a blog

by Josh Nicholas

What happened to the dynamism of religions?

Buddhist monks follow a lot of rules – 253 in one tradition, 200 in another. As the story goes, all of these rules were made by the Buddha himself. However, he did not announce them all at once, like Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Instead, they’re said to have evolved organically, with the Buddha making a rule only after he judged a particular deed to be a misdeed.

This, from an interesting article about the celibacy of Buddhist monks. It made me think of similar passages in a book I recently read about the Islamic world, Destiny Disrupted.

During Abu Bakr’s khalifate, at Omar’s suggestion, all the pieces of the Qur’an were compiled in one place. It was a miscellaneous collection at first, because when the revelations were coming in, people recorded them on anything that came to hand - a sheet of parchment, a piece of leather, a stone, a bone, whatever. As khalifa, Omar began a sorting process. In his presence, each written verse was checked against the memorized version kept by the professional reciters whom this society regarded as the most reliable keepers of information. Scribes then recorded the authorized copy of each verse before witnesses, and these verses were organized into one comprehensive collection.

As I read books like Destiny Disrupted (brilliant by the way) or pretty much anything by Karen Armstrong, I am struck by these differences. At the time of the founders these religions were truly alive, and followers and exogenous events were directly part of whole shebang.

By contrast, the experience nowadays seems a lot more passive, of interpretation and extrapolation. Although there are some exceptions, such as some Christian denominations' belief in a personal relationship with god.

But Mohammad was consulted by his followers and the revelations even shaped battle strategy. The community was not only driven, but provided direct feedback.

Barring exceptions like the Ten Commandments, the narrative of the Bible also delivers a stream of guidance in reaction to outside stimuli. But, again, all of this stops once the key figures (notably Jesus) die. We are left with an ossified husk of their teaching.

Actually, worse, as access to these teachings were weaponised in the pursuit of power for hundreds of years.