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It’s Really All About God

“I signed up for a movement that was standing still, with explorers who had already arrived, and for a revolution that had given up.”

So says Samir Selmanovic in his book It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.  The worst part: he’s talking about Christianity.

Here’s a book after my own heart.  As you know, I recently “outed” myself from the church (as an institution, as inspiration, as home).

I’ve come to the conclusion that God is bigger than religion.  He cannot be housed in one place or in one grandiose idea.  “If God created all humanity but gave life-giving knowledge—usually referred to as ‘revelation’—to only some of humanity, could God in any meaningful sense be thought of as the One God and not only as a god?”

“If we choose to interpret our sacred texts and cherished traditions in a way that fosters an image of God who withholds God-self from people outside our religion, would not such a choice make God not only less than divine but also less than human?  Shouldn’t God at least match our human capacity for justice and compassion?  These questions haunted me all the way into a confession of my doubt.  Either everyone has a real opportunity to find God, and therefore life, or God is not worth worshiping.  A view of God who mysteriously withholds God-self from everyone fails the moral sensibilities of the general public and should fail the moral sensibilities of ardent believers.  For God to create human beings to die in order to show the consequences of life outside Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is incompatible with the core teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  To think of God as favoring any human group would be simply un-Jewish, un-Christian, un-Muslim.  A god would take a place of One God.  If God is not on the outside of our religions, whatever is inside is meaningless.

“Without God on the outside, the inside crumbles.”

Ah yes.  I’ve come home.  This is what I believe from the bottom of my heart.  [And for those of you struggling with Jesus’s words in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me,” see Brian McLaren’s run-down of this here.  McLaren confuses things, I think, for “outsiders” by talking about The Kingdom (some strange lingo we Christians use; I’m sorry).]

Selmanovic continues: “My experience has been that we religious people, particularly Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have been hedging our bets.  We say we believe in the God of all people.  But we really don’t.  We find it difficult to accept that others have anything significant to teach us about what we hold sacred, about our God.  We tend to nod our heads at others only when they simply mirror what we already know.  There is no reciprocity.”

He interjects with a haunting poem by an Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.

“The Place Where We Are Right”

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

And you’ll know this to be true–where in thinking you’re right you see you might have been wrong–if you’ve ever met anyone who defied who they were supposed to be.

“Just when we figure everything out, when our belief systems, traditions, and practices are beginning to play along nicely like a well-trained and tuned symphony orchestra, we stumble across something—an experience, a fact, a person.  And nothing defies our religion so much as finding the sacred in one of ‘those people.’  You meet a Muslim man who resembles the character of Jesus more than anyone you’ve ever met in your church.  You find yourself working with a Wiccan woman who is repairing the world better than anyone in your synagogue.  You meet an evangelical Christian college student who puts everything on the line to protect the rights of atheists on campus.  An atheist wise man or woman comes alongside you and helps you persevere on your path of faith in God.  In such encounters, to use the poetry of Yehuda Amichai again, the moles and plows of love soften the stomped soil of a hard ground where we are right.”

And guess what?  This dialogue must include atheists.  Everyone–believers and atheists alike–should be involved.  Here are three open-ended questions Selmanovic suggests:

“1. What do you believe in when you believe—or not believe—in God?

2. What can you do to seek out, protect, and hear those who subvert your ideas about the God you believe in or don’t believe in?

3.  How can we turn the tensions between us into something that is life-giving rather than destructive?

“Atheism does not have to be the end of the mystical; it can be the beginning.

“Religion does not have to be the opium of the people; it can be the poetry of the people.

“Both faith and doubt are opposites of certainty and therefore part of the same whole that refuses to see all but the obvious.  To end either of them would be to end imagination.

“Faith imagines.  And so does doubt.

“We both have both.

“And we are better together.”

[Charity must be practiced on all sides.  We must all play together nicely in the sandbox.  See Karl W. Giberson’s article “Atheists, It’s Time To Play Well With Others” on USA Today.]

We’re all in this together, don’t you agree?  Collectively, we can add to this faith experience in ways we could not do alone.  [Read Tenzin Gyatso’s (the 14th Dalai Lama’s) op-ed piece in The New York Times from two days ago–“Many Faiths, One Truth.”]

“As Father Zossima, a wise and revered elder of a monastery in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, says, ‘Everything is like the ocean, all things flow and are indirectly linked together and if you push here, something will move at the other end of the world….If you push here, something somewhere will move; if you strike here, something somewhere will wince; if you sin here, something somewhere will suffer.’

“Those who will be hurt or blessed by our thoughts, prayers, or actions might be completely unknown to us, but our lives will affect them, and their lives will affect us.  Whatever we do, say, pray, or think, now matters to ‘them.’ Today, more than ever before, our share of life of the world is intertwined with everyone else’s.  As Kuan Tao-Sheng expresses it:

“Take a lump of clay,
Wet it, pat it,
Make a statue of you
And a statue of me
Then shatter them, clatter them,
Add some water,
And break them and mold them
Into a statue of you
And a statue of me.
Then in mine, there are bits of you
And in you there are bits of me.
Nothing ever shall keep us apart.”

[Side note: If you want to read fiction that handles faith nicely (but not didactically), read Francisco X. Stork’s new book The Last Summer of the Death Warriors.  You’ll remember I loved his book Marcelo in the Real World.  Well, he’s done it again.  Another wonderful book that works on multiple levels.  I don’t read too many of these any more.  Both of these are special.]

Whatever you believe, I want to learn from you.  However you live your life, I want to hear what it is you believe (or don’t believe).

You are a vital part of me.

[Post image: Samir Selmanovic, author of It’s Really All About God, photo credit: Faithhouse Manhattan]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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