The Faith Club

I’ve just had the most surreal experience in reading The Faith Club.  I thought I was alone in my thinking processes (don’t we all?), but it turns out I’m not.  I thought I had veered crazily from my faith, but it turns out, not so much.  From religion, yes.  From faith, no.

Three women–Ranya Idliby (a Muslim), Suzanne Oliver (an ex-Catholic, now Episcopalian), and Priscilla Warner (a Jew)–all living in New York, found each other after 9/11, seeking to make sense of the world, their beliefs, and what to tell their children.

The book reads like an intimate conversation between the three women.  It’s as though they’re in your living room, hashing it out (with both discomforting and exhilarating moments).  Honesty is foremost, and that’s what pushes the discussions forward…rapidly.

What’s most astonishing about such an idea (writing a controversial book in a conversational fashion) is the personal glimpse into their own perceptions, the shifting of rigid (or not-thought-out) opinions, and the wide acceptance of humanity afterward.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.

And I’ll be honest.  At the end, I longed to start a Faith Club of my own.  I’m not sure I know of many people–here, at least–who would want one, too.  I mean, really want one, enough to ask the tough questions and be really transparent about prejudices, feelings, and beliefs.  For only by putting ourselves “out there” can we heal or change.  And that’s what I want.  I want to be enlightened.  I want to love everyone where they’re at.  I want to know what they believe and how they live their life and how they see the world.  Have you ever had the same desire?

I’ll share a couple of passages, if I may.

This is from Priscilla’s prayer book Gates of Repentance, and I think it says, so beautifully, what interfaith dialogue is all about.

When will redemption come?
When we master the violence that fills our world.
When we look upon others as we would have them look upon us.
When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves.

And this discussion…have you had it with any of your kids yet?

First, a short dialogue between the women that leads into the questions.

PRISCILLA: I cannot believe that you two walk around Manhattan and never think…
SUZANNE: That we’re going to get blown away?
PRISCILLA: I want some of what you guys are drinking!

Suzanne reacts to this…

“I returned home from our meeting and wondered what Ranya and I were in fact drinking.  Was it faith in God?  Careless denial of danger?  Or recognition of our own helplessness?  I thought about Priscilla’s God, a God who had vanished on 9/11 or at least been obscured by its smoke.  Why had her faith disappeared during tragedy, while mine had been strengthened by the tragedy of my own sister’s death?

“Our different ideas of the nature of God were on my mind that night as I knelt by my daughter’s bed for some quick nighttime prayers.  But as soon as I began, Anne interrupted.  She needed to talk about God that day, too.

“‘Mom, who made God?’ she asked me.

“‘No one, Anne.  God has always existed,’ I answered reflexively.

“‘But how can that be?  Everything has a beginning.’

“‘God was the power that made all those beginnings.  He was there first,’ I said.

“‘Where is God?’ she asked.

“‘I don’t know exactly.  He is here with us and everywhere outside of us.  Sometimes I picture our whole universe resting in the palm of his hand.’

“‘I don’t get it.’

“‘Unfortunately, it’s not something that I can explain much better,’ I said, feeling her disappointment and remembering my own as a child when I challenged my father with the same questions.  I can show Anne Jerusalem on a globe, but I can’t point to a place other than my heart and hers and tell her, ‘God is here.’

“‘It’s so frustrating,’ she said, smiling through clenched teeth and bouncing on her bed in wiggly frustration.  ‘I hate things that I can’t understand.  How do you know it’s true?’

“‘If there were no God, I don’t think we would be here.’”

See?  Conversations like these spill over to home life, too.

I liked a translation of one of the songs Suzanne heard in a Chanticleer concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It’s called “Cor Meum Est Templum Sacrum” by Patricia Van Ness.

“My Heart is a Holy Place”

My heart is a holy place
Wiser and holier than I know it to be
Wiser than my lips can speak
A spring of mystery and grace.
You have created my heart
And have filled it with things of wonder.
You have sculpted it, shaped it with your hands
Touched it with your breath.
In its own season it reveals itself to me.
It shows me rivers of gold
Flowing in elegance
And hidden paths of infinite beauty.
You touch me with your stillness as I await its time.
You have made it a dwelling place of richness and intricacies
Of wisdom beyond my understanding
Of grace and mysteries, from your hands.

Suzanne commented on it, after listening: “My own heart soared as I read this.  I felt freed by the truth I found in Van Ness’s words.  They expressed what I had been experiencing, that the mystery of faith was accessible through my own heart even when my system of belief was shifting.  As a human, I wanted a creed in which to place my trust, but as a child of God, I had faith even without the creed.”

And here are Suzanne’s thoughts on her visit to Priscilla’s Yom Kippur memorial service.

