Because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.
But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.
If you change the way people think, she said. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. If you do that, you can change the way people live their lives.
And that’s the only lasting thing you can create.
- Chuck Palahniuk
If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof you’re well-aware that even the most casual Jews offer the traditional greeting of shalom to other members of the faith. Christians are told this is the Jewish equivalent of the peace be with you that they routinely offer each other every Sunday, when modern Christians take a moment away from what in most denominations is an otherwise methodical service to experience a cursory dose of human warmth in the form of a handshake or hug with their pew-neighbors.
Christians are told that they’re echoing the greeting Jesus used with his followers in their native language of Aramaic. Another version of this greeting has also been offered by Muslims at every coming and going since Islam’s birth, although it is getting a bit of a traditional crust on it for today’s youth.
Even if you’re not a Muslim, if your greeter has seen any grasp of Arabic at all on your part he’ll greet you with salam alay-kum, which is translated into the very same phrase Christians offer each other during that Sunday service break. However, there’re two problems with the translation peace be with you. And it’s not just between Arabic and English, although the most glaring mistake is.
First is that the kum at the end is the formal Arabic indicator of the “plural you,” so a more accurate translation would be peace be with y’all. This isn’t because of the formality imbued by the “plural you” like in French, but for a reason rooted in Muslim mythology. Muslims are literally saying “peace be upon you guys.” Because Muslims are told that everyone has a wee angel perched on each shoulder, a-la Animal House, one recording our good deeds and the other our bad deeds. So it is these two miniature bureaucratic seraphim that are being greeted along with you whenever the traditional Muslim greeting is offered.
But there’s still another inconsistency in the translation.
What is translated from Jesus’s Aramaic into Hebrew, and Mohammad’s miraculously penned Arabic as peace originally had a different meaning. All three languages are Semitic, and so they carry many commonalities in terms of grammatical rules and etymological heritage. Although now mistranslated back into each language to mean peace in the same sense that first pops to mind for English-speakers – the absence of war or turmoil – that’s not the purest sense of the word.
In the case of shalom, salam alay-kum, and peace be with you what was originally meant by the Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic is an idea of oneness, or wholeness. Something akin to “peace of mind.” So a much more accurate translation would be may you be made whole, or interpreted with a little more linguistic panache: may you join with the oneness of God.
It is this second translation that sends out a bridge to the world’s other great religious figure, the Buddha. Whose followers are not considered People of the Book but share a fundamental, often forgotten, agreement about the nature of the relationship between what is human and what is holy, and how to best combine the two. Meditation in Buddhism is bringing your bewildered mind into check by focusing on a breath, flame, or other flickering indication of life. Relaxing into the oneness that is life. Union with the wholeness shared by God and man.
Although you are by yourself, you’re not alone but totally immersed in God. In this action Buddhists celebrate the humanity we all share and seek to unite with their concept of God, no different it turns out, if the syntactical parallels are believed, than the time Moses, Jesus, or Mohammad spent alone with their Father. And it was during this time that they would draw the tenets of the religions they would go on to found.
And not only does Buddhism bind all three Middle-Eastern religions together in the spiritual, it also provides a link to the formation of early Christianity. Which is tale which provides both parallels and foils for the justification of suicide-driven terrorist attacks as acts of martyrdom by Islamic extremists.
Buddha is translated into English as the awakened one. The concept of awakening stirs nothing of the spiritual for most Christians around today. But go back a few thousand years, to the time just after Jesus’s death, and awakening becomes a key element in the most important debate to wrack Christianity since nailed tracts.
Long before Christians split themselves into a Catholic Church and a Protestant Church, before the nascent Christian religion had coalesced, a much more decisive debate predicated the formation of any church at all. On one side of the debate were the Gnostics. On the other was everyone else. In between there were actually hundreds of confessional divisions, but for the sake of understanding it works to describe everyone else as Fundamentalists because that’s what they all eventually became.
Not Fundamentalist in the Jerry Falwell, speaking in tongues, or curing paraplegics in a two-grand Gucci suit on Sunday cable television sense – but just Fundamental in that they took a more literal, orthodox, and accepted approach to what was finally preserved in the official Christian Bible as Jesus’s teachings.
Gnostics shouldn’t be confused with agnostics, the former were a highly devout and committed sect of Christianity. While the latter make it a point that although they generally believe in some sort of Higher Power they reject any formalized interpretation of what It might be or mean. Gnostics embrace faith as the only reason for life, while agnostics have no certain faith in the existence or machinations of a higher power. You’re considered a Gnostic if you’ve achieved gnosis, which is best thought of joining the likes of Buddha and awakening. But awakening from what exactly?
The dream that leads us to believe that anything we see around us really is. Awakening from the dream and realizing that “the earth and everything upon it is but a forstander, the material embodiment of a finer and more proud reality which exists immediately behind it.”1 Gnostics are a highly spiritual, highly faithful bunch, who some detractors might argue are just high. However their beliefs have specific impact on the accepted views and doctrines of what was then Fundamentalist Christianity, but has today become Christianity in entirety.