First Principles (Part 2)
The July 2007 issue of Young Muslim Digest carried the first part of this story essay in which the Muslim protagonist, Max, is involved in a deep discussion on the apocryphal literature of the Catholic Church with two of its clergymen who unknowingly take Max for a Christian himself. The setting for this deep discussion on comparative religion is Bangalore’s Richard’s Park located a stone’s throw away from the Bible Society of India Building where the two clergymen have arrived for a convention that focuses on bringing Muslims closer to Christ. Presented hereunder is the concluding part of this story-essay wherein the discussion between the three men comes to a close with an understanding of predestination and human free will.
Max almost knew for certain that this subject was coming up. There was no evading it now.
“As I understand, father,” he began, “Predestination is based on the law of God and human free will. And so even if God could save the whole world so that none should perish, He would not will to do so lest thus He should deprive man of freedom, which He has granted him in order to do despite to Satan, in order that man scorned of the spirit, even though shall sin as the spirit did, may have power to repent and go to dwell in that place whence the spirit was cast out. It is not without reason, therefore, that Christ once declared:
‘Our God willeth, I say, to pursue with His mercy man’s free will, and willeth not to forsake the creature with His omnipotence. And so on the day of Judgement none will be able to make any excuse for their sins, seeing that it will then be manifest to them how much God hath done for their conversion, and how often He hath called them to repentance.’”
“Is that also from the Apocrypha?” Joshua asked in some wonder at Max’s quoting extempore from scripture.
* * * *
“Wayfarer, you know what led me to the First Principles as a teenager?”
“‘Yes, Max. You know I do.”
“That saying of Muhammad where he mentions that all deeds of a human being, all of his or her fate, character and destiny are already marked out even before he, or she, is born. I never could reconcile God’s justice with that saying of Muhammad for as long as I could remember. Right until the time you cleared it for me, Wayfarer. Soon after we first met when I was seventeen.”
“…And how was it cleared, Max?”
“I had not understood the implications of absolute and relative time until that point. And that was where I kept faltering. That man’s mind is relative in its ability to perceive things around him is the single most important principle that I had not realized. Once that had been grasped the remaining pieces fell into place, to form the perfect picture.”
“And so, man’s mind being relative, he requires a point of reference from which to judge the course of events. Time makes sense to him only in there being a past, present and a future. Today, tomorrow and the day after; now, then and thenceforth: all have meaning only in this context of his relating to the passage of the fourth dimension, of time. If then man were to judge predestination as an act of God that was done at some point at the ‘beginning’ of creation with a clear objective of unalterably finalizing the ‘end’ of things, then God would indeed appear to be unjust in creating man. But, of course, this is purely man’s misunderstanding for if the mind of man is relative, God is never that. God can, in a way, be said to be Absolute in His perception. Thus, He does not have to exist in relation to anything. In His own words in the Qur’an He is As-Samad, or the Absolute, the Independent. This implies therefore that when Muhammad, the last messenger from God, declared that God has decreed the fate of all humans, he meant exactly that.
To put it in human language, since I understand now that God does not exist in relation to time, I, as a human could say that He exists in all time – in the past, the present and the future – but all at the same time, at the same instant. This is something that we can understand but cannot hope to attain to. When One exists as such, One is aware and alive to the working of the history of all eternity in a single instant and, as such, knows how everything ultimately transpires in human as well as natural terms. However, to be aware of the course of events is not necessarily to be held responsible for how things eventually happen as much as, for instance, Nostradamus, the French seer of the fifteenth century, cannot be held responsible for events happening as he had foreseen them happen.
This is, of course, not to say that God cannot and does not interfere in the course of events in nature and human life. In fact, He does do that in keeping with the nature of His several perfect attributes. Nevertheless, whether He has interfered in the working of human destiny, or has left it to follow its own natural course, whether it is through the general pattern or the particular pattern of God’s working in the universe, all events of the past, present and future are known to God in one eternal, undying moment.
As for man, he must ever use the power of discernment and the ability to choose between Good and Evil to sculpt his own destiny and predicament in the Hereafter. Whether God chooses to aid him or not, in this making of his destiny, is left almost entirely to man himself and his determination to choose Good over Evil, God over the Demon.
Wayfarer? Are you still here?”
“You have learnt well, Max. You realize then that all things in existence and of which man has knowledge exists as such because man perceives them as such. Were it not for the human intellect, and the description of things given to it through the human senses like sight, hearing, smell and touch, all things in existence would be meaningless. Indeed, remove the human intellect and all else is mere illusion, Max: a faint resemblance to a world and a reality that already exists within the Ultimate Perception of things.”
* * * *
“Max, did you read that in the Apocrypha as well?” Joshua repeated his question, while both he and Father Callaghan stared at the suddenly silent figure of Max bowed down as he sat on the half wall of the enclosure.
“What…?” Max looked up out of his preoccupation. “What did you say…?”
“You were quoting Jesus on predestination, Max. Were you quoting from the Apocrypha?”
“Yes, yes,” Max fell back out of his reverie. “I picked that up from the Apocrypha some time ago. It made a lot of sense, unlike the four Gospel writers. I think it was in the works of Arius, or Donatus.”
