A rose by any other name…

A couple of incidents recently got me thinking in roughly the same direction. OK, that probably means that I should wait for a third, but I’ve a few minutes to write now, so…

The first stems from my editing. I’ve been working on a book about the collaboration between a Tibetan Buddhist priest and a Christian minister, in which the Buddhist taught a Buddhist spiritual practice to the Christian, she worked with it for a period and journalled about the results and they then collaborated to do the same with an inter-religious test group. It’s been fascinating. I’d tell you to look out for the title, but that’s still something being argued about.

The thing is, the Buddhist practice verbally references Buddha, Dharma and Sanghya (awakened teacher, living tradition and community of saints, to approximate the meanings). After a while, the Christian substituted the terms Jesus, the Holy Spirit and El Roi (“the God who sees me” in Hebrew) as being the nearest equivalents she could think of from her tradition. Otherwise the practice stayed exactly the same, including breathing and visualisation as well as the words (and presumably the sentiment of) “I take refuge in…” preceding the words used. I suggested a subtitle along the lines of “A Buddhist practice used by a Christian”, and my Buddhist author objected, saying that it was now a Christian practice because of the words used.

This was not an issue on which I wanted to argue with my authors, but it did get me thinking about whether just a chance of word could change something from being in one tradition to being in another.

The second was when I played to a friend (who is non-religious and somewhere in the hard agnostic-to-atheist spectrum) the beginning of The Hooters’ “All You Zombies”, which I fancied he’d quoted from earlier (he hadn’t – he’d never heard the song). It opens ‘Holy Moses met the Pharoah/ Yeah, he tried to set him straight/ Looked him in the eye/ “Let my people go”‘. And my friend immediately said “I don’t like Christian music” and was generally derogatory about it.

Now, I didn’t really pick him up on this, apart from to mention that The Hooters weren’t usually regarded as “Christian” – he was obviously thoroughly set against considering it any further. So I didn’t, for instance, mention that though it does mention Moses and Noah, these are figures taken from the Hebrew scriptures, not the New Testament. I will grant that, if you listen to the whole song, the message is very much “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”, which is thoroughly in tune with Jesus – but also with a wide swathe of Jewish thinking. And, for that matter, Socialist or Marxist thinking. OK, in conscience, the writer (Eriz Bazilian) also wrote “What if God was one of us?”; whether that can be considered “Christian” is an interesting question, given that it scandalises some of my Christian friends. It does mention God, it does imply incarnation and it does reference the Pope, but “just a slob like one of us” is calculated to get up the backs of anyone who hasn’t really considered what incarnation has to mean. I can’t trace anything else he’s written with as much religious reference…

I did mention to my friend that if this was Christian music, so were a significant number of Leonard Cohen songs, but the ears were closed, as far as I can tell as soon as he heard the words “Holy Moses”.

Now, this concern about a name is not new to me. I’ve written before about a very long running thread on a French language forum in which I addressed a number of French and Belgian atheists, eventually finding that all of them had had some kind of experience of what I’ll call “the numinous” (though I’d personally label them as lower-level mystical experiences). During this exchange I used [    ] to represent a box with contents unknown which was the root cause of those experiences (or was that which was being experienced). Eventually, after around a year of those exchanges, I suggested that we put a label on the box (which conveniently takes the four letter of “Dieu”), and further suggested that, taking the accounts of a lot of mystics from various traditions as a cue, we use the label “Dieu” (God in French) for the box which we’d managed to agree existed in some sense.

All of them promptly backtracked like crazy. It seemed that the mere use of a label with which they had a set of negative associations was enough to negate the whole course of agreement they’d expressed as we inched towards that moment. To me, of course, this was not a problem – I knew of massively multiple accounts of what “God” means even just within Christianity, and there are more in other faiths; I do not think that a single definition can catch all of those possible meanings, thinking of them as more a cluster of loosely associated “family resemblance” concepts (à la Wittgenstein).

