The last few days I’ve been playing with words.
I just went to an online etymological dictionary to look up two words I just heard discussed on television in the past couple of days – believe and metanoia. Karen Armstrong, one of my favorite people, was on PBS talking about her Charter for Compassion project and her efforts to establish “cities of compassion.” And in passing, she happened to mention that the origin of the word believe had to do not with the acceptance of a proposition as we understand the word today, but with love.
The other program was a German talk show where the topic was the relevance of religion in modern life. Religion matters much less in Europe, as you know, than in America, at least in a traditional sense, but the growth of the Islamic minority and the fundamentalism that gets caught up with fears of terrorism is making Germans sit up and take notice of religion in a new way. On this program was a former Jesuit who was making the point that much of what we believe today about the authority of the church may be a product of a mistranslation of the Bible, possibly deliberate. I’ll get back to him and to the meaning of these words, believe and metanoia in a minute.
It’s no secret that the religious right in America has found that it can hold Americans captive by playing with their fears. At the heart of the culture wars (or conflicting ideologies, if the war metaphor annoys you) are, among other issues, the rights of gays and lesbians to full dignity and equality. The left calls it the latest step toward full civil rights. The right calls the development part of the destruction of the family, society, and ultimately Western Civilization. Nice clear picture here of polarization.
Any politically aware gay person can tell you that the only serious opposition to gay rights comes from fundamentalist or authoritarian religious groups. Liberal religion has long since begun to embrace LGBT people and support their efforts. We are seeing more and more gays and lesbians ordained as clergy in these groups. The Episcopal Church even has gay bishops, one of them a woman.
Traditional religious organizations of all stripes, Islamic, Orthodox Jewish, official Roman Catholic or Evangelical, are hanging on for dear life to the convictions that gays are disordered sinners and women are supposed to take their orders from men.
American religious conservatives belong for the most part to one of two hardliner groups – so-called “Bible-based” believers, on the Protestant side, and “Vatican I” Catholics. Protestant conservatives tend to be “Old Testament” believers. Thinking the whole Bible was dictated by God, it doesn’t matter which parts you read, so they tend to get hung up on the Old Testament and follow an angry God who punishes those who don’t believe in him and obey him. There’s something comforting about being commanded to obey and knowing what’s right. You’re back in your childhood when Daddy got out the strap and you knew where you stood. None of this softheaded coddlin’ for us. Progressive Protestants, on the other hand, see the Gospel as the heart of Christianity and focus on the compassionate side of Jesus, the guy who is concerned with the poor, with feeding the masses, with healing, with forgiving sins.
There’s a similar divide in the Catholic tradition between the followers of Pope Pius IX’s version of Catholicism and Pope John XXIII’s. Pius IX called the First Vatican Council in the 1860s and declared himself infallible. And Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council a hundred years later, in the 1960s, for the purpose of opening up the church, fostering greater cooperation with people outside the Catholic tradition, giving ordinary people greater say in how the church is run, even redefining the church as not the hierarchy but the body of believers. Catholics today have to decide which version should be central. They can join with those stressing the authority of the church and try to pull the church away from Vatican II back to Vatican I. Or they can go with the reforms of Vatican II, grow and work with their progressive Protestant brethern to make compassion, not doctrine, the guiding force in their religious lives.
Karen Armstrong started out as a nun, left the nunnery and the church, but for all intents and purposes lives even today as a theologian. She has published a couple dozen books and become possibly the best known modern defender of compassion as the essence of not only Christianity but all religions, the Abrahamic ones and Hinduism and Buddhism as well. She won a TED award in 2008 and used it to further call attention to the importance of compassion over belief and urge people to move away from fundamentalist rigidity. Her focus on the literal meaning of “belief” is in keeping with that interest.
I see her as a person who has taken the toxicity out of religion. She makes it something to admire, whether one becomes a joiner or not, and when she talks, I find I want to listen. And when she says belief really ought to be about love and compassion, not doctrine, I sit up and start paying attention.
