My favourite book

INsights 029, Friday 2nd December 2022

Assalamu-alaikum. Peace be upon you.

I don’t tend to remember, or pay much attention to, most things from the past. But I do recall quite precisely the experience I had of reading what became my favourite book. 

I felt the pulsating power of new insights. I experienced the deep resonance of ideas I’d been thinking about but which I’d been unable to articulate clearly myself. I was subjected to the simultaneously reassuring and alienating effect of a text upholding truth in a society increasingly built on falsehood.

I remember thinking how beautifully written this book was, and how I felt compelled to read certain paragraphs over and over again to appreciate their importance and their implications.

It’s been almost 20 years since I first read King of the Castle: Choice and Responsibility in the Modern World by Gai Eaton. No book in the English language has been more valuable for me in positively shaping my mindset, gaining a sharper perspective on modernity and appreciating the value of faith.

It was first published 45 years ago but continues to remain relevant to anyone interested in truly submitting themselves to God alone and freeing themselves from the worst effects of modern day living.

What is the book about?

The book examines closely many of the unquestioned assumptions by which we live our lives, comparing them with the beliefs that have shaped and guided human life in the past.

It begins with a consideration of how secular societies attempt to possess their citizens, body and soul and how, as a consequence, the necessity of redefining human responsibility becomes ever more urgent. 

The book continues with a presentation of the traditional view of the human being as God’s representative or ambassador on earth, with an eye to its practical implications. This is so necessary when we live in a world where we at grave risk of subconsciously adopting norms and mindsets that really should be alien to us as believers.

The author's thesis is a passionate plea for the restoration of the sacred norms of faith, as against the damaging and disempowering aims of a secular worldview based on, and furthered by, rampant scientific and technological developments.

For different reasons, it’s not always an easy read...

- It’s challenging in that it exposes our own waywardness.

- It’s daunting in that it reminds us of our huge responsibility.

- Even though it provides the antidote, it can even be depressing because it lays bare the sad state of affairs in the world today.

- Finally, whilst the prose is beautiful, some might find the language a little difficult and occasionally need to consult a dictionary.

Anyway, enough of my words…

Let me share with you five powerful excerpts from the book itself which, hopefully, will leave you wanting more:

1. On the effects of rapid social change

“Everything becomes a blur when you travel beyond a certain speed. Distant objects may still be clear in outline, but the blurred foreground makes it impossible to attend to them. This landscape is unreal and the passengers in the express train turn to their books, their thoughts or their private fantasies.â€Ļ

The subjectivism of our age has a good deal to do with this imprisonment in a speeding vehicle, and the fact that we made this vehicle ourselves, with all the tireless care that children give to a contrivance of wood and wire, does not save us from the sense of being trapped without hope of escape.

â€ĻA further effect of such vertiginous speed is a kind of anaesthesia, entirely natural when the operation of the senses by which we normally make contact with our environment is suspended. With no opportunity to assimilate what is going on, our powers of assimilation are inevitably weakened and a certain numbness sets in; nothing is fully savoured and nothing is properly understood.”

2. On submission

“Men who scorn the idea of submission to the divine Will and are outraged by the notion of a God who requires submission are among the first to demand total submission to the process in which we are involved and seem to attach a kind of moral imperative to willing participation in it.

Any other attitude, so they say, is reactionary or escapist or anti-social. Perhaps, after all, they have found a divinity to worship; and, if they have, the only charitable comment must be: God help them!”

3. On anxiety

“Sadly but, perhaps, not altogether unexpectedly, this society has had very limited success in achieving what is supposed to be the justification for its existence – the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest possible number of people.

In so far as its citizens are saved from the major anxieties and responsibilities which normally surround the business of being a man, they transfer what appears to be an unvarying human capacity for worry to the most trivial things, making mountains out of molehills on a vast scale; and they have 'nervous breakdowns' over problems which men and women living under sterner conditions would hardly find time to notice.”

4. On being uncompromising with the truth

“So many ruins bear witness to good intentions which went astray, good intentions unenlightened by any glimmer of wisdom. To bring religion to the people is a fine and necessary undertaking, but this is not a situation in which the proposed end can be said to justify the means.

The further people have drifted from the truth, the greater is the temptation to water down the truth, glossing over its less palatable aspects and, in short, allowing a policy of compromise to become one of adulteration.

In this way it is hoped that the common man – if he can be found – will be encouraged to find a small corner in his busy life for religion without having to change his ways or to grapple with disturbing thoughts. It is a forlorn hope. 

Standing, as it were, at the pavement’s edge with his tray of goods, the priest reduces the price until he is offering his wares for nothing: divine judgement is a myth, hell a wicked superstition, prayer less important than decent behaviour, and God himself dispensable in the last resort; and still the passers-by go their way, sorry over having to ignore such a nice man but with more important matters demanding their attention.

And yet these matters with which they are most urgently concerned are, for many of them, quicksands in which they feel themselves trapped. Had they been offered a real alternative, a rock firm-planted from the beginning of time, they might have been prepared to pay a high price."

5. On travelling to God

“It is said in Islam that when a man takes one step towards God, then God himself comes down from the Throne of Power and Dominion and takes ten steps towards this man. The taking of that first step however requires both a child’s spontaneity and a grown man’s decisiveness; one must indeed ‘become as a little child’, undoing all the false maturity which was so ill done and learning to walk again.

The man who is truly seized by the sense of the sacred and by the ‘divine attraction’, as iron shavings are drawn to a magnet, is concerned with the object of his love, the infinitely desirable Beauty which he recognises again and again in all contingent and delegated loveliness.

We have been given eyes, and we must look; ears, and we must listen. There is much to be seen and heard if we are attentive and not entirely absorbed in the buzzing of our own thoughts and the itch of our own needs.

But, above all, we have been given the power of movement – ‘Had We willed it so, We would indeed have fixed them in their place, unable to go forward…,’ says the Qur’an – and the power of decision. Having taken a first step, it is by placing one foot in front of the other that we advance; and it is by travelling that we arrive.”

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