A Culture of Multiple Faiths
Wrestling over religious issues has been central to my life. I can remember as a very young child avoiding saying bedtime prays ( which my mother thought were important) and then lying in bed waiting for some dreadful punishment to happen.
As a teenager I was quite religiously rebellious as I tried to understand the meaning of life and death, understand the existence of evil and question the exisitence of God. Apparently, many teenagers go through this. For me, I felt very much alone. I thought I was the only one to have such doubts. It left me feeling I disappointed my mother by denying a lot of the religious ideas she took for granted. At school, I became known as the class atheist who refused to recite the Lord's Prayer as well as the pledge of allegiance, leaving me sitting while my classmates routinely and apparently unquestioningly did what they were told. I am not sure where my rebelliousness came from for I was an otherwise ,"wanting to please" kind of person. I have always been intellectually curious. This along with having several of my friends die in vehicle accidents at a young age, keep me exploring the religious significance of life.
I had abandoned the Presbyterian Church, at last, in spite of my mother's pleas to continue going so my brother would still want to go. I finally found a spiritual home when I discovered the Unitarian Church. Here I was accepted as an adult even though I was only 17. Furthermore, my religious struggles were admired and encouraged. Being a community of seekers rather than believers left the Unitarian church on the fringe of the Christian church, in spite if deep roots in Christianity. Most of those who attended were "come outers" from mainstream Christian churches and even other religious faiths. What held us together as a group was not some creedal covenant but the human seeking of meaning in life. Most seemed satisfied by a humanistic faith with a strong ethical motivation.We were Christian in behaviour if not belief. As some have said it is "deeds not creeds" which reveal the nature of people's true faith.
The ultimate act of rebellion for me was to decide to explore the possiblity of become a clergyman. ( A counter revolutionary act) Off to seminary I went. I think some friends and family were a little more than surprised. My mother quickly bought me a Bible, a lovely one bound in red Morocco leather, which I still keep by my bed. (It could do with more reading)
I soon found myself in Boston, discovering there were Christian Unitarian and not all had come late to membership in the church as Humanists. I remember still discovering that "the Prayer of Jesus" was the Lord's Prayer and I was expected to recite it in front of a congregation. What had I doneI I did learn a lot and mellowed in some of my objections to religious form over substance.
I, at least, learned that for some people the form of familiar faith practices and rituals was meaningful and a comfort at the same time some of it made me uncomfortable. But I found that if you looked behind the outward religious practice there was the unuversal human quest for spiritual meaning.
I have long been interested in faiths other than Christianity. I remember visits to Toronto's only Buddhist temple back then and thinking I might become a Buddhist. Then I visited a Reform Synagogue and thought I would join if only they would ask me. Years later I visited a Trappist Monestary in Massachusetts. If I had not been a single parent at the time I might have considered spending more time there. As you can see I had moved beyond rebellion at Christian ritual and rather enjoyed the prayer services several time a day. While I remain loyal to the Unitarian Church I would seek out one of the peace churches it I was starting over. I could easily be comfortable among the Quakers.
Where am I going with all this?
Our Society in Canada and the United States is changing. It is harder to claim to be Christian based societies ( with acceptance of Jews in our misdst). We have rapidily become much more multi-faith communities and the trend will continue, partly with the demise of a lot of Christian religiosity and the rise of secular and new age faiths; and, more significantly the rise of World religious faiths in our midst though immigration from, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. This will change our society significantly. Conversely, our Societies will eventually bring change in the practices of these other faiths.
We have just past though the significant religious days for Muslims and Jews, Ramadan and the High Holy Days, respectively. I usually spend some time about now reading about these yearly religious events and their significance. I am particularly impressed with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for Jews. How we could all find our need for atonement and benefit from by asking forgiveness to those we have injured and from whom we have become estranged. Ultimately, we all need to seek atonement with God. Our imperfect lives often find us estranged from the Holy and the spiritual essence which is at the core of all humanity. In their own way the Faiths of the World answer the human need to be "at one" (atonement) with the Sacred in order to be most human.
Most of us have some familiarity and comfort with Judaism as part of our culture. In the US Jews have a long history. One congregation in particular has been very significant. The
Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island is where George Washington promised them and all of the United States, religious freedom. On his first visit to Newport as President he wrote them a letter where he promised the in the United States we would "give bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.". Here was the root to separation of church and state.
The Touro Synagogue is a fascinating place to visit. If you get anywhere near Newport I recomment a visit. This synagogue was founded by Sephardic Jews. They are the Jews with their tradition rooted in the Iberian Peninsula. In 1492, not only did Spain send Columbus off in his great exploration, but it expelled the Jews from the country, the Edict of Expulsion. They were given the choice of leaving or converting to Christianity. Many left for North Africa and around the Mediterranian fleeing persecution ultimately even further afield. Finally, a group learned of Roger William's experiment in religious freedom in Rhode Island and they settled in Newport, where they were allowed to practice their orthodox faith in peace. The Touro Synagogue is the oldest one in continuous existence in the US serving the historic Jeshuat Israel Congregation.
North Americans are less comfortable with the Muslims in our midst. Muslims in the US now out number Jews, I recently read. They are a growing part of North American society. Interestingly the oldest Mosque in North America is in Edmonton Alberta. The Al Rashid Mosque. It was organized by Syrian farmers who had come to Canada. It is interesting that their Mosque was build on land donated by the city and both Christians and Jews help this fledgling community built their Mosque. In the US, the oldest purpose built Mosque in the US is in Cedar Rapids, Ia. surprisingly.
I recently discovered a web site that is fascinating reading. http://30mosques.com/ I recommend it to you. I read the whole thing. Two men in New York set about to visit 30 Mosques in 30 days during Ramadan.
They were present in each when they broke the daily fast and shared a meal. They also participated in their service. It is amazing the variety of Mosques in New York City, most catering to one ethnic community or another but all welcoming of visitors. A few are grand buildings but many are humble and struggling to create a space for worship out of industrial and residential buildings in neighbourhoods around New York. This website shares the observations of these two fellows about these Mosques. There are also photos of them and the food eaten in breaking the daily fast. What is striking about this website is that for those who have no experience with Muslims and what their faith means to them, here is a peek into it. How Muslims love their Mosques as a place to pray, share with their community and learn. We often only see on the news the grand Mosques of the Middle East and hear of the calls for political action by powerful Imams. We have come to see Islam as a fierce and scary faith. Here in this website we see the reality of most Muslims as they live their religious lives around their Mosque not too dissimilar from Christians around their church or Jews around their synagogue. Read it. It may alter your misconceptions about Muslims and Islam.
Finally, (Ever since I taught myself to touch type my blog entries seem to be getting longer)
here is another very interesting website, the Pluralism Project by Harvard University. Here you will find information about the vast majority of different faiths that have blossomed among us.
They are in small towns and big cities. They range from the ancient world Faiths to Paganism.
There is increased interest in Interfaith groups where there is mutual respect and understanding. Is there an interfaith group in your community? In this website you will find information on the amount of different faiths that are adding to our communities, religious and social. Things are changing. We need to come to undertand and welcome a wider variety of faiths in our midst that just Christianity and Judaism. ( The fact the Unitarianism is not included as an other faith is a kind of recognition of the establishment status of it. Or in Harvard's view it is since so many Unitarian ministers were trained at Harvard.)
I hope you enjoy these two fascinating websites. Knowledge of other faiths can enrich your life.
We need to know and understand something about them for they will become an increasingly
visible part of our multifaith societies.