Fiduciary Theology, The Straight Path, And Pre-Destination

October 30, 2020 Category: Religion

The Straight Path:

“[Soviet] writers must march in serried ranks, and anyone who steps off the path to pick flowers is like a deserter.” 

–Soviet reporter, Konstantin Simonov

The notion of a sanctified “straight path” goes back to the Sumerians, the rulers of whom conceived right-ness as STRAIGHT-ness (“mesaru” vis a vis “kettu”); and divergence from that seen as a grave mis-step (“hitu”).  It is unclear how strict the prescribed regimen was; but the designated way was certainly seen as THE way to be righteous. {6}

The concept of “right living” is found in virtually every religion, and dates back to the Bronze Age. {7}  The Sumerians had “Me” / “parsu”.  Meanwhile, the Egyptians had “Maat” (conceived as the natural order of things), to which one was obliged to hew.  The Persians had “Asha” (effectively: the Path of Righteousness).  In Zoroastrianism, the blessed way of the “Vohu Mana” was also known as the “straight path”.

The Ancient Greeks had “arete” [a life lived according to wisdom].  In the early 5th century B.C., Parmenides of Elea claimed to offer the “Way of Truth”, a vital piece of information to which he claimed to have been made privy (via revelation…from a goddess…during a celestial journey…borne by a magical steed). {8}

In the Vedic tradition (the basis for Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism), one’s proper path was understood in terms of “sanatan[a] dharma” [alt. “damma”].  One of the most notable uses of this idiom is that of the Theravada Buddhists: “Visuddhi-magga” [Pali for “Path of Purification”] as articulated in the 5th century by the Sinhalese monk, Buddha-ghosa of Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka).  The Vajrayana teachings of the Nyingma “terton”, Chogyam Trungpa, involved the “Sacred Path of the Warrior”.  The ancient Chinese had the “tao” [the way], as articulated by Lao Tzu in th 6th century B.C.

Japanese Buddhists have put forth various conceptions of “the path”–as with “Shugendo” (founded by En no Ozunu of Katsuragi in the 7th century).  And in the Shinto tradition, “kannagara” means the “Way of the Kami” [way of the gods], and is sometimes translated as the “path”.  In practical terms, “kannagara” refers to the right way to live (a way that follows from the natural order of things).

Meanwhile, the “Kaharingan” Faith of the Dayaks in Indonesia called themselves by this name, which means “the way of being alive”.

Later, Christians cast righteousness in terms of becoming part of the body of Christ (thus being imbued with the Holy Spirit).  Indeed, the original name for the initial following of Jesus of Nazareth was “The Way”–exhibiting parallels with the Taoist idiom: “The Way”, “The Truth”, and “The Life”.

The motif is universal.  Whether it is the death squads in Peru calling themselves the “Shining Path” or some contemporary self-help book touting the “path to success”, the notion of an ideal path is a captivating one.  When collectivist, the notion of a (designated) path can be put in the service of a political agenda…which can be pro-democratic (as with the “sonderweg” of post-War German Exceptionalism) or fascistic (as with the delusive treatment of the Mosaic “brith” in Judeo-Supremacy).  In the former case, it is designed to keep everyone “in line”.  In the latter case, it is done in the spiritu of civic-mindedness.  The difference is between subjugation and cooperation {9}

The notion of a SPECIFIC path, though, is a quintessentially Abrahamic one.  In the Hebrew Bible, the notion of “shurat” involves strict adherence to a STRAIGHT LINE (pertaining to both piety and judgement).  In Proverbs 2:20, the “ways of the good” and “paths of the righteous” are equated.  (The exhortation is to “walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous”.  The plural is used because it is referring to more than one person, not necessarily to more than one archetype.)  The original Gospel (that of “Mark”) begins with a demand of those who conduct themselves “in the way of the Lord” to “make his path straight” (quoting the Judaic prophet, Isaiah).

In each of the three major Abrahamic religions, sticking with THE straight path has usually entailed a decidedly strict regimen: “Know your assigned place.  And do as you’re told.”  Period.  Autonomy is all-but-eliminated when righteousness is all about obeying orders.  Thus the “Sirat al-Mustaqim” is more about controlling others than self-control.  (It is more about an effort to conform rather than an effort to transform.)  There is a certain appeal to: “Follow the rules; and that’s all there is to it.”  Everyone likes to think that their path is the one-and-only legitimate path; and feel validated when everyone else abides the same mandates.  And what better way to sell a path than to sprinkle it with fairy-dust?

Insofar as the “Sirat al-Mustaqim” is conceptualized as a “WAY”, it is proclaim to be THE ONLY way (“hal al-wahid”).  Some Islamic apologists even go so far as to equate Islam ITSELF with the “Sirat al-Mustaqim”–as with John Esposito in his 1988 book, “Islam: The Straight Path”.  This entails that the so-called “path” is predicated on SUBMISSION, since “Islam” means “submission”.