She may be right, actually, about the origin of the word belief. Proto-Indo-European, the putative ancestor of most modern European and Indian languages, had the word *leubh, which we assumed is the oldest known form of the word “love.” (The * means it is logically created by combining all known languages and working back to what must have been the daddy of them all.) And that led to a whole bunch of lexical offspring.
O(ld)E(nglish). belyfan "to believe," the earlier geleafa (Mercian), and gelefa (Northumbrian), and gelyfan (W.Saxon) "believe," all of which stem from P(roto) G(er)m(ani)c. *ga-laubjan "to believe," perhaps literally "hold dear, love" (cf. Old Saxon gilobian "believe," Du(tch). geloven, O(ld) H(igh) G(erman) gilouben, German glauben), all based on *leubh- "to care, desire, love"
Words change over time, as everybody knows, taking on new meanings and throwing off old ones. Believe, at some point, moved away from its original meaning of “to belove” (which we still have in the passive “to be beloved”) and took on the meaning of “to accept as true” the meaning of a given proposition. The word moved from heart to head and it became about thought, rather than feeling.
We still claim that just as Judaism gave the world the concept of justice, the central message of the New Testament is love. But Americans have wandered away from the centrality of ‘agape,’ or compassion, as the heart of religion. We now listen to preachers like Jerry Falwell shouting threateningly from the pulpit, “God is not mocked!”
Karen Armstrong’s claim to the importance of compassion, or love, can be found in 1 Corinthians 13:13, where the original Greek ‘agape’ got translated into Latin as ‘caritas’, the English King James as “charity” and modern English as “love.”
Here’s the Greek (the 1550 Stephanus):
νυνι δε μενει πιστις ελπις αγαπη τα τρια ταυτα μειζων δε τουτων η αγαπη
and the Latin (Vulgate):
nunc autem manet fides spes caritas tria haec maior autem his est caritas
and the English King James:
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
or the New International Version, if you want your Jesus to sound like your friends and neighbors:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I think we should add one more – Hawai’ian Pidgin:
“So now, get three tings dat stay: we can trus God, an we can know everyting goin come out okay bumbye, an we get love an aloha. From da three tings, da love an aloha kine, dass da main ting, an da bestes way.”
Love’s da main ting, you see. Not faith.
OK, now what about this other word, ‘metanoia’?
Many of us who grew up with the Bible had one of those Bibles where the words of Christ were all printed in red. If you had one of those you must have wondered, as I did, how it was that so little of the Bible actually contains speech attributed directly to Jesus. But that’s a distraction. I mention it only to stress that if you just read the words attributed to Jesus, you get a very different picture from the picture put forth by the Old Testament focused fundamentalists.
Mark, for example. The Second Gospel. The first words you see in red are in Chapter 1, verse 15: (I’ve put metanoia in italicized boldface.)
And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.
There you go. The two words in one sentence: “repent” and “believe.” “Repent” is how metanoia got translated.
The original Greek is:
και λεγων οτι πεπληρωται ο καιρος και ηγγικεν η βασιλεια του θεου μετανοειτε και πιστευετε εν τω ευαγγελιω
and the Latin Vulgate runs:
et dicens quoniam impletum est tempus et adpropinquavit regnum Dei paenitemini et credite evangelio
Once again, Hawai’ian Pidgin says it best:
He tell, “Time awready! God stay King hea now. You guys gotta come sorry fo all da bad kine stuff you guys doing, an no do um no moa. An da Good Stuff From God I telling you guys, you guys gotta believe um!”
For a while there I thought I was onto something, because this former Jesuit (and now a German politician) named Heiser Geissler made the point on this German talk show that metanoia got deliberately mistranslated – by Jerome, the translator of the Greek original into the Vulgate Latin, which the Church once declared was the only authorized version. The original Greek, said Geissler, was all about “rethinking” not about “repenting.” Use your head, Jesus was saying, in other words. “See the world differently…Start over with a new life…Don’t be the dumb shmuck you used to be.”
