It is the last day of 2004. It is a good day. It is my daughter Armené’s nineteenth birthday. She is a joy, treasure and a beauty. We are going to Philadelphia for PAND: the Philadelphia Armenian Nor Dari or New Year Celebration.
While it is raining this evening (yes, I am typing this in the car), it was a beautiful afternoon. It was sunny and in the 50’s. I had a chance to go on the last outdoor bike ride of 2004. When I recorded the mileage in my log and tallied the December and total year mileage I was delighted to see I had ridden 1,800.1 miles outside this year. My goal was 1,500 miles. Very cool.
Beyond Armené’s birthday and a biking milestone, AMC was running a Three Stooges Marathon. No matter what other interests either intellectual, cultural or sports related that I may have, I have been a lifelong fan of these Princes of Comedy. In my most early and most impressionable years, the Stooges brand of silliness and physical had such a negative enough influence on my behavior that my Mother had no choice but to ban my watching the boys for a few years. It was a great parental call on her part. In watching some of the shorts this afternoon, I called and was called by some of my “Stooge” buddies when one of our favorite episodes was on, repeating lines to each other, laughing and, oh yes, wishing each other the best in 2005.
This year end letter is being written in the closing hours of the month and the year. I really believed, back at the beginning of December, that I would have had this done and distributed by the 20th. I had a topic and was under the false impression that I was clear and organized on what I wanted to say. The topic was to be religion. I was naïve to think I could be clear and concise on this topic. I was not planning to address the large and general topic but rather to focus on one aspect of religion that I have found most confusing.
I kept writing about it, daily, in my notebook. I kept thinking about what I thought I wanted to say and looking for clarity. It just was not coming easily. Partially, I was looking for a way to not to offend the religious diversity of those on my distribution list which includes Christians including an Armenian priest, a Morman, and several devout Paulists, Jews, Moslems, agnostics, atheists, the generally confused by it all and the genuinely mystified by it all. I am not sure what made me think I could easily and clearly capture in words what I was thinking. In the history of humankind people much smarter, more devout and better educated than I have devoted their life, either willingly through interest or by divine calling to this subject. They have written sacred and secular tomes on religion. Some have written are intellectual and scholarly tomes. Others have written metaphorical and allegorical tomes.
It is hard to write about religion. For me it is very personal. Also, beyond the basic belief in God, it gets quite dogmatic with rules, metaphors, and stories that are either true or designed to convey ideas and behaviors. It is the dogma, beyond the basic belief in God that seems to cause all the problems. Even within the same religion there are factions that do not respect, honor or even acknowledge each other. For example, consider the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. I see evangelical Christians actively recruiting Christians from another branch into their fold. There are some orthodox Jews who view Reformed Jews as gentiles. It can be mind boggling with so many factions and sects all believing in the one and only God entirely sure their own spin is The Way.
It is no surprise that I could not sum up my personal views clearly and concisely in a few pages. Whatever was I thinking?
I was thinking simply about monotheism: the notion of one God. Christmas season seemed to be an appropriate time to write about it. Consider that there are three one God religions all part of the chaos, destruction and death in the Middle East. Probably, it is all about money and power, I will address that again in a few paragraphs from here. Religion, however, is a huge polarizing and motivating factor for all involved. The so called Radical Islamists are the center of the activities of the insurgents and suicide bombers we are always hearing about. Orthodox Judaism is central to policy and politics in Israel. In the recent presidential elections here in the United States, there have been several reports that Bush won the election because the Democrats underestimated the numbers and views of the growing New Age or Born Again Christians in the United States. So, I have a very hard time separating religion from the on-going conflicts in the Middle East.
There religions have been at odds for centuries. Three appears to be no end to these struggles. Interestingly, Christianity and Islam both believe that they need to convert everyone via message, missionary and at points in history, the sword. Judaism, in the orthodox form, actually prefers to keep their club private. Not only do they not solicit converts, but they actually discourage them. I am not as familiar with Buddhism, Shinto or Hindu but I rarely read about conversion movements from these Eastern Religions. Not counting the Hari Krishnas hounding folks at airports (other than coins, I still have no idea what they stood for or what they wanted), I don’t see any conversion efforts on the parts of these faiths.
I remember being in Sunday School back in the 1960’s at St. Sarkis Armenian Church. Early on it my religious education, I asked a question that probably has been asked by countless others. If “different” religions believe in one God, why hasn’t anybody figured out that it is probably the same God? It seemed obvious to me. Neither the teachers nor the clerics gave very convincing answers. Either they made no sense or were too complicated and convoluted to be of any use.
