Lost in translation – what is death?

Several years ago my reading pointed me to a suggestion that in a theological context the words “death” and “dead” were often used symbolically  rather than literally. I was interested in the concept but didn’t expect to be blogging anything related to it. I wasn’t then taking my interest in the ancient history and history of religion too seriously. The political climate was also very different.

I am writing this within a year of the emergence of ISIS or ISIL or DAESH, which is a terrorist group that claims to want to  establish an Islamic caliphate. Islamic it surely isn’t. Why? In essence Islam is based on living in harmony with  nature. One of Islam’s underlying principles is that of doing no harm to living beings. This is a sentiment shared by all religions emanating from the Middle East and Asia. The Internet is awash with pictures and videos of horrendous cruelty to fellow humans. These include burning and beheading.

It’s not only ISIS but other Islamic societies that do so. We hear of people literally being stoned to death in a number of Islamic countries. Death is penalty for blasphemy. Blasphemy is taking God and his prophets and Islam in vain. But hang on a moment, was not blasphemy a crime in many western Christian societies until fairly recently?

This blog was prompted by an article by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and published in standpoint in March 2015.

My understanding is that Islamic penalties can only be applied to people who have “signed up” for them. There is a similarity with Masonic penalties, which are gruesome to say the least but are clearly symbolic because sworn an oath not to divulge what few “trade secrets” Freemasonry may have one should not divulge them. Masonic ritual is allegorical and symbolic.

Without giving too much away the basis of Craft Freemasonry is a “symbolic” death and rebirth. In Christianity we have the concept of the “born again Christian”. We also have a concept of “life after death”. But what is death?

My original reading pointed to the concept of death meaning “being outside a community”. It was pointing to a person who was not signed up to or accepting the rules or beliefs or ideals of a community. They were spiritually dead. One example given was that of Lazarus who was not physically dead but was spiritually or morally dead but he was persuaded by Jesus to see the wisdom of the community rules. He was admitted and was “raised from the dead”.

If we reverse the concept we arrive at the situation whereby a member of the community either breaks its rules (e.g. a wive, who may have been seen as property, may have been unfaithful) or  denounces the accepted rules of the community (an apostate) will be ejected from the community and thereby be sentenced to death – that’s a symbolic death. One way of warding people off and protecting the community may have been to throw stones at them – hence “stoning to death”.

We can look at this concept of “death” in another way. Once we have signed up to the rules of our community we are raised from the dead and the life we are living now is “life after death”.

I am merely promoting a concept here. There are for sure many practices undertaken, as it were, in the name of religion whose origins have long since been lost in history. Our written history really only begins with the founding of the civilisation in Sumer and the fertile crescent bounded by the rivers Euphrates and Tiger – now part of Iraq – but many then current practices would no doubt have been passed down by the oral tradition. There were taught by rote. There were good and bad ways of doing things – for example preparing meat to eat, ensuring hygiene and even chosing animals whose provenance one knew (so no bush meat, for example). Clearly, as with the party game Chinese Whispers, over the years information and detail have been lost. I guess even today some people like merely to told how to do some things and do not want to get bogged down with reasons. Knowledge is degraded.

The other source of knowledge degradation is a problem of translation. No two languages have dictionaries or lexicons that translate word for word. Translations will invariably reflect the translator’s understanding of a concept, especially if it is allegorical, and interests – as indeed does this blog. Thus much gets “lost in translation”.

Returning to ISIS and its beheadings. Two thoughts occur.

  1. Punishments can only be served on people who are “signed up” to them. They cannot be applied to outsiders or non-believers.
  2. If beheading were ever to be a reasonable punishment there would actually be a humane way of doing it – probably the guillotine or someone weilding a very heavy axe to ensure instant death. The pictures on the Internet suggest the use of a very un-Islamic method of execution.

I have promoted a concept here and invite those better qualified than I to comment and take the ideas for if they are found reasonable.


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