Wow. This means that all these years the Roman Catholic church has had folks by the thin hairs for no good reason. Jerome, the sly fellow, deliberately mistranslated the word metanoia into the Latin for repent – a word which suggests you’ve been a wicked soul, not merely a misdirected one – to give the church the power it needed for total control of the head.
If what believing is all about is admitting you’ve done all da bad kine stuff, then being a sinner is a real problem. And if the only way to get rid of all da bad kine stuff is to go to a priest, confess, and get absolution, then the church has real power over you.
If, on the other hand, it’s actually more about straightening up and flying right, then all this nonsense about being a sinner covered with slime and destined for the fiery furnace is just so much bad poetry.
The Christian message, if you listen to folks like Karen Armstrong and Heiner Geissler, is kind of upbeat. If it’s compassion that’s central, not sin, we can move away from this polarization. We can agree we’ve got a job to do, minimize our differences and get down to work.
I like that idea. I like the idea of atheists and agnostics joining with believers to build a world where compassion is primary. Not doctrine, so that the Bible thumpers can continue to beat you over the head with what they say they know and you don’t. Not authority, so the pope continues to terrorize women over contraception and intimidate gays into thinking black is white and love is sinful. (I’m not kidding about that black and white bit – Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, once said,
if she (the church) shall have defined anything to be black which appears to our eyes to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.”
I like the idea of atheists and believers joining forces to do good things like stopping war and exposing the lies of politicians.
So I thought there for a while I was onto something. A historico-linguistico-theological moment of enlightenment, if you will.
I should have stopped while I was ahead. For some reason, I kept reading those red words, and it wasn’t long before I came upon Chapter 16, verse 16, where it says,
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
Worse, two verses later, in Chapter16:18, we read:
They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Guess that’ll teach me to the Bible.
I guess too, that the point is you can’t fall into the same trap so many have fallen into before you and cherry pick verses out of the Bible to make a point. You’ll find what you want if you look hard enough. But you’ll find other bits, as well, that suggest we’re all cherry-picking, that even that guy with Jesuit training, insightful as his commentary may be, is most likely just another blind man trying to explain an elephant.
No matter. I’m with Michael Krasny, another bright guy with lots of interesting ideas about religion. He addressed the Commonwealth Club not long ago about his new book about leaving his traditional Jewish faith behind and becoming an agnostic. That would put him in tune with about 80% of the Israeli population, by the way. And me.
But what I especially liked about his talk was his answer to the question, “Of all the people you have interviewed, who had the most thoughtful comments about their own agnosticism and/or atheist beliefs?” Krasny mentions the “Trinity of atheists,” Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and calls them geniuses all. “But,” he says, “they were not that thoughtful.” It’s clear Krasny is talking about compassion. “Even though I understand the anger and the enmity at religion, it’s different,” he says, “to go into kind of a contemptuous realm.”
I find it interesting that he didn’t immediately answer the question he was asked, but a question he wanted to answer. To him it’s not who is the most thoughtful that counts, but the most compassionate. When we talk of religion, we talk about truth, or morality, or the meaning of life and the possibility of transcending all we know. When we talk of politics, we talk about power and control and policies for governing and rights and social obligations. When we talk about religion and politics at the same time, we can go on as we have been in this country, giving the floor to some pretty wretched human beings – Rick Santorum, Jerry Falwell and Bishop Dolan pop into mind for some reason. Or we can establish a universal human value like compassion to provide context for these discussions.
I think Karen Armstrong is onto something.
Religion is not the problem. Lack of compassion is.
And P.S. (added July 10) - I realize in rereading this some time after posting it, it would have been good to define compassion. I define it the way Karen Armstrong does, as putting yourself in another's shoes and experiencing the world as he or she does. But not separately. "Feeling with" them. In the shoes with them at the same time. It's when you do that that the Golden Rule comes to mind.