Case Twenty: The Day of the Lord

Enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty. The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low: And upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan, And upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up, And upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall . . . (Isaiah 2:10-15)

Months ago, I had planned to speak about this passage, and so I had no way of knowing how eerily appropriate it would feel in the wake of the events of September 11. Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that it points ultimately toward a realm that is beyond terror, beyond fear of any kind even, I find that I cannot discuss this biblical koan tonight. At this point, I cannot bear the thought of reading from my own holy book.

Instead, I would like to look at a passage from the Qur’an. That passage is called the Fatihah, or “Opening,” and it contains the central message of Islam. It reads:

In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate, praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of all Being, the All-merciful, the All-compassionate, the Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee only we serve; to Thee alone we pray for succor. Guide us in the Straight Path, the path of those whom Thou hast blest, not of those against whom Thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray.

In Arabic the words for “Straight Path” are al-sirat al-mustaqim. In Latin the word strata is used to designate a straight road, and it is from that word that we get both the English word street and the Arabic sirat. However, according to my book on the Qur’an, the Arabic word is used only in religious contexts. Thus, it has no plural form. There are, by definition, no Straight Paths but one.

When I read this passage I am forced to concede that, for much of the Islamic world (and by that I mean the fundamentalist Islamic world and not the moderate one), I am destined for hell. It is, of course, not my own hell I am destined for, but the hell of the Qur’an, reserved for those against whom Allah is wrathful, for those who have gone astray. Likewise, I must assume that the Islamic terrorists are bound for my hell. Naturally, they don’t see it this way. As the first heroes of what they believe to be the coming jihad against America, they believe their place in heaven is assured.

I know this will shock some, but my heart is calm tonight because I have realized that I am, without question, destined for the Islamic hell. This is the only possible solution to the ideological war between different religions and socioeconomic ways of life, for I cannot bear the thought that one of us is right and the other wrong, for then there can be no reality but war. I would rather that both be wrong. In which case, I must accept my place in hell for the sins of America against the people of Islam, even as I would place the terrorists in hell for their sins against those I know and love.

This is not merely rhetorical. In fact, for me, it is the end of rhetoric. Like many Americans, I have known for a long time of the sufferings of those people in the Middle East whose property and whose way of life have been destroyed over the past fifty years as the result of my need for oil and my insistence on preferring members of the Jewish faith, with whom I feel a certain kinship, over those of Islam, who by contrast always seem somehow “other-than-me.” Like many Americans, I have accepted, or at least tolerated, the rhetoric of “democracy and freedom for all,” even when I knew that really meant freedom and democracy for me and oppression and desperation for others I could not see. Thus, the idea of the Qur’anic hell comes as some relief to me, because by accepting my place there, I put an end to the war that would otherwise continue to rage inside me. Oddly enough, that is the only place where I can be at peace with the terrorists who died on Tuesday. It is impossible that we could meet in heaven. We are both too clearly in the wrong.

Having said all that, I do not believe heaven or hell is the point of the spiritual life, so it does not matter as much as one might think to which place I might ultimately have to go. Shinran, the thirteenth-century Buddhist saint, understood this. Shinran was exiled for much of his life because his nembutsu (saying the name of Amida Buddha) movement was perceived as a threat by the more powerful, elitist Buddhist schools of his day. And yet, he once made the following rather shocking admission:

I really do not know whether the nembutsu may be the cause for my birth in the Pure Land, or the act that shall condemn me to hell. But I have nothing to regret, even if I should have been deceived by my teacher, and, saying the nembutsu, fall into hell. The reason is that if I were capable of realizing buddhahood by other religious practices and yet fell into hell for saying the nembutsu, I might have dire regrets for having been deceived. But since I am absolutely incapable of any religious practice, hell is my only home (Tannisho, II).

There is remarkable wisdom here that goes beyond anything we might normally expect from a religious teacher. We normally expect certitude from such people, but Shinran is saying, in essence, that he could be wrong. The practice he has devoted his life to, and for which he has made such great personal sacrifices, may quite possibly be the very thing that leads to his future suffering, rather than to his liberation in the Pure Land. In other words, he may be destined for hell. In fact, he seems almost to be saying that hell is inevitable.

Shinran must have been told quite often that he was destined for hell for disseminating teachings many felt to be heretical. To such pronouncements, Shinran answered, “Hell is my only home.” When we read this centuries later, it may sound fatalistic to us, but to interpret it that way is to miss the true point of Shinran’s words.

True faith in one’s religious practice means accepting the possibility—perhaps even the inevitability—of being wrong. It means to accept our limits in a radical way. That is what true faith is. By comparison, the belief that we are going to heaven can hardly be called faith. Such faith is based on certainty, and in true faith there can be no certainty of salvation at all.

This is a subtle point, but in light of recent events, pertinent. True faith is not the certainty of going to heaven or to hell, but the willingness to go to either place if it is the will of God. It is to be willing to say, “Not mine but thy will be done,” and to trust completely in that. Why? Because we have no choice. Because we are not capable by the exercise of any religious practice of determining with absolute certainty where we will ultimately go.

The Apostles’ Creed, recited in most Christian churches, tells us that after his crucifixion Jesus “descended into hell.” Some would have us believe that this was always part of Jesus’ plan. But I tend not to believe he knew ahead of time what was going to happen. I do believe that he found the faith that is born only of radical uncertainty, and thus was able to go to hell. Just as, according to the next sentence in the Creed, three days later he rose from the dead, ultimately ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. It is arrogance to expect that we will be able to achieve salvation in a way more direct than the way Jesus went. We must be willing to embrace the uncertainty that gives birth to true faith. Really, that faith is heaven. Heaven follows it wherever it wants or needs to go.

And so, finally I have discussed “The Day of the Lord” koan after all. For that was the point of it in the end: “And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.” Really, given a faith born of uncertainty, there isn’t much else we need to know. 

Adapted from a talk given on September 13, 2001, to the Koans of the Bible Study Group in Woodstock, New York.

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