In my culture, we are always told that we are not good enough. We are not worthy, we are nothing, we are fallen creatures, wretched are we and so on. The idea behind this self-abasement is of course to pave the way for us to depend on God. In the words of St Paul, we must decrease while Jesus must increase. We are told that we can do no good and despite being saved by Christ, we continue to "sin" and we continue to disobey God. Of course, to make sure that we always appear to be in the wrong, my religion lists a lot of perfectly harmless and natural actions as sinful and worthy of hellfire.
I'm not sure what deleterious effects such a culture has on the minds of children. I have mentioned perfectly harmless deeds which are considered sinful and totally depraved and wrong and I'll talk more about that now. When I was in secondary school, there was a boy who took his religion a little too seriously. One day, he asked me what I thought of "the sin of masturbation". I jokingly told him it was only a sin if he didn't say grace before it. As you can imagine, he was furious with me for saying that. Seeing how facetious I was with that which he considered sacred, he naturally didn't consult me on matters of the faith. But I heard from other boys that he had a lot of "issues" with what churchmen sometimes call the sin of Onan.
Anyway, we soon went our separate ways and we lost contact for some years. I knew he'd gone to medical school in a different university from mine and he was doing well. I heard too that he had become insanely religious but I didn't ask for the details.
It was either in my second year or third year at uni when I got shocking news from a former schoolmate that something dreadful had happened. This friend of mine (the one with serious issues about sin and other medieval concepts) had been suffering from depression for some time and his body was found floating in a river. He had taken his own life.
I remember feeling paralysed by the news. I put down the receiver, slumped in my chair and memories of our past conversations came rushing back to me. Should I have talked him out of his deep belief in silly concepts of sin and retribution? But I was only sixteen at the time when he spoke to me and making a joke out of the whole situation is just what you would expect a teenager to do. Besides, I wasn't a trained counsellor. And how would anyone know that nonsensical prohibitions placed by an ancient religion would affect him with so much guilt?
There were many questions in my mind. Chief of them was why are there no verses written in the Holy Gospels that clearly tell all these people who take their religion so terribly seriously that as long as you don't harm anyone and yourself, it's ok if you want to do anything you feel like doing? I didn't think of it then but in today's world, I can think of many other areas of supposed "sin" that conservative Christians mark out as an abomination unto God. I'm thinking of course of the lifestyle of our gay and lesbian friends. They don't harm anyone by their love and relationships and is it right for us to say they can't do it because it's a sin? Just as my friend could have taken his life because of a guilt the church drummed into him all his life over something as insignificant as masturbation, there may very well be gay and lesbian Christians who feel the same guilt for being what they were born to be.
Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year and the beginning lines from the 三字经 which I have committed to memory and which is also a part of my culture somehow spring to mind:
Ever since I was a boy, I was told that if my two cultures clashed, it was the Christian culture that should prevail. The 三字经 is at best the wisdom of man but the Bible tells us that the wisdom of man is folly to God.
Every culture has its own wisdom and I'm not so quick to dismiss the wisdom of the 三字经 without further consideration. The 三字经 has the added advantage that it's not dogmatic. It doesn't tell you that you have to accept its wisdom or you'll burn in hell. It's just one of the many Chinese philosophical works and it's not even one of the six traditional Confucian texts. There is no compulsion in it. It's a classical work and you can read it if you want to or throw it away if you are so inclined. It's not sacred or religious.
The Bible, on the other hand, is the word of God. It's sacred and you are told to accept it or burn in hell. It's sometimes very clear especially when it wants to condemn a particular action which it terms as "sin". But in other areas, it's frighteningly ambiguous. I recall a comedy I once saw about a reenactment of the Last Supper. When Jesus said the Eucharist words, St Matthew asked him to be precise - does the bread become his body or just a symbol of his body? When Jesus dithered, St Matthew fumingly told him that wars would be fought and lives sacrificed because of a theological disagreement over the doctrine of the Real Presence. And if he was really God, surely he could look into the future and see the chaos caused by this ambiguity in his words. It ended with Jesus not giving a straight answer and St Matthew leaving the Upper Room in a huff.
The church will be the first to say that life is sacred. We know from history that wars were fought and lives lost over silly theological disputes. I remember being so emotionally moved when I saw as a boy a movie about the beheading of Lady Jane Grey. She was asked a few religious questions and giving answers that pleased her captors could mean that her life would be spared. She knew what the "correct" answers were but she chose to give answers that accorded with her religious conviction which meant certain death. One of the questions she was asked was how many Sacraments there were and her answer sealed her fate.
If one of the Evangelists had written in a Gospel that
"Jesus took the disciples to the mount and said to them, 'Verily, verily, I say unto you. There are x number of Holy Sacraments. Woe betide any man who declares that there are any number of Sacraments apart from x in number.' And the disciples did marvel at how wise the words of Jesus were that there are x number of Sacraments, and not a jot more or fewer",there would have been no disagreement on this question. And no killings, no beheadings and no unnecessary deaths.
The 三字经 has no blood-splattered history of wars and killings. It's just philosophical wisdom and you can accept it or reject it for all anyone cares.
As we celebrate the Year of the Horse, let us remember that when we are dealing with ancient texts and it does not matter if it's the Bible, the Quran, the Veda, the Sutras or the 三字经, we should carefully pick and choose what's right and ignore that which we know deep within us is unkind, unloving or just obviously not right. Sometimes, ancient writers have a lot of baggage that we know nothing about and they can say monstrous things that any right thinking person today would dismiss as utterly immoral.