A few of the heterodox treatments of the “path” within the Ummah have yielded more moderate approaches to piety [“taqwa”; i.e. recognition of the Abrahamic deity is the one true god, and thus the ultimate authority] than the usual “al-hal al-wahid” (whereby one is a slave to god, and there are strictly-defined rules).  Sufis call it “tariqa” [effectively: “spiritual path”], thereby affixing an entrancing gimcrack of esoterica to the notion.  Indeed, conceiving it in this manner lends the idea an aura of mystique.  We are all looking to be enchanted in some way; so an special avenue that (purportedly) holds enchantment in store for us has undeniable appeal.  Yet it is important to maintain sobriety when indulging in otherwise mesmerizing ideas.  Every one of us can be enraptured by mysterious-ness (some more than others); and so sometimes mistake arcane gibberish for philosophical profundity.

For Sufis, someone embarking on this path is seen more as a SEEKER (“salik”) than as a FOLLOWER.  In Sufism, the formal term for someone undertaking this spiritual search is “murid”, which means “one who is committed”.  (Note that “murid” is based on the Arabic lexeme for will-power / self-control.)  We should bear in mind, though, that an emphasis on personal commitment (i.e. a process of SEARCHING) is at variance with the notion of enslavement (“abd”) and subordination (“[ist]aslam[a]”) endemic to the traditional conception of “sirat al-mustaqim”.  It would seem that the Sufi treatment of “path” is more in keeping with the Eastern conception of a “way” [tao].  (Note that sometimes “minhaj” is translated as “way”.)  In this vain, “Islam” (normally interpreted as “submission to the will of god”) could be thought of more as bringing oneself in sync with the divine (as with, say, Schopenhauer’s idea of the Aesthete).  Thus: Instead of a prescription for controlling others, it would be an enjoinder for SELF-control.

Above all, the conception of “path” within a new (Reform) paradigm would be a matter of “rahi aql”, which roughly means “rule of the intellect”–often translated as “path of reason”.  Such a path would be based on autonomy (what Kant called maturity).  Thus it would NOT be a function of “taqlid” (i.e. adhering to traditional precedent; deferring to the dictates of authority); it would be the result of “ijtihad”.  Such a re-conception is not pie in the sky.  We might note that “Akbar the Great”, the most celebrated ruler of the Mughal Empire, advocated for “rahi aql”.

The thing with “rahi aql”: it is only as possible as votaries make it.  (It is thus untenable so long as votaries insist it is impossible.)

A helpful contrast in the conceptualization of “path” is the “TAO”, which literally means the “WAY”.  This had nothing whatsoever to do with subordination; as it was entirely about EMANCIPATION.

In Hinduism, the term for “way” is “marga”.  Theologically, this is often equated with the term for “path”: “yog[a]”.  There are three aspects to the Vedic “marga” (which–in the idiom of paths–translates to three paths to enlightenment):

  • The way of knowledge (“jnan[a]” / “gyan”; the equivalent of “gnosis” in Greek)
  • The way of loving devotion (“bhakti”)
  • The way of selfless action (“karma”)

None of this involves the following of specific rules.  In fact, it is more about CULTIVATION (“bhavana”) than it is about rule-following.  Such cultivation is primarily contemplative (a matter of “samadhi” / “dhyana”) rather than a show of obeisance.

In the Buddhist tradition, the (eightfold) path is seen as a means of liberation, not of subservience.  The goal is “prajna” (enlightenment) not “abd” (enslavement).  This way of life (“dharma”) is sometimes referred to as “Madhya-maprati-pad” (Sanskrit) [alt. “Majjhi-mapati-pada” in Pali; meaning the middle way]–a moniker that indicates an avoidance of extremes (in ANY direction).  This is primarily a matter of temperance, not of zealotry.

In the Sikh tradition, salvation is not equated with god’s approval, but rather with “jivanmukta” (liberation); an idea coopted from the Advait Vedanta (Hindu) tradition.  God’s grace (“nadar” / “mehar”) is secured not through service to god, but through non-egoistic service to one’s fellow man (“seva”; comprised of “man”, “tan”, and “dhan”).

The Hebrew word for “Way” (as in the way of god) is “derekh”.  The “catch” with Judaic tradition is it encapsulates the “right way of living” [Arabic: “din”] as a set of rules to follow–613 of them, actually: the “taryag mitzvot”.  This is to be contrasted with the notion of GOOD living–as when the Ancient Greeks posited “eudaimonia”, a life predicated on “agape” [universal love].

