[ by Charles Cameron — from “whistleblowers” via the interpretation of hadith to Aztec sacrifice and Christian Eucharist ]
Whistleblowing in Thailand (upper panel, above), which I wrote about in my previous post, is a literal matter, and whistles have seen a huge surge in sales since the “whistleblower” campaign began. In the US practice and politics of leaks, on the other hand, whistleblowing is an activity that requires no physical whistle — just a “blower” with some form of access to media.
There’s nothing terribly metaphysically significant about the distinction in this case, but in other cases it can make a great deal of difference. It’s an issue I keep running into, as a poet and as an analyst of religious drivers in war and peace, and the image of Thai schoolkids blowing their (literal) whistles finally nudged me into writing about it.
I suspect the difference between literal and metaphorical readings maps closely to many of the major fissues in US and globe-wide society.
One area where the distinction can be of vital importance is in the interpretation of scriptures. Thus Jonathan Brown, Georgetown professor and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, shows how the same authoritative text can be very differently interpreted:
When I tell you a hadith, this is in Sahih Bukhari and other books, where the Prophet says to Abu Dharr, his companion: Do you know where the sun goes after it sets, Oh Abu Dharr? and Abu Dharr says, God and His Prophet are more knowledgeable. Tell me, and the Prophet says The sun goes goes down and it prostrates before the throne of God… it prostrates before the throne of Ar Rahman and it asks His permission to rise again and one day it will rise from the West.
Now it’s very interesting, you see in the early twentieth century, Muslim scholars who were kind of modernist scholars start reacting very strongly to this hadith. They said it contradicts astronomy and this hadith contradicts the certainties of modern science because nowadays we know that the Earth actually goes around the Sun and not vice versa and classical Muslims didn’t know that and that’s why they accepted this hadith so we need to go back through the hadiths and analyze them to see which ones are scientifically impossible and which ones are acceptable. This was a big debate and we still have this debate today. Guess what? Classical muslim scholars, going back to the ten hundreds, said exactly the same thing.
Because if you’re a muslim scholar, one of the things you do before you had clocks on your phone and everything is to calculate prayer times and living in a place, I need to tell people what time the prayers are.
And what they found very quickly is that prayer times differ based on latitude, longitude..and they knew that the sun was always up in certain places. You can go to certain parts of the earth where the sun never sets.
So they looked at this hadith and they said how do we understand it then? Oh it must mean that the sun prostrates to God metaphorically like in Surah Rahman Najmu washajaru yas judaan.. the stars and the trees prostrate to God. It doesn’t mean literally the star is doing little sujood up in the sky. It means it’s surrendering to God’s will, it follows God’s will. So they had no problem, they just said this hadith is obviously figurative.
FWIW, the Neoplatonist Proclus, quoted by Henry Corbin in his treatise on Ibn Arabi, uses very similar language:
Just as in the dialectic of love we start from sensuous beauties to rise until we encounter the unique principle of all beauty and all ideas, so the adepts of hieratic science take as their starting point the things of appearance and the sympathies they manifest among themselves and with the invisible powers. Observing that all things form a whole, they laid the foundations of hieratic science, wondering at the first realities and admiring in them the latest comers as well as the very first among beings; in heaven, terrestrial things according both to a causal and to a celestial mode and on earth heavenly things in a terrestrial state….
What other reason can we give for the fact that the heliotrope follows in its movement the movement of the sun and the selenotrope the movement of the moon, forming a procession within the limits of their power, behind the torches of the universe? For, in truth, each thing prays according to the rank it occupies in nature, and sings the praises of the leader of the divine series to which it belongs, a spiritual or rational or physical or sensuous praise; for the heliotrope moves to the extent that it is free to move, and in its rotation, if we could hear the sound of the air buffeted by its movement, we should be aware that it is a hymn to its king, such as it is within the power of a plant to sing…
That’s either nonsense, taken literally — or poetry, taken in a metaphorical sense.
We would do well in reading scriptures of any tradition to bear both possibilities in mind — and remember that in the cultures of the writers, the distinction may be one that is less clear-cut than in our own.
