So I was out of town this weekend and last night came to some serious religious questions... and not too many answers. I read the foreword by Christopher Hitchens to a book called Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And then stopped after that. In seven pages Mr. Hitchens made me question so many of the things I preach about religion and coexistence. He adamantly was against Islam. And I'm not just talking about the religious fanaticism that has swept our newspapers and, in my opinion, brought shame to the entire religion. He was against the whole thing. But he wasn't promoting any other religion in the stead of it, he just hated, quite passionately, Islam and every last bit of it. I assume he meant for all readers to conclude that Islam was pure madness. He brought up the degradation of women, the mutilation of their bodies, the supremacy of men, the beatings, the mandatory prayer, the thought that they have special rights (re: the publishing of images of Muhammad) in terms of free speech. All of this and more this man vehemently brought forth and slammed on the table. He showed extreme partiality and gave no choice as to what his readers were to believe. This raises questions not just about whether or not we should view Islam as a "wrong" religion but then that feeds into the judgement we pass on others, the way we look at all religions, and the notion of what is right and wrong. But let me pause for a moment to clarify some things- I do not believe in ANY form that mutilation, beatings, and degradation is right. It is unquestionably wrong in my eyes... and it should be!
I started studying religion, in part, because I wanted an explanation. I wanted to know why things were the way they were- and I kept coming back to religion. I could be politics with the right-wing, Christian, Western values. Or the left-wing opposites who wanted people to decide their own values or impose their own. I'm not saying either side is right or wrong, just what I see. I wanted to know why there were so many churches with different names and what denominations were. I studied history and almost all major events came back to religion and differences among it. I wanted to know why we did certain things a specific way in my own church. I soon learned that everyone wants to be right. And that everyone thinks they are right. Sometimes people are afraid of other religions and what they don't know and don't understand. Just like regular news (secular news I guess you could call it), religious news often gets the horror stories of why two groups can't get along or why one religion seems to be suppressing a group of people or how a fundamentalist group has terrorized a city or a country, or, even more inexplicably, it's members. How do these things come to pass?
No theologian has ever been completely sure- everyone has those nagging questions. Even the strongest among us in faith wonders. I wonder about the state of the world in which we live. How many more wars can we take before we all crumble? Will we continue to be angry with one another, ignore the gods we confess to love and have piety and devotion, and discard the disciplines we don't like or can't be bothered with? People continue to make religion their own- so how much of religion can be focused on the self? Or should I say, on the ego? I suppose to a point, all religions have to focus on the self, even if the goal is to be selfless. Is it better to lose ourself in a religion or create a religion around ourselves? I'm not sure of the answers to these questions. I guess if I did, I wouldn't be posing them.
I can't explain the faith I have and the comfort and relief it brings me. It's not like a sedative- it's constantly moving and changing and I have to work at it. It's something I don't mind working at. Sure, I fail at it a lot, but that's the way life is. I ask for forgiveness and it's granted. Grace is a beautiful thing. It is gratifying to serve something beyond yourself. It ultimately serves God, it glorifies him. He likes to have us use that faith in an active way too- that's what service is for. I know and believe a few simple truths. I love God more than anything. Yay Jesus! is my answer to most questions. I try to love people in the same way that I believe God loves me. I try my best not to judge other people, but I call it like I see it. I'm factual and compassionate at the same time. I believe that God is all-knowing and good. God is all-powerful too. I believe that God loves everyone too and on the same note, he does not love evil. God is... God.
I can't explain evil and I can't fathom why people partake in it. I don't know what Heaven looks like. I can't answer your question about who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. That is not for me to decide. That is God's job. And that's the answer I am sticking to. There are lots of grey areas in religion. We forget that humans do not have- AND CANNOT HAVE- all of the answers. If we did, what would we have God for? God is the answer to all of the un-answerable questions, he's the answer to "what's going to happen to me?" "what do I do next?" "How is this going to turn out?" "what is in space?" He knows who is right. He knows what is wrong. We need to remember that we're just people. Religion does not have the intent to serve a purpose for us. Religion is for God (or gods, in some cases). But yet we act like the final magistrate, the answer book, the President of Religion, and the end-all be-all of debates. Well sometimes we act like... God. Explanation isn't always needed. I'm not saying we walk blindly and ignorantly, but knowing all of the answers to everything isn't in the definition of faith. I can't explain every evil act, medical problem, or theological debate. I can't tell you. I don't know.
I could write a book called "Why Religion Matters To Some People." And then write another book called "Why Religion Does Not Matter to Some People." Are the people who have faith the ones with the questions? Or do they have the answers? Are the people who don't care/do not partake in religion satisfied with what life is? It's an interesting thought. I think one of the things that I hate most in life is when people tell me they used to be religious (and I'm talking about organized religion here) or want to be religious/spiritual/get involved with a church and then people ruined it for them. Not God. But people. People came seeking God and then get stopped by other people. People came to look for and worship and get sidetracked or even pushed away by other people, forgetting God. So who am I more confused by? The so-called hypocritical people (the name given by the slighted ones) who apparently are not following the ways (love thy neighbor) that they profess? Or the people who discard God and all religion because some people stood in their way? Is either party right? Wrong? I could defend and criticize both sides. "Hypocrite" is the name given to a lot of Christians. As a member of that faith, I will admit that- and perhaps it is true. To some that may seem shocking. Hear me out. Christians set ridiculously high standards and from the start we know we will fail. Jesus said some things that even the disciples thought were strange. How could we possibly forgive seventy times seven times? Or love someone else as much as God loves us? Or give away all of our stuff? We need our stuff. But that's the bar. We know we'll fail, but we keep jumping, stretching to reach. It's pretty much a mandate. We can't do it though and we know that. Every Sunday the people in my church say it,
We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
And by grace (very big in the Lutheran church) we are saved, we are forgiven, yet again for the wrong we have done. This does not let us off the hook. We still have to strive, day in and day out to do the right thing. But what do I say to the people who come for God and can't look past the other people? God is not like people. Well, he is and he isn't. (Hello more confusing theological debate.) He is in every one of us. Not everyone exudes God all of the time. Many people do and it is clear that God is in them and He is working through them. Others, you might have to dig around a little bit more. God exists beyond us. He is the most high. And you can find Him, I promise. And I also promise that there are those of us out there that won't turn you away if you come looking, seeking. I can't explain why some people don't have faith, hate faith, or even hate organized religion as a whole. But I can take a pretty good guess.
Where do people stand in religion? In part, we are all creators, not of our deities, but the way we worship them, the small laws and rituals, the temples and churches and mosques we build, and the faith we carry. But we would do well to remember that faith isn't just about us. It is about the people who surround us and the live we choose to live because of it. And GOD.