Howard Jacobson: There is a clown, sacred to the Sioux Indian people, whose business it is to be his own contradiction, his own upside-down shadow, a refutation of all reason, a man who says the opposite to what he means, and does the opposite to what it is usual and practicable to do. Like all clowns he is divided down the middle, the hair on the right side of his head shaved, the hair on the left hanging long. He is called a heyoka, or contrary clown.
But in order to perform in a heyoka ceremony it is not enough merely to wish to do so. In order to joke, you need to have dreamed; in order to cause laughter you need to have experienced terror. If you want to be a Sioux comedian, you have first to be a visionary. A dog is killed, its neck broken, its carcass offered to the thunder gods before being flung into boiling water. While the dog boils the clowns perform their tricks, carrying bows that are too long to bend and arrows that are too crooked to fly. They shiver in the heat. They pretend to drown in shallow water. They make as if to swim in mud. They say the opposite of what they mean. Everybody laughing, everybody trying to get a piece of the dog flesh. Mirth and ferocity interchangeable.
When the ceremony was over, everybody felt a great deal better, for it had been a day of fun. They were better able now to see the greenness of the world, the wideness of the sacred day, the colours of the earth, and to set these in their minds. Does art have any higher aim than that? Does religion? To revivify the senses, to reconfirm belief in the sacredness of existence, to restore glory to the earth ... and to set these wonders in the mind of all who behold them.
Hanif Kureishi: Fundamentalism provides security. For the fundamentalist, as for all reactionaries, everything has been decided. Truth has been agreed and nothing must change. For serene liberals, on the other hand, the consolations of knowing seem less satisfying than the pleasures of puzzlement, and of wanting to discover for oneself. But the feeling that one cannot know everything, that there will always be maddening and live questions about who one is and how it is possible to make a life with other people who don't accept one, can be devastating. Perhaps it is only so long that one can live with that kind of puzzlement. Rationalists have always underestimated the need people have for belief. Enlightenment values don't provide spiritual comfort or community or solidarity. Islam could do this in a country that was supposed to be home but which could, from day to day, seem alien.
Muslim fundamentalism has always seemed to me to be profoundly wrong, overly restrictive and frequently cruel. But there are reasons for its revival that are comprehensible. It is this that has made me want to look at it not only in terms of ideas, but in stories, in character, in terms of what people do ... Perhaps the greatest book of all, and certainly one of the most pleasurable, The One Thousand and One Nights, is written in Arabic. This creativity, the making of something which didn't exist before, the vigour and stretch of a living imagination, is a human affirmation of another kind, and a necessary and important form of self-examination. Without it our humanity is diminished.
Karen Armstrong: We all know the power of poetry. The sound, rhythm and allusive connotations of the words chosen by a poet can take language into a new dimension; poetic language can enter us deeply, reaching a level that is more fundamental than the cerebral; it can lift us momentarily beyond ourselves. Theology should work in the same way. It cannot be a mere statement of fact; it must touch us emotionally and give us intimations of transcendence. The first Muslims were often converted not so much by the message of the Koran as by the extraordinary beauty of the text, which cannot come across in an English translation. Thus Omar had been fiercely critical of Mohammed until he heard the Koran recited aloud. The poetry reached through his reserves of intellectual resistance to a core of receptivity that he had been unaware of. We seem to have lost this sense of scripture and God-talk and have become obsessed with the historicity, rationality and literal meaning of theology. As our Western modernity has spread to other parts of the globe, Jews, Christians and Muslims have all become worried about the integrity of their scriptures in a new way. Unless and until we recover a sense of the language of religion as dogmatic, in the Greek sense, our view of religious truth will be impoverished and we will deny ourselves an important means of discovering that transcendence which human beings are compelled to seek.
Michele Roberts: The old mother goddesses, officially cast out by the masculine religion of Christianity with its drama of Father and Son, survived in pagan practices, in the folklore and heresies that have always flourished at the fringes. The female body, so feared and repressed, returns to haunt and dazzle us in the shapes of visionaries and visions - the Virgin Mary, apparently increasingly making herself visible all over the world in our own day, seems to represent, to those who see her or are moved by reports of her presence, Godness itself. God is presented as female form.
There is clearly a tremendous hunger among people to have bodily experiences of God: why else do miraculous statues bleed and weep? Here are those physical processes shunned by the Churches - menstruation, lactation - newly made numinous and holy. The reality of these miraculous events and visions is a psychic one. People produce and project their own images, individually and communally. God is worshipped through images of the physical. God is found through images of the physical. God is not any longer simply Him Up There. God has become part of us.
`Flesh Made Word' can be heard during the Proms tomorrow on BBC Radio 3.Reuse content