On October 23 I served as moderator at an Interfaith Council presentation on Islam. The speaker was a lay Muslim leader. Our attendance was more than double what we get at most of our Interfaith forums. Everyone wants to learn about Islam, and to know what Muslims are thinking.
After explaining why it is insulting to pronounce Islam or Muslim with a z instead an s, (the z sound means ‘dark’) our speaker gave us Islam 101, available in Huston Smith’s wonderful book on world religions, or Karen Armstrong’s recent book on Islam. Okay. He wanted to make sure we understood the basics, and to distance himself, and the Islam he knows and loves, from Osama bin Laden and the suicide terrorists.
What surprised and disturbed me deeply was an aside he made. When he was on a roll and less guarded he said, “Before September 11 there were some people in this country who were talking about removing God from our national motto, In God We Trust.” Then, after a rather pregnant pause, he asserted, “God has his ways!” I nearly fell off my moderator’s chair. It was Jerry Falwell’s theology, clear as a bell. God did it!
Certainly our speaker wasn’t informing us about Islam at that moment. He was preaching and his message was abhorrent. The idea of such a god is repugnant, from whomever it comes. I want to distance myself as far as possible from such ugly theology.
Then, last Sunday afternoon, I was once again in that chair, moderating a forum sponsored by International Perspectives, addressing the question, “Can Islam Exist in a Secular Society?” It’s a reasonable question, given Islam’s theocratic history.
I was sympathetic to the Muslim speakers’ dilemma, having to explain, once again, that the terrorists brand of Islam is not theirs. In addition to the three Muslim speakers, there was a Christian theologian and a rabbinical student. They like to remind us that Jews, Christians and Muslims are ‘people of the Book- the Abrahamic religions.’
They say, in the spirit of solidarity, “The God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the same God…our God…we are God’s people, all descended from Adam and Eve.” And so forth. I appreciated one of our church members’ reminding them that as a Hindu she does not feel good about a theology that does not include her and so many millions of others who are not members of one of the three Western religions.
I guess I expected our speakers to affirm our secular society, and their place in it. They didn’t. In fact, there was a strong suggestion that secularism is, by its very nature, anti-religion. I believe the opposite, absolutely. One of our members told the panel that her minister- pointing to me -had recently quoted Jefferson who, in explaining the need to erect a wall of separation between church and state, said, “Divided we stand. United we fall.” Our secular society spawned the most religious and religiously diverse nation ever.
It has been a difficult, trying time for all of us. I’m reminded how much I cherish our approach to religion-affirming freedom, reason and tolerance. I’m reminded, too, how difficult it is for folks in the traditional Western religions to understand us. Or is it simply that they cannot accept our liberal, open-ended, individualistic approach?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’ll keep digging into it. I’m glad we’re digging together.
I would like to remind the ‘people of the book’ that putting a name on that which some call God was considered a form of idolatry in early Judaism. Many Jews will not use the word. In English they write G-d.
We cannot know the mind of God, and our tendency is to talk about God as if we did, as if God was a person. Anthropomorphism ascribes human characteristics to God; a god created in Man’s own image. It’s a hop, skip and a jump, then, for people to tell us what this human-like God is thinking, and what this projection-of-their-own-thinking god wants them to do. Beware of terrorists who tell you they know what God wants!
Certainly not all Christians and Muslims paint such an anthropomorphic picture of the god they’ve created in their own image. When they do, I sit up and take notice, and, if possible, hold up a mirror, hoping they’ll see themselves projected back.
It is possible to make spiritual and theological affirmations without painting a human-like god. Martin Buber did. Tillich did. Rumi did. Emerson did. These are examples of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Unitarian affirmations; they draw a universalist circle wide enough to include Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Native American spirituality–a God imbedded in Nature, including Human Nature, leaving no one out.
Gandhi put it nicely: “God is that indefinable something which we all feel but which we do not know. To me God is truth and love, God is ethics and morality, God is fearlessness, God is the source of light and life, and yet God is above and beyond all these. God is conscience. God is even the atheism of the atheist.”
Gandhi refused to be put in a particular religious category. When the Hindus and Muslims were killing each other in the name of religion and he was asked if he was a Hindu or a Muslim he said, “I am a Hindu. I am a Muslim. I am a Jew. I am a Christian. I am, after all, a human being, and I am connected to all my fellow human beings!”
For me, the poets say it better than the theologians. The collection of poems that speak to my own spiritual life is nearly complete and, hopefully, will soon be available in print-we got all the copyrights–and I’ve recorded the poems onto two CD’s.
Sorry this was such a long letter. I was inadequate to the short one I had in mind. And I want to close by encouraging you to participate in our annual canvass. Be generous. It’s good for your health, and we need you to be very healthy! : )