Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Five Faith and Culture Edition

 A terrific Friday Five from Terri today! She writes as follows:

This week the church I serve is a host site for the University of Michigan, Dearborn, Worldviews Seminar. It's a week long summer education course open to anyone, with continuing ed hours to be earned. It's a survey of the world religions with a morning lecture at the university, led by Lucinda Mosher. Then the group drives over to the church for lunch, a short lecture, and then they board a bus for a tour of local religious buildings. They tour Buddhist temples, an Antiochean Orthodox church, a synagogue, a mosque, and many other area houses of worship.This year is the tenth anniversary of the seminar.

In addition to the Worldviews Seminar the congregation I serve is planning to participate in Episcopal Faith Shared and Faith Shared. I am working to have members of local Jewish and Muslim congregations present and participating in our Sunday morning service.

So, in honor of a week of interfaith study and celebration:

1. Have you ever had an experience of a religion other than your own? And, if so, what was it like for you to experience something different? If you haven't, what religion might you like to study, experience, and learn more about?

I spent six years teaching in an Orthodox Jewish day school, which was like entering another culture each morning.  Since I taught literature and world history to intensely curious students who seldom encountered anyone outside their own community of faith, we had some wonderful conversations about belief, practice, and culture.  Typical ninth grade questions:  Why are Christians polytheistic?  Why does Mel Gibson hate us?  Do you really believe that Jesus rose from the dead?  And what's with those pumpkins on Halloween?  The whole experience was challenging, often disconcerting, and led to wonderful friendships with students and teachers.  As usual in such situations, I learned far more than I taught.  Probably the most important thing I learned is how much respect is generated when people adhere faithfully to their own beliefs while maintaining a stance of openness and generosity to others of different traditions

2. Have you ever studied, traveled, or explored other cultures? What and where, and when?

Most of my travel has been either in the United States or Europe, so I can't say that I've been far afield, culture-wise.  However, when our son Josh spent his 11th grade year in France, we  got a tiny taste of French life and culture through the time we spent with his family there.  I have maintained a warm relationship with his French mother and brother for the past almost-ten years, despite our infrequent communications and the tragedy we have all shared.  Gregarious Son leaves for a law student program in Novgorod and St. Petersburg day after tomorrow, so we're about to learn something about Russian culture ~ I hope!

3. Any stories you wish to share about a person (author, teacher, etc), or a friend or colleague, from another culture or religion, who has impacted you in some capacity?

The rabbi who was the principal of the aforementioned school had a big impact on me.  His own pre-college education had taken place entirely in the black hat yeshiva world; his high school friends considered him in danger of worldly influence when he decided to attend Yeshiva University in New York City -- a bastion of Orthodox Judaism from most points of view, but in theirs, a hazardous place in which people study law and medicine and secular  literature as well as Torah.  He explained once that his parents, while deeply religious, were also brilliant, alert, and attentive to the world around them.  The mix of worlds produced a quietly compassionate and effective man, one who could talk with authority on almost any subject, was genuinely curious about everything, and was universally respected by those he encountered across a wide spectrum, from teenagers in trouble to adults who had far-ranging educations and life experiences of their own.  He and I had a number of fascinating conversations over the years.


I started this entry early this mornng but ran out of time before I had to leave for a meeting.  One of the pastors from my field ed church of year before last recently invited me to join the board of a nonprofit that promotes interfaith dialogue.  That organization is one of a number co-operating on an interfaith commemoration on 9/11, which is how I found myself hosting a meeting of the publicity committee this morning at my home Presby church, a committee whose membership is Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian!


  1. Robin, this statement, IMO, is the crux of inter-faith relationships (and I could add inter-faith as well):

    "Probably the most important thing I learned is how much respect is generated when people adhere faithfully to their own beliefs while maintaining a stance of openness and generosity to others of different traditions"

  2. Yes, what purple said, which echoes what the Dalai Lama once said, and of which I totally concur. Than you for sharing!

  3. Great stuff Robin!

    1. I spent about 20 years outside of my traditional Catholic faith tradition. I was disgusted by what I felt was a lack of vision, understanding and space for difference. This was long before the sexual crisis. During that time I was involved in extensive study of Carl Jung and Jungian psychology. This led me into some amazing places - reading about, and exploring Buddhism, ancient cultures and religious practices, and looking into other ways people expressed that spiritual longing.