In the Hindu tradition, the notion of an upstanding mode of living is called “dharma” (the analogue of the Islamic “din”).  This involves a regimen [“vritta”] of goodness [“Sad”].  A prerequisite for this “sadvritta” is a set of moral principles [“vyava-harika”], which includes mandates to be honest, to refrain from harming others, to maintain self-control, and to refrain from material acquisitiveness.  This leaves open the possibility of finding one’s own way.  To wit: there is no one specific path for all people.  This “find your own path” approach is predicated on Enlightenment (what the Ancient Greeks dubbed “arete”) rather than on obeisance (i.e. rule-following).  The notion of an Enlightened Path is found in Zoroastrianism (“Daena”).  Vajrayana Buddhism posits the path through “Kalachakra”. {10}  Tibetan Buddhism posits the path to liberation (“Dzogchen”).

So what of the “Sirat al-Mustaqeem” in the Koran?  “Guide us to the straight path” is in the Koran’s opening surah, and thus part of the “Fatihah”.  Invocation of the idiom of “straight path” can be found in 1:6, 2:142/213, 3:51/101, 4:68/175, 5:16, 6:39/87/153/161, 7:16, 10:25, 11:56/123, 16:121, 19:36, 22:54, 23:73, 24:46, 28:22, 36:4/61, 37:118, 42:52, 43:43/61/64, 46:30, 48:2/20, 60:1, 73:19, and 76:29.  (Note, sometimes, this “path” is referred to as the “right” path, as in 38:22.)

Islam’s holy book does not say anything specific ABOUT this “straight path” (alternately conceptualized as “din”: the Islamic way of life) other than that one must believe (and obey) everything written in the Koran.  The “straight path” (also sometimes translated as the “plain road”) is simply the path of piety / surrender…and thus: the way to heaven.  To submit (i.e. obey / comply) is to walk it.  That’s all there is to it.  This mandate for OBEISANCE / COMPLIANCE is hardly a recipe for probity.  

In terms of “the ideal way to live”, the “the path” or “the way” is a concept in the oldest spiritual traditions.  Hindus and Jains have been referring to “dharma” for thousands of years (living one’s life in harmony with the order of the Universe), which is roughly the same idea (as it pertains to the right way to conduct oneself–so as to be in sync with the divine).  Consequently, Sikhs use the term “dharm” to refer to “the path of righteousness”.  Jesus referred explicitly to “the way” in the Gospel according to John (14:6).

Juxtapose the Koran’s “as-Serat al-Mustaqeem” with “The Way” that was Lao Tzu’s “Tao” (and that was also the name of the initial following of Jesus of Nazareth).  This term connotes a “way of living one’s life”.  In this sense, the existential “path” is something that one (autonomously) forges for oneself.

The Koranic STRAIGHT PATH, on the other hand, connotes a pre-established, designated passage: a clearly demarcated, direct route that must be FOLLOWED.  “Straight” indicates that it is a matter of “staying in line” (i.e. sticking with a path that has been ASSIGNED TO you).

The Tao is about liberation and autonomy; no subservience required.  By stark contrast, the “straight path” as presented in the Koran is about control and authority (compliance, submission, and not “getting out of line”).  To partake in the Tao is to be in sync with the divine–in one’s own way.  To follow the Koranic “path”, meanwhile, is to be a myrmidon.

This is a fundamental difference that is rarely discussed.  Once we start talking about paths in the existential sense, we find that how one conceptualizes it says a lot about one’s theory of life.  Alas, the Koranic notion of a STRAIGHT PATH prescribes a mode of subservience–as if one cannot be at the same time moral and forge one’s own path.  “As Goethe once said, “What is the path?  There is no particular path.”

In the end, we all need to find our own way…while not becoming too self-absorbed in so doing.  Individualism needn’t involve narcissism.  Alas, subordination is often disguised as a kind of liberation.  As we’ve seen, this cosmogenic “bait and switch” is indicative of the Abrahamic religions.  Felicitously, following a path is not a matter of placating a temperamental overlord; it’s a matter of asserting sovereignty over one’s own life.  The distinction here is between taking control and being controlled.

In sum: There is a fundamental difference between forging your own path and having a singular path designated for everyone on the planet.  This means establishing purpose / meaning for your own life rather than having purpose / meaning assigned to you.  Recognizing this entails recognizing that autonomy does not require hubris.

There doesn’t need to be anything delusive about liberation.  Finding one’s own way is an act of existential integrity, not an act of conceit.  If there WERE a benevolent entity that served as some sort of cosmic impresario, it would surely honor this.

Extant creeds can be adapted to this re-conceptualization of a “path” for one’s life.  For example, Islam’s “sirat al-mustaqim” can be conceived in various ways.  Whether we call it “tariqa[h]” (denoting a spiritual path) or “rahi aql” (denoting the path of reason), each of us has our own journey to take.  Along the way, we might bear in mind that when this journey is based on illusion, it is not worth taking.

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