Father Callaghan was visibly moved. Christianity still had hope then. If only in the Apocrypha, if not in the mainstream scriptures. But he had spent a lifetime studying Christianity, abiding by its every stricture. How then had this truth, so easily received by one seemingly half his age, avoided him for these many years? Was there a criterion beyond academic scholarship that bestowed enlightenment upon those who passed its test? Could that criterion be intellectual honesty more than emotional affinity?
Joshua had got up from his sitting position on the half wall, seemingly unaware of his own action. He made his way slowly down the steps of the enclosure with the other two following suit. The darkening of the evening sky, it seemed, was then drawing the curtains on an absorbing discussion between the three men in Richard’s park. The sun had surely gone below the horizon and if there was any doubt, the ululating, soul-stirring call to prayer issuing out of the minarets of the Sir Ismail Sait mosque in Frazer Town now reached their ears, setting the issue at rest: it was, indeed, sunset. While the call to prayer was unsettling for Max; the other two, however, would not be hurried as they walked slowly to the exit from the park.
“But, Max” The younger man wouldn’t let the conversation die out. “In choosing to live a life in keeping with God’s commandments, as against the powerful insinuations of the Satan, doesn’t man get to earn his reward. Doesn’t he actually merit paradise? Is he not the maker of his own destiny?”
“Merit, Joshua?” Max looked at the young priest. “Can man really merit even a little breath which he receives every moment? Consider, brother, the parable of the one from Nazareth: If one should lend you a hundred pieces of gold, and you spend those pieces, could you say to that man: ‘I give you a decayed vine-leaf; give me therefore thine house, for I merit it’?”
“No.” It was Father Callaghan, in a voice that betrayed inner feelings. “He should first pay that which he owed, and then, if he wished for anything, he should give him good things, but what good is a decayed leaf, like these fallen leaves before us?” He gently tossed aside the autumn leaves that had fallen from the branches above the park’s walkway that led to the exit.
“Exactly, Father!” Max confirmed. “So who was it who created man out of nothing? Doubtless, it was God, who also gave him the whole world for his benefit. But man by sinning has spent it all, for by reason of sin is all nature turned against man, and man in his misery has nothing to give to God but works corrupted by sin. For, sinning every day, he makes his own work corrupt. How, then, should man have merit, seeing he is unable to give satisfaction?”
“Is it not possible then that there are people – a very few people, at least – who might not be sinning?” Joshua wondered aloud.
“If you looked into the Apocrypha, brother,” Max reminded the young priest again, “You would find Jesus telling us: ‘Certain it is that our God saith by his prophet David: ‘Seven times a day falleth the righteous’; how then falleth the unrighteous? And if our righteousnesses are corrupt, how abominable are our unrighteousnesses! As God liveth, there is naught that a man ought to shun more than this saying: ‘I merit.’ Let a man know, brother, the works of his hands, and he will straightaway see his merit. Every good thing that cometh out of a man, verily man doeth it not, but God worketh it in him; for his being is of God who created him. That which man doeth is to contradict God his creator and to commit sin, whereby he meriteth not reward, but torment.’”
‘Even what we consider our own virtue,’ said Father Callaghan quietly, ‘is facilitated by the mercy of God. It is our sins alone that do not have God’s sanction. In that, what is truly ours, and ours alone, are our sins which we commit at our own discretion. And yes, Max, can we really hope to merit anything with nothing of our own save our unrighteousness? Can we even dare to say we merit?’ Father Callaghan’s voice rose and fell with the intensity of sudden conviction.
Max smiled at Father Callaghan: ‘You already knew it, didn’t you, Father?’
‘Well, it was about time. I’m an old man in the service of the Church now, Max.’ Father Callaghan laughed. It was laughter that breathed hope and a prayer that deep down there was still a way out of the rigidities of the Church. Even if it was in the Apocrypha that he had now to ransack. It was somewhere, at least. It was, comfortingly, consolingly, still there, somewhere.
Max looked at the evening sky from outside the gates of Richard’s park. It had turned a deep red and the darkness was already seeping in. His time was almost up, and he had to hurry onto the main square at Frazer Town before he missed out.
‘It has been such an interesting evening with you two, but I really must hurry now.’ Max began to say goodbye.
‘But tell us, Max, which denomination do you belong to? With your interest in the Apocrypha, it isn’t even strange to ask, you know!’ Joshua pleaded, already fascinated by this stranger’s understanding of the scripture. He wished that Christianity had more members like him.
‘I am a Muslim by faith, Joshua.’ The answer came easily from Max. ‘Like I said earlier, my faith is that of Christ’s own persuasion.’
Max then grabbed two suddenly lifeless hands, ‘We must meet more often, but now I must rush to the mosque at Frazer Town if I am not to miss my evening prayers. May God be with us.’
By a single thought that comes into the mind,
In one moment a hundred worlds are overturned.
Or so said Rumi in his Mathnawi, thought Max, as he moved away quickly, waving back to the speechless men behind him. Two men who, in a few moments, had a thousand worlds overturned. By a single thought, or was it several?
Max chuckled to himself as he made haste to reach the mosque.
Maximus: he never was comfortable with his name. He never had been with its meaningless, non-Islamic nature.
But then there were times when he liked it that way.
This, clearly, was one of those times.