Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Religions, Social Clubs, and Profanity

While according to their strict definitions "profane" and "sacred" are considered antonyms, one of the things I wondered about a lot as a teenager is why many religious leaders consider profane language sinful. At the time, I read through the entire Bible trying to figure it out and came up empty. The Lutheran church my family attended tried to lump "swearing" in with taking God's name in vain, which struck me as incredibly silly. After all, it's not like the word "shit" has anything to do with God's name. Furthermore, "crap" means the exact same thing but none of my Sunday School teachers seemed to think it was anywhere near as bad. I realized later that this is the same Lutheran church that lumped the making of graven images into the First Commandment and was stuck with two separate "Covet" commandments in order to get to ten, which is almost certainly an incorrect reading of Exodus, so there's that to consider as well.

Slate has an article up today addressing this very question in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and it's nice to see that in reading through the Bible I didn't miss anything. The text actually says very little about naughty words.

The Quran doesn’t directly address vulgar language, but the Prophet Mohammed made his opposition to it clear in the Hadith—statements attributed to the prophet with varying degrees of reliability. According to one of Mohammed’s contemporaries, he once said that “Allah does not like obscene words or deeds,” while another acquaintance reportedly observed that “the prophet was not one who would abuse (others) or say obscene words.” These anti-obscenity provisions appear regularly in the Hadith, making Islam the sole Abrahamic religion with a clear prohibition in its sacred texts on obscene language.

The Bible is hazy on vulgarity. In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon counsels, “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.” It’s not entirely clear what constitutes a wholesome tongue, and, in any event, Solomon’s vague and toothless prohibition is weak by Old Testament standards. To put it into perspective, Jehovah ordered death by stoning for those who took his name in vain.

In the New Testament, Paul the Apostle tells the Colossians to “put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.” The New International Version translates the key phrase as “filthy language,” but many scholars think both interpretations are incorrect, and the ancient missionary was probably referring to false prophesying rather than naughty words.

Here's why this is important in the context of spiritual work. If we start with the assumption that a religion is supposed to consist of a system of practice by which one can cultivate spiritual experiences, it is vitally important to understand the actual teachings of the system at the time in which it was established. Generally speaking, religions get their start in the first place because they consist of practices that adherents find useful. Unless a religion adopts something akin to a scientific approach in terms of evaluating the effectiveness of new practices, other prohibitions that creep into the system generally are of a social rather than a spiritual nature.

So if you want your religion to serve as a social club and a source of tribal identification that's all fine and good, but you should have no illusions about such a religion's relation to genuine spiritual practices. As Aleister Crowley wrote in Magick Without Tears, "the Great Work is not a cocktail party." While one of the situations he was referring to was the social infighting that destroyed the original Golden Dawn order, he also was quite aware of how as Christianity became mainstream it did everything in its power to purge itself of Gnostic beliefs. It may not be inevitable that social and spiritual concerns must conflict, but it certainly seems that they do most of the time.

As far as profanity goes, Thelema is so much simpler. As per Liber Oz, "man has the right to speak as he will." Full stop.

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