The Celestial Switchboard
Unqualified Offerings’ Thoreau reminds me of a bit I wrote in 2004. The Wayback Machine didn’t have it for some reason, but I did. It still seems appropriate today.
The mists of the Absolute drew back, revealing three mostly humanoid figures. Each sat on a lotus, the radiance of which could burn mere mortals’ eyes. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva — the only genuine gods of the world — were holding court.
Of course, each of them is but a manifestation of Brahman, the One. As such, they all know collectively what each one knows separately. But at times they still like to chat anyway; cognac has a way of doing that.
Unpleasantly, the subject was western religion.
“Have you heard what the pagans are up to lately?” asked Brahma.
“Do tell,” replied Vishnu.
“There’s an awful fuss about names, it seems.”
“Names?” asked Shiva.
“Names, symbols, rituals, and the like. There’s consternation about which ones count and which do not. Specifically, a lot of people want to know… Oh dear, this is embarrassing… They want to know what happens when you accidentally pray to the wrong god.”
“That’s nothing new. The pagans have been fighting over that for years.” Vishnu was unimpressed.
“Yeah, yeah… But you see, there’s one sect, called ‘Christians,’ and they pray to a god called, well, ‘God.’” He paused to capitalize as he spoke. “But then, there’s another sect, called ‘Muslims,’ and they pray to a god called ‘Allah.’ This upsets some Christians, because they don’t think it’s the same one.”
Shiva was giggling. “But ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ are the same. ‘Allah’ is just Arabic for ‘the God.’”
“I told you it was embarrassing.”
“Do the English get upset because the French pray to dieu, and the Spanish pray to dios?” asked Vishnu.
“They used to,” replied Brahma.
“Oh yeah. Forgot.”
“Stupid pagans,” said Shiva. He sipped his cognac. “So why haven’t they learned their lesson when it comes to Arabic?”
“Here’s where it gets complicated,” replied Brahma. “A number of Christians seem to think that the celestial switchboard has gotten crossed somehow, so that when you pray to Allah, your prayer ends up getting sent to Hubal, the ancient Arabic moon god.”
[I swear I’m not making this up:
“What is quite certain is that the Pagan Arabs in Mecca worshipped a moon god called Hubal at the Kabah. Hubal was the Lord of the Kabah, being the highest ranking god of the 360 gods worshipped in the Kabah. Now here is the amazing thing. Allah was also worshipped as the Lord of the Kabah. Yet, Allah was never represented by any idol of physical nature. To suggest the polytheistic Arabs never created an idol to represent Allah is simply unreasonable and unbelievable. We suggest rather, that Hubal was who the Pagan Arabs addressed their prayers to Allah through. In other words, Allah was Hubal.”]
“So let me get this straight,” replied Vishnu. “You face Mecca. You unroll your rug. You cry out to Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, and ask him to bless you. But instead, on the other end of the line, there’s an idol made of cornelian pearl with a golden hand. And when you die, oh boy are you in for a surprise!”
Shiva was laughing so hard that he almost fell off his resplendent lotus.
“Wait a minute here. The three of us really are gods, and in this story at least, we’re the only true gods in the world. So rehearse some of the possibilities with me: What do we do when we meet an atheist?” Like always, Vishnu was the pragmatic one.
“We fry him — for five hundred billion trillion years!” said Shiva. Vishnu looked at him sternly.
“We let him go, you nitwit! The atheist believes that prayers do essentially the same thing no matter how they’re addressed: They reverberate for a few moments in the skull of the believer, then waft away into nothingness. And let’s face it: There’s something to be said for this view. After all, when was the last time that you answered a prayer?”
Shiva and Brahma lowered their several heads.
“And when was the last time you let one of your flunkies answer a prayer, just on a whim?”
“You get my point. It’s not like there is some celestial switchboard, with Descartes’ Demon frantically rearranging reality behind the scenes, sending prayers this way and that.”
“But wait,” said Shiva. “Allah isn’t just any old god. It’s also said that He’s the God of Abraham. Surely that counts for something. And what do you think Christians call their own god when they translate the Bible into Arabic?”
No one needed to answer.
“Well sure,” said Brahma. “The claim that Allah and Hubal are the same is feeble in the extreme. But just to be spiteful, let’s turn things around on those pesky Christians.”
“What do you propose?” asked Shiva. He wasn’t so good at thinking up new ideas.
“Whenever a Christian thinks that “Allah” isn’t the same as “God,” we’ll see to it that his own prayers go directly to Poseidon instead.”
At that very moment, on another plane of existence, a different manifestation of Brahma was frantically setting up a divine switchboard. Summoned just for this purpose, Descartes’ Demon was rubbing his hands with chalk.
“After all, the case is more than plausible. Think of the miracles of Jesus: He multiplied the fishes, calmed the storm, and walked on the water. And his disciples were fishermen. He died on a cross, which looks for all the world like a deformed trident. What else are we to expect from the god who destroyed the world with water, who parted the Red Sea, and who allowed Moses to draw water from the rock?”
“Ingenious,” said Shiva. On still another plane of existence, fish emblems began cropping up on the vehicles and business cards of American Christians. Their prayers wafted heavenward, made a hairpin turn, and plunged straight into the nearest ocean. And no one was ever the wiser.