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Moby-Dick By Herman Melville: Religion

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the Earth, the Earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”

Such was the beginning of creation. Creation continued with the sky and the waters, the Earth and the vegetation, the lights and the animals, and on the sixth day God created man. ”Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…. So God created humankind in his image.” God created Adam. It was Adam who had the first human relation with God. God “put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. And the lord God commanded the man, ‘you may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’” This simple command was not to be obeyed, and Adam, Eve and subsequent humanity was banished from Eden.

This first encounter with God serves to identify the trouble that man has with obeying God and ignoring ones self. Even in a simple time with no worries at all, it was impossible for Adam to resist the self and obey God. Throughout the novel Moby Dick Melville addresses the relationship between man and the Judeo-Christian God. Melville demonstrates many of the shortcomings of western religion and its in ability to reconcile the benefits of the darker side of humanity. Ishmael, through his journeys finds himself in the midst of several situations that exemplify this dichotomy between the ideal relationship with the Judeo-Christian God and the practical nature in which man typically relates to God.

Ishmael’s first encounter with the ideals of the man-God relationship in Moby Dick occurs at the Whaler’s Chapel. Father Mapple, a devout Christian. He preached the Bible and a devout life as an ideal that men must strive to reach, rather than as a tool to guide men within the confines of everyday life. On the day that Ishmael attended Father Mapple’s service, the sermon was about Jonah and the whale. During his sermon Father Mapple describes why Jonah’s story is one for all sinners. He tells of how Jonah chose to disobey God because God’s command was a difficult one to follow.

Father Mapple then states one of the most fundamental notions of Judeo-Christian ideology, in one sentence he describes the struggle that goes on inside all practitioners of western religion, he pronounced: “And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves that the hardness of obeying God consists.” This duality between what is sensible for Ishmael and what is scriptural come up many times, and is next seen during Queequeg’s fasting holiday.

By examining Queequeg’s fasting holiday we gain some insight into Ishmael, and his thoughts on organized religion. We see him discus how he feels both about western religion and other non-traditional religions as well. Ishmael says that:

“I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it ma, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this Earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.”

This view, that religion is not acceptable if it causes some form or physical discomfort stands almost directly in opposition of the Puritanical view that Father Mapple preached. In Judeo-Christian philosophy it is only through the rejection of the physical world that it is possible to clear the mind enough to focus on God. However Ishmael in his sensibilities expresses the rational thought that if one is starved then how can he focus on anything but the empty feeling in their stomach, rather than on God; “fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved.” Also within this statement Melville, through Ishmael weaves the physical body and the spiritual body into one cohesive unit. Judeo-Christian philosophy states that one must separate the spiritual self from the physical self, while here, Ishmael declares that without a healthy physical self the spiritual self cannot be sustained.

Later in the novel, after they have set sail, the dichotomy between the separation of spirituality and physicality is brought into question as Ishmael describes the nature of the crow’s nest. As he describes the endless hours spent alone on the masthead he creates a clear image of the danger that is faced by becoming lost in contemplation. Up on the masthead, it is easy to be “lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie” that one may forget where they are.

“There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch, slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.”

It seems that, here, all Ishmael is discussing is the danger that is present for those up in the masthead, however, the metaphor extends to the risk one runs by separating their spiritual self too completely from their physical self. If a person becomes too introspective in their search for God, as Father Mapple and Judeo-Christian ideology suggests they must, then they may completely loose track of their physical world and be unable to function as rational people.

Although Ishmael serves throughout the novel as a source for examining the dichotomy between practicality and spirituality, Melville also takes advantage of other characters to show some of the shortcomings of Judeo-Christian thought. Through the character of Starbuck, Melville demonstrates how being to righteous can become self-destructive. The first time we see Starbucks righteousness as navet and a downfall is in his first confrontation with Ahab.

During this confrontation in which Starbuck confronts Ahab about the nature of their voyage, and Ahab’s decision to pursue Moby Dick instead of the actual orders of the ship to collect whale oil, Starbuck is unable to maintain a rational argument with the monomaniacal Ahab. Ahab, who knows that he has all of the crews support, but Starbuck’s points this out to the unsure first mate, who is then unable to rationalize a way to win the support of the crew. Rather than trying to solve the problem in the physical world, Starbuck in looking to God to protect him from the monster in Ahab, whispers to himself “God keep me! –Keep us all!”

Later in the novel Starbuck again finds himself faced against Ahab. Only this time it is against the sleeping Ahab. Starbuck finds the gun that Ahab once held up against him and ponders the idea of killing Ahab, and preventing the tragic inevitable end that Starbuck perceives for the Pequod. In his self deliberations Starbuck wrestles with the idea of trying to capture Ahab alive and keep him as a prisoner, but he “could not endure the sight; could not possibly fly his howlings; all comfort, sleep itself, inestimable reason would leave me on the long intolerable voyage.” Starbuck finds himself unable to make a rational decision because he is overwrought with moral objections. To the idea of killing Ahab, Starbuck even tries to rationalize it, because, by killing Ahab he would be preventing Ahab from being able to commit the sin of killing the members of the crew.

But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him? – Yes, it would make him the willful murderer of thirty men and more, if the ship com to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way. If, then, he were this instant-put aside, that crime would not be his.”
As Starbuck continues to ponder whether to kill or capture Ahab or not, Starbuck again begins to look to God to give him the answer.

His blind faith in God to provide him with a source of enlightenment fails him again, when in the midst of his pleading for God’s help, “God, where art though? Shall I? Shall I?” Moby Dick is spotted and thus ends Starbuck’s opportunity to prevent the impending disaster. Had Starbuck not been so overwhelmed by his moral and religions convictions, a rational man would have been able to act in a manner that would have saved the ship, and thus proved less destructive than the passive, pious mindset of Starbuck.

Starbucks lack of action stemmed from his blind reliance on a higher power to solve his problems. Rather than finding a balance in which he could have weighed both practical rational along with Judeo-Christian teachings, he relied too much on a God who did not show his face. By looking at these examples from the novel it is easy to see some of the limitations of Judeo-Christian thought. While in no means does it completely invalidate any of the ideas of western religion it does force one to question the blind validity in which some people purse it, and at what cost are they pursuing their spiritual self.

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