Consider that Abraham is the founder or starting point of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three are monotheistic, yet each considers the others to be lesser and refers to them as such by labeling them as heathens, infidels, gentiles and the like. The religions have many of the same prophets. The five Major Prophets in Islam are Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the last or ultimate prophet Mohammed. Christianity shares all these prophets but Mohammed. Judaism only includes the first three.
So, I have to ask, what is the difference? The difference seems to be in the last prophet. In Judaism, they do not recognize Jesus or Mohammed. Christians do not recognize Mohammed. All three believe in one God, presumably the same God, the same one and only God. Is one more “right” than the others? Are they three doors to the same house? Why the differences and why do the differences get so extremely emotional at times? Good questions, few answers.
Well, of course, there are answers. Devotees and clerics of each religion can give passionate faith based discourses on the true word of God, being saved versus eternal damnation, and other similar arguments designed to reinforce belief that is already there, scare one into faith, or trying to demonstrate the inner peace they feel by being on the right path. Some clerics and academic theologians can get, as mentioned above, really complicated and convoluted in their explanations.
In Christianity, the religion I think I know the best of these three. God, the one and only God, is divided into the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Well, is there one or three? The answer is yes, and no. Depending on who you ask and how “educated” they are. Even in Christianity there are enough different approaches that it can be quite confusing. Consider the Mormans, the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, who have added an entire third testament to chronicle the mission of Jesus in the Western Hemisphere.
We all believe in the same God. Yet, I feel that if one were to loudly proclaim this and ask what all the animosity is about, he would have about as much effect as Rodney King asking “Can’t we all get along?”
As mentioned above and in my June letter, there is, of course, an economic component to the religious struggles in the Middle East. There are 300 million or so people in the greater Arab world. The have a collective GDP which is $60 billion less than the $890 billion GDP of Spain. Spain’s population is only 11 million. There are less foreign books translated into Arabic than there are translated into Greek. The population of Greece is just 11 million. The mass of the Arab people are quite poor and uneducated. The ruling few are obscenely rich and powerful. This provided a perfect environment for those preaching a better life via extreme or radical Islam.
There was a piece on CNN just after the 9/11 attacks that I remember. They were talking about the Islamic Madrasahs or school in Pakistan and how those schools were a breeding ground for extreme Islam. The CNN piece focused on students simply studying a memorizing the Koran. Focusing on one of the students, it was reported he used to work 10-12 hours a day making mud bricks for literally pennies a day. It was a harsh life with little or no hope. The Madrasah, by contrast, was a kind of paradise where the studies were demanding but one was relatively well fed and clean. Young men were attracted to the schools because it offered a better life then most could find elsewhere.
Another CNN piece this year focused on the popularity of Muqtada al-Sadr who is often referred to as a “firebrand young cleric.” This piece focused on how many of his fiery speeches and sermons, as well as other “extreme” clerics were recorded, mass produced on CDs and distributed for pennies in Iraq and beyond. The war may be for oil, power, peace, democracy, freedom or whatever other banner is waved but the motivation and polarization seems to be around these three monotheistic religions. It boggles the mind and, obviously, stirs the blood.
Another religious based thought has been with me this Christmas season: Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men. I must have seen this hundreds of times in Christmas cards and messages. I have heard it at least an equal amount in sermons, carols, pageants and movies. It always meant something to me, but not as much as this year.
Maybe it is because I am older and thus either wiser or more sentimental. More likely it is because approximately thirteen hundred American soldiers and five to ten times that many Iraqis having died in this war. These feelings were amplified by the massive loss of lives in the recent tsunamis in Asia. Either way, it seems that we could all use a bit more “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”
I knew the phrase was Biblical and upon consulting the oracle at Google.com I found it was from Luke 2:14. It comes as part of the birth of Jesus. After the birth, an angel came to some shepherds near Bethlehem and related the good news. Upon relating this news, the angel was joined by a “heavenly host” which proclaimed “Glory to God on the highest and Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”
The magic of the internet also allowed me access to several versions of Luke 2:14 from various translations. The one I have been quoting is from the King James Versions. Others include:
1. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men.
2. Glory to God in the highest and earth peace among men with whom He is pleased
Beyond this all encompassing wish of Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men, I would like to wish everyone the best of health, happiness and prosperity in 2005.
Errata from November Letter:
I referred to Marx and Engle. Engle, of course, should be Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) the German Socialist.
Several kind readers and one son have suggested that I upgrade my proofreading skills or even “outsource” that responsibility. I will include that as one of two 2005 e-Letter resolutions. The other will be to get a website up.