My second version of literal vs metaphorical readings of texts in this post — there have been and will be others — has to do with the overall genre of sacrificial liturgies, and specifically with Aztec and Catholic practices.
But first, some Judaic background. Leviticus 1-7 is concerned with sacrifice — and opens thus:
And the Lord called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock.
If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar: But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord.
Blood sacrifice was indeed a central aspect of worship in the First and Second Temples — and those who would like to see the Temple again restored in our own times are busy training kohanim, preparing ritual vessels sand holding “practice” sacrifices so that once the Temple is rebuilt, the sacrificial liturgies can recommence…
The Psalmist, however, appears to be of the opinion that God takes no pleasure in blood sacrifices:
Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
— so we also see from the time of the Second Temple what might be characterized as an inward-turning or metaphorical approach to sacrifice.
Eric Heaton, with whom I studied the prophets at Oxford, was easily distracted from whatever text I should have but hadn’t read by a quick reference to blood sacrifice — it would send him into a tirade sufficient to see us through to the end of my tutorial. I will have none of your blood sacrifices, saith the Lord, Dr Heaton would thunder…
Early Christianity takes this a step further, heightening the sense of sacrifice in the Eucharist to the point where it transcends physical existence, and the “memorial” sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine at the Last Supper — prefigured by and embodied in the sacrifice of the paschal lamb of Judaism — along with the subsequent sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, and the continuing of that sacrifice in each successive Eucharist, are all portals within time to the “marriage supper of the lamb” or “heavenly eucharist” beyond time and space.
Thus the church historian JND Kelly writes that in the early days of Christianity:
the Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice. … Malachi’s prediction (1:10–11) that the Lord would reject Jewish sacrifices and instead would have “a pure offering” made to him by the Gentiles in every place was seized upon by Christians as a prophecy of the Eucharist. The Didache indeed actually applies the term thusia, or sacrifice, to the Eucharist.
I’ve quoted Dom Gregory Dix‘s long, profound and astoundingly beautiful paragraph “Was ever another command so obeyed?” in the Cadenza to my Said Symphony game, so I won’t repeat it here, but a poetic reaqding can be far more than metaphorical, it can be sacramental.
And in the Catholic and Anglican liturgies, one phrase struck me with peculiar force. It is found in the opening of the Eucharistic prayers of consecration, the Anaphora. The Book of Common Prayer gives it as:
V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up unto the Lord.
— while the Latin of the Catholic missal has:
V. Sursum corda.
R. Habemus ad Dominum.
It is Sursum corda — literally, Hearts lifted — that I’m concerned with here, because it is a poetic or metaphorical usage, as we can see very simply by contrasting it with its literal equivalent as found in Aztec ceremonial.
Hearts lifted – isn’t that precisely what is depicted here?
To the best of my knowledge, that’s an indigenous, post-conquistador image of Aztec ritual. And since the section of my library discussing such things is largely still in storage, not to mention under threat of auction, I’ll quote a crafts page on the history of obsidian to bring you a verbal description:
With sacrificial alters at the top of tall pyramids, built to be as close to the sun as possible, human offerings were often dispatched with the aid of an obsidian-bladed knife, their still pulsating hearts lifted high to the Sun.
How’s that or “hearts lifted” in a literal sense, ritually enacted?
It’s crucial (no pun intended) to note that there are significant differences between the various forms of sacrifice I have described here —
human vs animal sacrifice the sacrifice of self vs the sacrifice of another sacrifice by God vs sacrifice by humans (albeit commanded by God or the gods) actual vs symbolic blood sacrifice demonic inversion vs divine sacrament etc..
— and yet they all fall under the general heading of ritual sacrifice. And although many Aztec ritual practices seemed to the early Catholics who first encountered them as demonic parodies of Christian rites, at some level they spring from the same archetypal soil and utilize the same archetypal imagery–
— which has itself, thank God, been slowly transmuted from human sacrifice to sacramental symbolism across continents and centuries, a process for which we should be profoundly grateful.
For those of you interested in further readings in Eucharistic theology, I recomment particularly:
Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist
I shall have more to say on Torture and Eucharist in an upcoming post on Sarah Palin, baptism and waterboarding.