I’ve also been involved in discussions with Conservative Christians who have made statements along the lines of “We worship God, Muslims worship Allah, who is a false God”. Now, of course, “Allah” is merely the word in Arabic (and some connected languages) which translates as “God”, and Arabic-speaking Christians will pray to Allah. As far as those Conservatives were concerned, however, Allah could not possibly be God, whatever the dictionaries said. Pointing out that in Christianity and Judaism we actually have a name for God (YHVH) and that the word “god” is not in any of the original texts (the Hebrew will use “El” or “Elohim” as more generic terms, the Greek of the New Testament will use “Theos”) and thus “god” was already a translation was to no avail.

I wonder at this point whether there’s still operating in peoples’ subconsciouses the idea that words have power irrespective of what they signify. This is a concept which has been prominent in magic through the ages, but it wouldn’t be espoused, I think, by any of those I’ve indicated as having problems with the use of or change of the label used. It’s possible that, for instance, the French atheists were largely influenced by the fact that, to them, the word “Dieu” had considerable baggage, and they couldn’t use it without the baggage welling up from the backs of their minds. I fancy that might also explain my friend cavilling at “Holy Moses”, though I’m sure that having grown up in a culture steeped in Christianity for over a thousand years, the meme of freeing the enslaved which, for me, goes with the name “Moses” resonates with him. It just doesn’t resonate quite as much as a load of other baggage, it seems.

Returning to my authors, though, I don’t think that the use of either “Buddha, dharma, sanghya” or “Jesus, spirit, El Roi” would have time when chanted to produce significant conceptual baggage; they are more of a mantra in the actual practice, it seems to me, something akin to the generally gabbled “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our deaths”, which I don’t think often excites the cognitive, deliberative part of the brain of those using the rosary. I fancy the same is commonly true of those chanting repetitively “Nam myoho renge kyo” in the Buddhist tradition (which I’m told doesn’t literally mean quite the same thing as the chant is intended to express). In addition, the second set of words were carefully chosen to, as much as possible, represent the same underlying meanings as attached to the first, and perhaps slightly adjust the word-signification in the process.

Why, therefore, I asked myself, was what was clearly a Buddhist practice suddenly transformed into a Christian one? OK, in a spirit of confession, I’ve frequently ended up substituting Christian-origin words in what is otherwise mantra yoga so far as I’m concerned, because the words I use maybe have some added connections in my mind (though note what I say above about the Hail Mary and Nam myoho renge kyo). I don’t, however, think I’m thus using a Christian practice – it’s a modified Hindu practice or perhaps an interfaith practice.

Perhaps, though, one cannot actually say that the practice itself belongs to any faith? If you were to use, for instance, nonsense words…? For me, however, it was a Buddhist practice, because it came from a Buddhist tradition.

I don’t know the answer to how a Buddhist practice becomes a Christian one. What I do know is that I can’t accuse my authors, my friend or the group of French atheists of being wrong about their understanding of the use of the relevant words. OK, I probably should say the same about the Conservative Christians as well, though suggesting that when (say) a Canadian or an Australian use the term “Prime Minister”, that has to refer to Boris Johnson rather than to Pierre Trudeau or Jacinta Ardern strikes me as an analogy – you can be just plain wrong about your interpretation of a use of words. Words are however going to mean what they are going to mean in the mind of the person hearing them, not necessarily what they were intended to mean by the person who spoke them, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the hearer is wrong or that the speaker meant something other than what was intended. This is, more or less, the “Death of the Author” principle, which has annoyed so many authors, including myself.

Why the title I chose? Obviously I reference Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but also Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”, in the postscript to which he wrote  of his title “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”. Did I also think of Seal’s “Kiss from a rose”? Clearly I did, because I mention it, and I do so because listeners are divided on what Seal actually means by “rose” in the song. He isn’t willing to help us on that, either.