Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Too Much Emphasis is Placed on the Letter and Not Enough on the Spirit of the Book

I’ve had the good fortune to stumble across two letters online, which reminded me of one of the wisest things someone ever said to me about religion. The person who spoke these words to me was a Malay Muslim driver who was one of the guys driving us around during the visit of the late Saudi Crown Prince Sultan back in 2006.

We were talking about Islam and how Muslims managed to get on in the modern world with its temptations of drinking, smoking, fornication and so on. The driver talked about how he had to drink in a previous job as he had to entertain clients from other parts of Asia where it’s simply understood that you bond over many bottles of hard liquor before you actually strike a deal. Despite doing that, he didn’t feel any the less true to the faith. The topic then turned to the topic of the Saudi’s and their reputation for being “Bad Boys” outside of Saudi Arabia. He mentioned to me that the Arabs unlike the Malays had the benefit of reading the Quaran in its original but somehow they had got lost. He then looked at me and said, “Ah….too much emphasis is placed on the letter of the book and not enough on the spirit.”

I always remember these words because in the last few years, we’ve had too many people in prominent places getting worked about other people not following religious text accordingly. The Middle East provides the best example of this, where you have Muslims, Christians and Jews at each other’s throats – and that is despite the fact that they all claim to worship the same God. If that wasn’t bad enough, you get them fighting amongst themselves. In the Muslim world you have the showdown between Shia Islam and Sunnie Islam. In Christendom the Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have been fighting each other as long as the Sunnies and Shias. Even the 13 million Jews in the world are not immune – just think of the way the Israelis have to deal with the tensions between the non-tax and military serving Orthodox Jews and everyone else
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Talk to anyone obsessed with the “text” for long enough and you’ll end up asking yourself if that person has lost the plot. My favourite example comes from the usual debate on homosexuality in Singapore. This topic will inevitably get the Churches getting organized and mobilized. The Thio Family get particularly worked up about this and write long and glorious legal text about why we should stop consenting adults from doing what they want to do in the bedroom because of what St Paul wrote so many years ago
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To be fair to the family Thio, they’re not alone in this. Good Muslims are supposed to abhor homosexuality as much as good Christians. However, after a while you start to wonder if the Thios are really doing what God wants them to do.

Why do people like the Professors Thio Li-Ann and Thio Su Mien feel this sudden urge to “save our souls” by bringing us to the Good Book whenever the so called LGBT comes out to play but they are conspicuously absent when it comes to our ever growing inequality problem. Jesus was far more vocal on the plight of the poor than he was in what consenting adults did in the bedroom.

Have people lost the plot. There are things in religious text that aren’t always Godly. The Old Testament, the much revered book of Judaism, Christianity and Islam happily encourages the Children of Israel to kill off every man and enslave the women and children of the lands they take.

Religious text like other text need to be treated as other text – look at them in their context. Look at who wrote them and at the times they were written in.

But if you focus on the spirit of the books, your reward becomes so much clearer. Think of the way Jesus urged us to love one and other. Think of how the Buddha urged us to control our desires in order to free our mind of the suffering.


God in his infinite wisdom gave us brains and the power to look at the spirit. It’s such a pity that we often find ourselves ignoring this gift by hiding behind the text. 

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