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."
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."