    I developed a love of the amazing, unique and personal ways people converse with and commune with the God of their own understanding. During this whole time I was also a member of Al-Anon Family Groups, and practiced the 12 Steps. Without using an organized religion as my Higher Power, I was able to fully drop into my own place here on the earth - to kind of build my own understanding as it were - and all the time feel part of the world and Universe as it is, without trying to change myself or my surroundings to fit some idea I had in my mind (this was my biggest obstacle with the Church as it was taught to me).

    Lo and behold, I find myself smack in the middle of the Catholic church these days. Not so "traditional" as some might think, but one day at a time I choose to be there and to show up as fully present as I can. I certainly see some of the same shortcomings as I did before, but I now have somewhat different eyes. And I certainly feel God's presence in my life, so I no longer am coming at "religion" from a place of lack, of fear, and of this enormous sense that I am not enough.

    2. I've been fortunate in that during my marriage we have traveled extensively. I think one of the pivotal moments for me in relation to other cultures came when I was in Hong Kong. There were so many MILLIONS of people - I mean, millions and millions of people - living their lives in such a radically different mode than anything I was aware of; I was struck nearly dumb by the idea that so many people were alive, bustling and hustling and intent on their pursuits and that they were basically NOTHING like me!

    Writing this it sounds pretty silly. But I think I always assumed some kind of minor differences among people... yes, they are a bit richer, they are a bit poorer, they are a bit darker, they are a bit shorter, whatever ...but basically we are all alike.

    No. We are not! I mean our physical structures are, but our emotional, mental, spiritual, familial structures are RADICALLY different! And they are able to go along and live these intricate, intense, meaningful lives, with not one whit of awareness of "me" and the way I live, and the way I perceive reality.

    It took me months to process that. However, it was a wonderful experience, and I feel like it was a shell of my own making that would have limited my ability to live in the wide, abundant world, so I'm glad it is gone. I strive now to keep from rebuilding it. :) It takes a lot of concentration sometimes to tear down a small stack of rock (opinions) and mortar (moral outrage) that I tend to work on sometimes!

    3. There are two authors that I read alot about and read from their writings as well. I don't always understand everything, but it gives me SO much to think about, to meditate on, and to gently expand my boundary of perception. Thich Nhat Hanh is one. His small books are real gems; and also The Dalai Lama. His gentle presence has shown me a path into my own faith tradition because of his simple embodiment of divine peace.

    I don't think I could ever be truly Buddhist, but I do know that I've gained a lot of insight into my own relationship with God, and strengthened that relationship, by reading the writings of these two Buddhist men. I am so grateful that I was introduced to them.

    Thanks for sharing so much of your journey! I love this interfaith week that Terri wrote about! What a wonderful opportunity!

  4. Wow, Cindy, what a great response.

    It seems that you're able to articulate well the journey from the "spiritual but not religious" camp into an understanding that the two are not dualities but are integrally related.

    How fascinating your response to your Hong Kong experience is!

    I have read a great deal of Thich Nhat Hanh and a little of the Dalai Lama. Also a lot of Pema Chodron. Interestingly, I found that in a previous time of great challenge and pain in my life, several years ago, TNH and Pema really spoke to me, but in this most recent loss, not at all. This time around, I have found the Christian articulation of desire ("What do you want?") a much more meaningful framework for engagement with the God of Silence than the Buddhist framework of detachment.

    I wonder, though, about my interpretation - or misinterpretation -- during a period of such total dislocation. Maybe I should take another look.

  5. From my work in Al-Anon and the 12 Steps I have a bit of a different take on Detachment.

    Detachment is one of the foundation stones upon which one can build a life if there is alcoholism in the family.

    What I have learned is that Detachment is not detachment from the person. Or even detachment from the situation. Such as "not spending time with my alcoholic mother" or "I just don't talk to him when he's drunk." Sure, that's a kind of detachment, but it is more of a dislocation, as you so clearly articulate, and so physical detachment at that point may be the right thing to do, but its not the spiritual answer or spiritual healing path. That would be more like fighting fire with fire - and well, I've never seen a fire department do that!

