Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why I'm Not Sure

I have been spending my Mondays at Priority Two a faith-based organization that provides valuable support and skills for those of us in the Pittsburgh area who are “between jobs”. Our leader normally starts our sessions by leading us in prayer but this time, he unexpectedly asked if I wanted to do the prayer. As one who only attends church for weddings and funerals, I felt most uncomfortable doing this especially with the number of others in our group who have openly shared their strong faith.

“I’m not qualified to do this.” I said sheepishly. “Are you a heathen?” he asked. “No, but sometimes I’m not sure.”

I felt bad afterwards. Maybe it wasn’t the time or place to talk about this but I was just sharing my honest feelings. But when you think about it, how many of us are really sure about the existence of God? After all, it is about faith which is defined in the dictionary as “belief in, devotion to, or trust in somebody or something, especially without logical proof” Especially for those of us whose science education demands that we insist on proof before accepting something as truth, this can present problems.

For those of us who have never experienced a direct revelation of God, all we can do is study and follow the revelations of others through scripture to help us try and find our way. But even this presents problems because of
inconsistent revelations that can not only be inconsistent but mutually exclusive. If God is really there and wants us to know him, why does he throw us off the trail like this?

I really believe that a lot more people question their faith at least on occasion more than they let on. And believe it or not, even those in theology can question their faith as in this wonderful article I would like to share with you.
Windmills - To know faith is to ask questions

One of the occupational hazards of advanced work in religion is the nagging doubt that one is chasing a chimera. Years of focusing on texts, apologetics, history and cultural studies leaves one parsed, deconstructed and problematized to such an extent that one wonders if the natural by-product of all this study is not a deeper emotional attachment but rather an abject poverty of attachment: One wonders if indeed there is even anything at all to this God business.
Especially since the author was kind enough to provide an E-mail contact, I was moved to send her the following E-mail:

Dear Sandra,

I have often wondered how people who have done extensive study in religion deal with it regarding their own faith. Thank you for writing this fascinating article to help give us some insights on all of this.

My question to you concerns the directly conflicting doctrine of different faiths, specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On many issues, not the least of which is the divinity of Jesus, at least one of the faiths MUST be wrong. How does someone who is a devout Christian believing in the New Testament for example, reconcile this with the teachings of the Quran which are often directly contradictory to Christianity but also devoutly followed by many others? It would be easy to just say that the other guys are just mistaken, but that is not a satisfying answer.

A more specific example applies to wine. Going back to ancient times, it has been an integral part of Jewish laws and traditions along with later becoming a central focus of the Roman Catholic Mass. But when the Quran was later revealed to Mohammed to correct the supposedly distorted revelations of the Old and New Testaments, alcohol was then declared to be taboo. Huh??

Can you please give me some insight on how somebody who wants to be a believer can try to reconcile all of this?

Thank you!

Tony Polombo
Delmont, PA

Often times when writing E-mails like this to article writers, I get no answer. Perhaps the crush of incoming E-mails from all over in response to their articles is too much to deal with. But it wasn’t long before I received the following incredibly thoughtful and beautiful response:

From: s collins
To: Tony Polombo
Subject: Re: Windmills - a much longer answer than you probably wanted!

Mr. Polombo,
First, thank you for your kind letter. It's always good to know that one is read!

Secondly, well, I'll do the best I can with your concerns. But this is one of the vexing questions of religious orthodoxy and a response from the academy rather than the pulpit might not be terribly satisfying.

How does one reconcile the claims of one monotheistic tradition against another? Who is right or who has the truth? On the surface, those who study religions don’t deal in truth claims since all religions claim to have access to Truth (capitalization intentional). Some are more ardent in discounting the claims of others, some are not. For example, Buddhism isn’t terribly interested in weighing their truth-claims against Christianity or Judaism. Christianity, for its part, makes very sincere claims about Jesus as the way, the truth and the light and therefore, is at pains to show the error of those paths that fail to privilege Jesus as lord and savior. But those who study religions, whether they believe one particular religion or not, have to give due consideration to each without deciding the relative merits or truth of one over the other. Therefore, questions of truth or the wrongness of any particular tradition really don’t have much bearing.

For clergy, obviously, their task is different: they are religious professionals, called to a particular religious expression. If they did not accept and believe in the absolute merits of their particular religion, how could they possibly be taken seriously as clergy? They must, as a matter of course, accept the Truth of their tradition to have any success at all in their call. Whether they feel their job is simply to celebrate their particular religious tradition or to denigrate all others in order to build up their own – well, that’s a matter of each person’s call, is it not?

What religious scholars are interested in is showing the ways in which each tradition values and talks about God or the divine or transcendence and how each deals with things like life and death, good and evil, happiness and suffering.

Anyways, let me leave this overly-long response with a quote from the Dalai Lama. He is responding to your question: what to do with competing claims from so many religions. Basically, he says the following:

Human beings naturally possess different interests. So, it is not surprising that we have many different religious traditions with different ways of thinking and behaving. But this variety is a way for everyone to be happy. If we have a great variety of food, we will be able to satisfy different tastes and needs. When we only have bread, the people who eat rice are left out. And the reason those people eat rice is that rice is what grows best where they live.

The idea is this: God speaks to God’s people in ways in which they can best hear Him. The Israelites in the Old Testament heard God’s voice through Moses and the prophets. For the New Testament community and beyond, God’s message came through Jesus and the apostles’ writings. This isn’t relativizing God; it’s saying God is free to communicate with God’s people—all of God’s people—as God sees fit, not according to our standards. Your job, according to this sort of thinking, is to be the very best Christian (or Jew or Muslim) you possibly can be. Do the things that Christianity calls you to. The Dalai Lama seems to be saying that God grows best where He finds a good home and if you are a Christian, then be the very best Christian you can be and don’t concern yourself about whether Buddhists or Muslims are right or wrong. Concern yourself with your relationship with God. If we are God’s temple, then the task is to create the best home you know how, with the information that you have been given. And what is that information? According to Christ, it’s love the Lord thy God and love thy neighbor as thyself, because everything else depends upon these (Matt.22.36-40).

~sandee collins

So where to go from here?

One devoutly faithful friend of mine with whom I shared this E-mail exchange said like in the Nike commercials – JUST DO IT! and don’t worry about which religion is right. Others feel that since we will never know for sure about God during this life that they should put their energies elsewhere. As for me, I plan to do what I can to find God through prayer and living life as the best person I can be. And hopefully, I will find Him someday — preferably before I leave this world!

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