in themselves, they prove nothing; it is only as part of a greater narrative that they have meaning.
(Consider here Jesus’s response to the disciples of John (Luke Chapter 7, Matthew 11) who ask him, ‘are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ Jesus answers, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’.
Though this might seem a mere catalogue of marvels – ‘look at the amazing things I have done! Is that not proof enough?’ that is not the point of it at all: rather, it is Jesus placing himself in context, connecting his actions to the earlier scriptural narrative, chiefly Isaiah, which would be well-known to John’s disciples and the whole community, in which the signs that will herald the messiah are described; it is not the marvels in themselves, but their connection to the story that matters, the fact that they can be seen as the fulfilment of scripture.)
The point is not ‘I am the messiah because I do miracles’ but ‘I am the messiah because I fit into the story’ – and implied in that, of course, is an acceptance of the story. It is similar to the two scenarios discussed above: the film representation is one that we can readily contextualise – even if it is presented as fiction – because we know the kind of thing it is, we are familiar with that sort of story; without that knowledge we are at a loss how to interpret it.
Another angle that might occur to us in the second ‘real-life’ scenario brings us back to my central point. We witness, on the open moorland under a clear sky, the mysterious writing of the text without human agency. A question that might reasonably be asked, once we have overcome our initial amazement, is why God would choose to communicate with us in this way. It seems a very human bit of stage-setting – like something out of a story, indeed. If God truly spoke to us, why not simply evince in us a firm conviction that something is the case?
Might I not – in a variant of the second scenario – go walking with a group of friends on a fine day and at a particular spot – an old stone table, say, on open moorland under a clear sky – be suddenly overwhelmed with a conviction of the unity and goodness of all things, that we are all united by a common humanity, that each of us is as the other, that you are me and I am you, and that all are part of the great scheme of things that we call Nature, the World or the Universe?
And all I would have to do then is cast about for suitable words or images to express this conviction, to convey what I feel to be its fundamental importance.