    Instead, how I see the principle of Detachment is that it works inside me, and I detach from my idea of "how things should be" or "what I think my life should be like" or "this is what a family should look like." That is a much more subtle and spiritual process.

    And I think this is where THN helped me so much. It is a gentle way. A slow uncurling of my clenched thought-fingers from around my opinion about something.

    In my life I have formed these iron-clad "Truth-with-a-capital-T" ideas. And then proceeded to lead my life according to them. Be nice. Don't make waves. Help. Be quiet. Those are just a few.

    The spiritual process is not to do the opposite. But when, in a situation where I say to myself "Oh, I know what to do here" I need to stop, breathe, and detach from the thought that I know what to do. Perhaps I really don't! (haha!) and this profoundly changes my life.

    It changes my attitude. It changes my actions. And over time I realize that I'm not changing my attitude and I'm not changing my life. Some mystery is making the change.

    All I am doing is detaching from my idea that *I* know what is needed. Or what something should look like.

    This is ultimately what led me back to my Christian heritage ... because in that pause, between lock-step marching to my idea of Truth-with-a-capital-T and taking some action I found that God is often waiting for me.

    Right there in that very tiny pause.

  6. I think that what you are talking about might be what I struggle with in terms of Ignatian indifference: becoming indifferent to outcomes, which are God's province, even as I have to discern and do all I can on my part.

    What little I know of detachment, Buddhist version, is that it emerges from the concept that the way to rid oneself of suffering is to detach from desire, whereas in the Christian schema, the question is always, "What do you want?"

    I am wrestling with the duality that I believe that God speaks to us through our desires (among many ways) and that my own desires include a pile of things I simply cannot have -- which I believe God does not reject but labors through.

    I wish Terry would weigh in here!

  7. I think they are basically the same thing, or at least in my simple-minded way they are.

    The Buddhist concept of detaching from desire requires us to really know what it is we desire. At first it may seem one thing (I want my daughter to be healthy) but upon serious meditation and reflection, what I really desire is not to be consumed by fear of her imminent death by crack cocaine... or to put it more simply, I think my desire is about another person but in reality my desire is about wanting to "feel better" in some way. It is in the detachment from that idea - that if I could FEEL better, then I would feel better.

    This goes along with the Christian detachment from outcomes because it allows me to trust that I am in God's presence even when I feel like crap. See, my idea is that if I'm in God's presence I'm going to "feel good."

    (And believe me, I'm using these terms in the LOOSEST possible way)

    So how I practice detachment in my life at the moment is to start with what I want (no addiction, health and happiness for my child, my child's presence, whatever it is that I"m so focused on) and sit with that. Gently exposing it to God's love, and my own meager love, in meditation and prayer.

    Over time, gentle time, eons of time, no-rush-no-agenda kind of time, my thought-fingers begin to relax just a tad, and then ever more slowly they uncurl from around the idea that "if-she-would.......then-I-would....." And once I begin to let go of that idea, I can fall more deeply into the desire that leads me into God.

    Oddly, once I had children and they grew up, and slammed into the brick wall of their own adolescence, I no longer got such a sense of comfort from the idea or understanding of God-the-Father. Well, that's not true, I began to let that go back when I got so irritated with the Church.

    But when my children began experiencing deep, despairing, searing pain - which is so different from dealing with my own pains - it was as if I needed a God that was bigger than "Father" and whose embrace was bigger than "arms" and who actually needed to be as big as the Universe to contain the fear, pain and grief I felt.

    I think that's why the Buddhist writings helped me because I felt like they let me expand my understanding of God past the boundaries of my own understanding.... to the place where God could actually help me.

    (This probably makes no sense....and if that's the case, I'm sorry!)

    There is a Rumi poem that goes something like "Out beyond the field of understanding there is a place, I'll meet you there" or something like that. And that is where my spiritual exploration beyond my own heritage led me.

    You really do stir some wonderful thoughts and conversations Robin!!

  8. Robin and Cindy -

    Thank you for your words.

    I'm pondering them.

    I love the Rumi quote and found it again on Marshall Rosenberg's site:

    Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing, and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

    More discussion, please and thank you.