His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.
‘I pity you. Really,’ said Nouri, shaking his head at my folly.
He had no answer. He just stretched his lips, raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
‘Who made you?’ Hacen asked keenly, as if raising a pressing point I might not have considered. ’Who is decide when you will born, and when you will die?’
‘Look, by using the word ‘who’, you are assuming that…’
‘Who is decide your fat?’ Nouri shot at me, pleased to have found another avenue of attack.
‘Fate. By using the word ‘who’, you are assu…’
‘There is one scientist Egyptian who he work at NASA,’ Hamid interupted. ‘He looks in the space, and then he believe the God. He cannot don’t believe the God, when he look in the space. He say…’ - and here, Hamid adopted a tone of awe-struck reverence – ‘he say, ‘if I cannot believe the God,’ - his voice was a hoarse whisper now – ‘if I cannot believe the God, I cannot believe myself.’ Hand on heart, eyes aflame, he held my gaze as silence fell on the room and a shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds.
What a load of cock, I almost said, failing utterly to sense the presence of the numinous the way Hamid obviously did. (I made up the bit about the clouds.) What a bloody fatuous statement. It obviously spoke to the other blokes in the room, but if it has any meaning, I’m Donald Ducked if I can see it.
What in fact I did was congratulate Hamid, as I knew he felt reluctant to discuss such matters in English, and I thought he’d acquitted himself pretty well. I realised I was coming very close to alienating the group by calling their beliefs into question, and suggested a break. This is a university, I mused, glumly. We are supposed to deal in ideas, and here I am, censoring myself to keep the customers sweet.
We don’t seem to meet much, the numinous and me. There’s a distinct lack of awe in me. Christianity utterly fails to induce it. I empathise with Temple Grandin when, in An Anthropologist on Mars, she and Oliver Sacks are viewing the Rocky Mountains and he asks her if she does not feel a sense of their sublimity.
‘They’re pretty, yes. Sublime, I don’t know.’ When I pressed her, she said she was puzzled by such words and had spent much time with a dictionary, trying to understand them. She had looked up 'sublime', 'mysterious' 'numinous' and 'awe', but they all seemed to be defined in terms of one another.
On the train home yesterday afternoon I looked out at the woods and fields in the torrential rain and remembered during the mid-eighties being dragged through similar countryside around Linton by my then boyfriend. He was a farmer’s son and I was a dyed-in-the-wool townie, trudging behind him through chuckling mud that sucked the wholly inappropriate shoes off my feet as if it thought I was feeding it. Richard would point to birds that I couldn’t see, and warn that they were endangered, while I would assure him that I would quickly learn to live without them. I was hard to impress. One wet day, we came to a plantation of fir trees. In the gloom there lay a dead hare. I stood a long time looking into the receding darkness behind the little corpse, and sensed something intelligent in there, watching. I never mentioned this to Richard, who would have howled with derision at such sentimentality, but after that I’d go for walks on my own when he was out, so I could feel the watchful presence without him constantly pointing out Lords and Ladies, diseased Dutch Elms and tree-crawlers. This Thing was knowing, mocking. It didn’t trust humans very much, but I liked it and went out on my walks to court it a bit.
Of course, although it did feel quite independent of me then, I created this little god myself, in mine own image, as all gods are created. Even as a teenage Christer I had sensed there was a spirit in me that did not desire to worship or grovel for forgiveness, no deity had any right to expect me to, and no real deity would be insecure enough to need me to. It is ironic and deflationary, this spirit, and it scorns seriousness and piety. It’s the salt on life’s chips, the lemon juice on man’s fish, and the gin in the sublunary tonic. It would never be obedient to Jesus or submit to Allah, and it loathes their sugar-coated cruelty and charmless pomposity.
Nouri has learned the phrase ‘we must stop playing God’, and these days he works it into every essay he writes, as it lends itself to all the stock themes of advanced level EFL essays: euthanasia, climate change, genetic modification, IVF, that sort of thing. I agree with him, but for reasons it would take weeks for him to understand, and even then he would be shocked all over again at my impiety. So, along with so many other potential excursions, we won’t go there.