Plenty of Christians (and Jews) are asking a question right now: given our current crisis, where should we turn in our Bibles for guidance, instruction and comfort? I wrote about the powerful Psalm 91, with its explicit references to plague and pestilence, and Psalm 121 has its adherents. From lots of possible answers, I offer a personal favorite text, namely the Letter of James, and specifically one section. Through the centuries, this section has had a really remarkable appeal worldwide, and beyond the boundaries of Christianity.
The section in question is in chapter four. Here is the KJV translation (4.13-15):
Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour [atmis], that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.
The NIV offers “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
Atmis/Atmos, by the way – vapor, steam, mist – is the root of the word “atmosphere.” Luther translated it as Dampf, which I think of as the steam you find in steamships or railroad engines.
The text’s message is one of transience, that any human relying on permanence or predictability is making a fundamental error. Everything depends on God, day by day and minute by minute. If that has not been a central lesson for us in the West, that is because we have come to believe in foundations that we now see were not actually that firm. Other parts of the world that have always been accustomed to poverty and epidemic have always been more conscious of that frailty and transience, and the sense of dependence that arises from it. Now, maybe, we are relearning the lesson. We, in the nations that are Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic – WEIRD.
So uncertain is life that James warns against even saying that you are planning to do something or to travel somewhere, because you do not know if you will live to do it. Any such plans must be accompanied by the provisional phrase “If God wills.” That is an exact parallel to the Muslim custom of inserting “Inshallah” when expressing any plan or intention, and that is a term you use countless times in any Muslim setting. That practice derives from a Quranic passage, 18.23-24, which looks like a precise rendering of James:
And never say of anything, “Indeed, I will do that tomorrow,” Except [when adding], “If Allah wills.” [Inshallah] And remember your Lord when you forget [it] and say, “Perhaps my Lord will guide me to what is nearer than this to right conduct.”
If that origin is correct, then that particular phrase in James is (strange to say) by far the world’s most widely and frequently quoted Bible verse.
In Latin America, the equivalent Christian phrase, and likewise a sentiment much heard, is “Si Dios quiere.” Also in Spanish, we often find the word Ojalá, “hopefully,” which is a direct recollection of the Arabic Inshallah.
Muslim resonances in James are many. James even portrays God as “compassionate and merciful” (5:11), a standard Muslim characterization. Not surprisingly, James has been proposed as a basis for missionary inroads, for Christians seeking to convert Muslims, and vice versa. Just as plausibly, it offers common ground for inter-religious dialogue.
James acquires its greatest value as a bridge between faiths in a Buddhist context. In 1974, Kosuke Koyama saw the letter as an invaluable tool in his quest for a distinctively Asian manifestation of Christianity. Drawing upon his experiences as a Protestant missionary to Thailand, Koyama advocated a popular-oriented water-buffalo theology that could speak to the overwhelmingly poor masses who were unacquainted with Christian tradition. He imagines welcoming the apostle James to Thailand, where his epistle fits so well into traditional concerns, so much so that it reads like a translation of a traditional Buddhist sutra. In so many ways, James speaks appealingly to an Asian audience. As Koyama says, James speaks to core religious concepts, such as transience: “All decays! All is transient!” James also praises detachment and self-control, great Buddhist virtues.
The current Dalai Lama has provided an admiring introduction for a reprinting of the text. He finds strong linkages between James and the Tibetan Buddhist genre of lojong or mind-training – a term that could serve as an excellent alternative name for the genre of Wisdom literature. Like Koyama, the Dalai Lama dwells on James’s praise of the virtues of slowness, “be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” This was “the most poignant verse of the entire letter,” he writes. The declaration that “your life is a vapor” “beautifully captured” the basic and seemingly universal doctrine of transience.
You can actually a find a scholarly literature on those seeming Asian parallels in James. James 3.6 even speaks of trochos tes geneseos, which could naturally be rendered as “wheel of birth.” I prefer to think of them as all designed for a world that was used to the idea of death being a constant companion in life.
All of which goes to say that we are dealing here with ideas that are very widespread, if not actually universal, and we need to reintroduce them to our WEIRD world-view.
So for those and many other reasons, there is my candidate for timely present study: Read James.