“‘How was Yom Kippur?’ my husband asked when I got home that evening.

“‘It was lovely,’ I said.  ‘Some of it felt very familiar.  There were prayers of praise and thanks to God that would fit easily in a Christian service.  But the tone was different from the prayers we’re used to.  The emphasis was on the mightiness of God and the flaws of humanity.  One prayer called humans broken urns, dust, and dreams soon forgotten.’

“‘Sounds depressing,’ my husband said.

“‘Well, yes.  But there is an appealing humility in it.’


“‘In the Jewish prayers I hear the voice of a child praising his parent and hoping to earn his love and forgiveness.  However, the child’s not sure if he deserves that love.  So, if he gets it, he will be doubly grateful.  On the other hand, Christians can sound like spoiled children.  We start out assuming God loves us and will forgive us and that eternal life has already been won for us by the death of Jesus Christ.  If I had to choose, I would prefer the first child.  He’s less arrogant.’

“‘I see what you mean.’

“‘It’s like the Jewish approach to heaven.  Many Jews don’t presume there’s eternal life.  They believe God is eternal.  But they are unsure about eternity for the rest of us.’

“‘Sounds rational.’

“‘I agree.’

“‘So how can you maintain your own faith if you agree with the Jews?’ my husband asked.

“This was the rub.  With my religious belief expanding to include Judaism and Islam, I was still struggling with what Christian truth to hold onto.

“‘I still believe in Christianity,’ I said.  ‘I believe Jesus was someone extraordinary and extraordinarily connected to God.  I have faith in the truth of his message of love and compassion.  In my own way I strive to follow his example.  I’d like to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but I can’t prove it.  I recognize that I may be wrong.  At the same time I recognize that what I know to be true–that we should worship God and live by the Golden Rule–is also preached by other religions.

“‘Who’s to say that God isn’t revealing himself in many ways to many people who fit their epiphanies into their own cultural experiences?  How can I judge which is right?  Might they all be different paths to the same end?’

“‘They might be,’ David agreed.

“‘I’ve started thinking about religion like college degrees.  One person might earn a BA in literature while another earns one in history.  They’re equally educated, though differently educated.  The real test is how they apply that knowledge in their lives.’”

It’s remarkable the transformations in this book.  Many of my own personal “shiftings” came from my own personal exploration and research, but I think if I had had a group of open-minded women like this to engage in conversation, I would have been further along.  [That’s not to say I don’t know any; I’ve just never broached these subjects with many women, because I always assume, perhaps presumptuously, that they would see how out-on-the-fringe I am…and never want to talk to me again.  I’m not pulling this out of thin air, though.  I’ve had this happen to me over and over again.]

At the end of the book, the three authors give ways of starting your own Faith Club, and if you’re still a little shy, they give you a list of questions and resources for you to study on your own.

The benefits?

RANYA: I think that just as people have book clubs, they should have faith clubs, exploring their belief systems.  Sometimes it’s better to talk about what may be offensive, or what seems to be offensive, or is assumed to be offensive, because in the end people are better off for it.

PRISCILLA: If you put your worst fears and prejudices and stereotypes out on the table–if you say ‘Here’s what I always thought your religion was about,’ or ‘Is this what you believe?’ or ‘This is what I’m afraid you think,’ and you work through those fears and thoughts honestly and openly, one by one, you come out on the other side spiritually alive and free.

SUZANNE: I would also say that when you’re asked about your faith by people who have different beliefs, you’re forced to examine your faith in a way you never did before.  You reconsider your beliefs in a new context.  You keep some, change some, and throw some out.  And in the process, you take ownership of your religion.

The drawbacks, if you can call it that?

In Suzanne’s voice: “I had embraced other religions.  I had become a universalist.  So why was I so scared?  Because I suddenly didn’t know where to find truth.  If all religions were equal, how did I know what to believe when they disagreed?  There was one big area of agreement: that we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.  I was fine with that.  But what about the other stuff?  Religion was easier to think about when I thought I had the right answers.

“Now I was becoming cynical.  I kept worrying about the possibility that God had been imagined by man as something to grasp as we faced our mortality.  Along with this cynicism came fear: the heart-pounding fear that I used to experience before my sister’s death had deepened my faith.  At night in bed, I nervously prayed to God for a return to the comfort I had found in my faith before I had started talking to Ranya and Priscilla.”

So, there you have it.  Three women who wanted to grow, to change.  And they did…and shared their journeys…to enrich us all.

I highly recommend this book–if you’re at all wondering about the differences and/or similarities among the three major world religions.

I’ve come away a changed person.

[Post image: Suzanne Oliver, Ranya Idliby, and Priscilla Warner, authors of The Faith Club]

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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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