More than thirteen centuries ago a relatively advanced country was
converted, in its heyday, to a new religion by a single sparrow.
If you want to know how, just listen to this ancient man unlocking
"It seems to me, beloved king, that the present time on
earth, compared with that time of which we have no
knowledge, is like when thou art sitting at dinner with
thine ealdermen and thanes in winter-time, and the fire lit
and thy hall heated, and it's raining and snowing and
hailing; and there arrives one sparrow from outside and he flies
swiftly through the hall, entering through one door,
leaving through the other. Now, while he's inside he's not
touched by the winter's storm; but that's only a twinkling
of an eye and the shortest space of time, and from a winter
he immediately returns to a winter. So man's life appears
for a short interval: what went before it, and what comes
after it, we don't know. Therefore, if this new doctrine
brings forth anything more certain, it only befits us that
we should follow it."
So spoke this counselor at a memorable meeting held by the king
to decide whether to embrace the new faith. And embrace it they did.
The translation given here is a rather plain one.
Other, older renderings give a more graphic description of the sparrow's
flight and embellish the story by making the courtier's speech more
logical and literary than it really was (and probably more moral).
Where its reasoning was rather pragmatic the modern words
may not unambiguously convey this. What is more important is that a
part of the story, namely an earlier speech by another counselor,
may not be retold at all, as it almost never is.
The first counselor, who had until then been the chief priest of
the native polytheists (denigratingly called "pagans" for ages to come),
advised the king to accept the new belief system because it would
be prudent to do so. His own devotion to the old religion
had not done him much good, he explained, complaining that he had
always obeyed the gods more zealously than others, had joined in
their observances more carefully and joyfully than others, and
yet had received fewer gifts and less benefit from it.
Also this person saw the approaching light, since the faith of his fathers
had turned out to hold nothing of use anymore.
To be honest, it was not one lecherous sparrow all on its
own that converted the king and his nobles and with them the
whole of society, even if in name only. There were also the
materialistic concerns so well expressed by the first counselor
with almost equal pathos but considerably less imagination; and
there was the fact that the king's immigrant wife was already a
member of the temple community that was spreading with the foreign faith.
It is the second counselor's speech
--at any rate among the later followers of the new state
religion-- is, perhaps, the best-known.
It has been offered as a key, not only to the success of the new religion,
but to the general conditions and cultural mood in the Early Middle Ages.
The brevity of life and existential uncertainty are recurrent themes in
the literature of the time.
And indeed, if the faith of the sons with its much more spectacular stories
did manage to lengthen (human) life, did reveal any 'true
knowledge' not revealed by any other discipline (science included), and if
that knowledge were of a relevance not realized in any other
product of the mind, it would only seem and remain right to join the
sparrow and not let it go.
But when we, in this day and age, look at the old state religion that has
reigned until now, not only in the territory concerned but in numerous
other territories across the world as well, from the standpoint of a new
denominational paradigm, the
sparrow is not convincing anymore.
First of all, there are weaknesses, if not fallacies, in the simile itself
which ought to have been noticed immediately when it was introduced.
The ancient assumed the weather outside
the hall to be severe, with storms of rain, snow and hail raging, and
'e likened these wintry conditions
to the times before and after people's short lives.
So, in spite of what 'e said, 'e did claim to know certain basic
things about the period before birth or conception and the period after
death, about human pre- and post-existence or nonexistence,
And also life itself, of which everyone may be sure to know something, is,
however short, not a mere feast in a banqueting hall, safe from discomfort, not
even for the elite of the land.
The hall will not only see the sunny side of life; it will see the seamy
side too, and this will be experienced so long as there is life.
Where there is no life at all anymore happiness nor unhappiness can be
When we look at the denominational paradigm that has reigned until now
from the standpoint of the one to come, we seldom see a sparrow flying in
and out of a banqueting hall.
Believing it to be snugly safe and comfortable inside, with a wonderful
fire warming the hall, by far the greater majority of the sparrows of the
old denomination stay inside, not in the least planning to vanish
into the unknown; and certainly not planning to fly out on their own.
Ignorant of what is to be found beyond the supernatural pale of
heaven and hell, of deity and demon, they prefer to sojourn on this
middle-earth for a short while only.
The hall has doors but they will not open them.
The birds of divine love content themselves with the hot air near
the ceiling, the bread crumbs on the floor, the liquid left over
in the cups.
They sing, but their dull song has not changed for centuries, for
Likewise, most people may have followed and may continue to follow
religion for selfish, limited social or utilitarian reasons (just as others
may oppose it for the same, improper reasons).
It seemed pleasant to them, was comforting and promised a happy afterlife
for those who submitted to it.
They did not and do not want to be bothered with questions of truth:
Can the happy afterlife be made good?, Has the world really been
created by an anthropomorphic being, by one such being?.
With questions of relevance and neutralness: What matters first, norms
and values or gods and demons?, Whence does nature come, whither
does it go, when it is being made the defenseless victim of an ideology
that lacks any notion of harmony and equilibrium?.
With questions of personhood: Is someone chosen, perhaps conceived, to
be a follower of a certain religion or does 'e choose
'imself to be one?,
May the state be abused to gratify one community of faith with
their symbols and practices?.
Most remarkably, they do not even want to be bothered with questions of
happiness: Does it serve humanity's, even the individual's own happiness
in the long run to believe in a tribal, male, anthropoid god that
epitomizes power as something perfect in itself?, Is there no
connection with ethnic troubles, with sexist attitudes, with a speciesist
lack of respect for nonhuman beings, with power struggles in general, and
religious warfare in particular?.
Contemporary factual, modal and normative questions which have a direct
bearing on the tenability of
'er total worldview are evaded by
the sparrow of the old creed: 'e runs away from contemporary answers to
them, 'e flees them. This is the flight of today's sparrow.
Rather than supporting a denominational doctrine that presents the best
principles and means to deal with such questions in a considerate and
adequate way, the convert to religion embraces a faith that does not pose
them or that equivocates when asked about its scriptural tales, its
Worshiping one god instead of several (or many) the convert to monotheist
religion embraces a faith that is as theocentric as before, still
supernaturalistic, still exclusivistic and
extremistic; sometimes less so,
often more so. After having lingered in the King's banqueting hall for so
many hundreds of years it is high time for the sparrow to leave
one door which opens out not only to a more moderate, well-balanced and
harmonious life but also to an existence which, wherever it may be, is
inclusive and genuine.
Languishing for want of a fresh view of contemporary matters and torn apart
by its fundamental and symbolical contradictions the monotheist successor
of polytheist religion is about to collapse itself today, after, perhaps,
one or two short --but goodness knows how bloody or
oppressive-- revivals tomorrow.
Just as the gods once became idols to be abandoned in favor of the one god,
so let that one God in turn become Idol to be abandoned in favor of
the Norm, the primacy of norms and
values over gods and demons, in the plural and in the singular.
"Therefore, if this new doctrine brings forth anything more certain, it
only befits us that we should follow it."
If this new doctrine brings forth anything more relevant and less untrue,
anything more respectful to persons and less extreme, it only befits us
that we should follow it.