Friday, March 18, 2005

Holistic faith

I read a great article in The Sun (the magazine, not the British tabloid) earlier this week interviewing Yossi Klein Halevi, an author who I'm not familiar with, but after reading this, I want to be. Actually, it wasn't the full interview as The Sun does not have any advertising so buying customers are essential to its survival. But even just the excerpt they printed on the website (via a pdf) has a lot of valuable stuff.

The first aspect of the discussion that intrigued me was Halevi's belief that religion is an essential part in bringing peace to the Holy Land. This is something that I have been thinking about as well and it was encouraging to hear someone else say it also.

"In engaging my Christian and Muslim neighbors in a dialogue of prayer, my goal was to test the possibility that religion, specifically in the Holy Land, could be an instrument for healing rather than hatred...The Oslo peace process, which ended the first Palestinian uprising in 1993, was planned by secular elites who bypassed the vast religious populations on both sides. Now we face a second intifada. There is an urgent need to develop a religious language, and my search for a common language of prayer among the monotheistic faiths was an experiment in that direction."

In my own life, I have recently felt myself increasingly drawn away from my academic roots in the traditional discipline of history and to a lesser extent, politics, towards what at this moment feels to be a bit more ephemeral, yet more powerful spiritual pressure building up throughout the world, including in the two places which are the focus of my studies: the United States and Palestine/Israel.

I remember years back (eek! fourteen years already!) during my freshman year of college when I was attending Biola University, a prominent Evangelical school with a weekly chapel requirement, a man spoke during one of those weekly chapels who worked in South Africa during apartheid and through its dissolution. He explained that it wasn't until there was repentance and reconciliation among clergy behind the scenes that the end of apartheid was possible. It was a powerful idea for me then and has grown increasingly more powerful in my imagination. Lately I can't help but wonder if my illness is a way of turning me away from the secular pursuit of knowledge to a more dynamic, if quieter, spiritual path.

So, today I went to the World Peach Lunch held each month by the Wholistic Peace Institute, an organization which seeks to incorporate spirituality in the quest for world peace. Alicia Thom, one of the authors of the book I've talked about in past posts, Being Human, spoke about her participation in the 2nd Edinburgh International Festival of Middle Eastern Spirituality and Peace conference a few weeks ago. From the brochure and Alicia's report, it sounded hopeful and exciting. One of the speakers was Abouna Elias Chacour, who's writings and speaking have never ceased to awaken my spirit -- often to point of tears. While Alicia missed his presentation, she did come away with an even greater appreciation of the importance for every culture to tell their stories, as well as shared the sentiment of "better the heaven of unity than the hell of separation."

This need for unity was the other aspect of the Halevi interview that resonated with me. "People of different faiths have always judged each other by what we believe about God rather than by how we experience God's presence." He talked about how reading about mysticism made him realize "an astonishing unity of experience" when it came to encountering the Divine. "It was a seminal moment for me. It made me realize that the claims of religion might actually be true. It helped bring me back to Judaism, but it didn't confine me to Judaism."

Yes! Exactly!

As my gratuitous use of exclaimation marks there suggests, I had a similar seminal moment last week. For awhile now I've been pondering the fact that the world's great religions are so very much alike in many ways. Why do we always look to find what's different? Growing up Evangelical Protestant, we had retreat workshops and Bible Studies devoted to looking at Us versus Them. In my Orthodox supply catalogues are whole pages devoted to books explaining why other religious traditions are wrong and only the Orthodox Church has the correct way to God. We hold the Truth. They are lost.

Yet, when I look at the history of mystical prayer in my Byzantine church, we have traditions that are almost identical to those found in Tibetan Buddhism. At the first Divine Liturgy I ever attended, I was struck by how similar it was to Jewish worship, with a holy of holies behind the iconostasis, the incense that frequently clouded the church, and the chanting that sounded a lot like the chanting of the Torah. During Lent we do prostrations that are almost identical to those I did when I prayed with my Muslim friends while attending the Saturday Islamic school. But, if I embrace the idea that all religions are one, how can I call myself a Christian?

Just as I climbed into bed a week ago, I had my epiphany. In calling myself a Christian, I am stating that Christianity, specifically Byzantine Catholicism and to a lesser extent the Evangelical Protestantism in which I grew up, are the primary constructs through which I understand the Divine. Its rituals and mythos are the primary tools I use to relate to the Divine.

However, I acknowledge that Christianity is an imperfect construct. St. Paul said, "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially, then I shall know fully as I am fully known." While I believe that the Holy Spirit did inspire the Scriptures as well as the (mostly) men who wrote and interpreted them for the Church, they were still finite men who used a finite tool -- language -- to create a finite construct.

I also feel free to to borrow from other religions -- their understanding of the Divine, their traditions, mythos and rituals, to create a fuller, more dynamic relationship with God.

As I wrote that credo of sorts in the journal I keep by my bed, it was as if it broke the spell of needing the approval of people at church under which I've been since I was a little kid from a broken home desperate for the acceptance of the God-fearing people who held my divorced mother in contempt. I no longer care if the Bush-loving, Natural-Family-Planning-only Catholics with whom I share Communion think my syncreticism is sending me to Hell. I can now be a Christian again. I can have a rich, active, potent relationship with God again. I can be whole.

"Sometimes I feel like I belong to two peoples," said Halevi, "the Jewish people and a pluralistic people drawn from all faiths. I'm a religious Jew, and the Jewish story is the context in which I try to experience the miraculous. But I'm also a pluralist who believes that all the great religions are 'denominations' of one great religion, which teaches that the unseen is more important than the visible, and that this is a universe of unity and intentionality, despite the surface appearance of chaos."


Anonymous said...

This is my first visit to your blog, I found it via Philocrites.

You've reached the same approach to religion that I have, even though we practice different ones. I'm a Buddhist not because it is 100% right and other religions are false, but because it is the one through which I most understand myself and the world, and which most actively guides me. In fact, there were many years where I wasn't willing to call myself a Buddhist, even though I was involved in Buddhism. After all, I didn't accept all of Buddhism, only some of it. But then I realized that I had been engaged with Buddhism for so long that it deeply shaped all of my religious ideas and practices. Whether I was an orthodox Buddhist or not, I was some kind of Buddhist, and avoiding the label was just a kind of denial.

When I say that I'm a Buddhist and not a Chrisitian, I don't mean it as an indictment of anyone else's religion, particularly not Christianity. Christianity doesn't hold much value to me as an individual. But I'm just one random individual, and Christianity does nurture a great many people in a very successful way. Is this a live and let live philosophy? Whatever it is, I'm very happy that you've found Christianity to be a trustworthy guide for you. The particular scriptures and tropes of Christianity don't speak to me, but that doesn't mean they aren't full of beauty and meaning.

I don't believe that all paths lead to the top of the same mountain. For instance, I'm pretty sure George Bush is climbing a different mountain, and I don't think his path leads anywhere I would want to go. But, there are many roughly parallel paths within the various religious traditions, and it's always nice to encouner someone walking one that seems to mirror my own.

Anonymous said...

Michelle, you definitely must read Halevi's book, "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land." It's one of the best religious books I've read. I suspect you'd be disappointed by his political journalism and commentary elsewhere about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this book is truly great. said...