After my wonderful trip to Turkey I am once more inspired in the practice and faith of Islam – and in perfect time for Ramadan, which according to my calendar begins June 18th (though the precise day depends on the moon and location, of course). So I have supplemented my existing translation and English commentary on the Qur’an with another by Ali Gunal which I am reading slowly. And as I do so I am struck by what seems a hallmark of all faiths.
I don’t know the original faith of humankind, and I suspect (like the original theorized language), it can never truly be found. But it does seem reasonable to posit that there was such a thing, and that all faiths come from this backdrop. Such growth is natural and healthy both in the aggregate and within any individual faith. In my own Buddhist tradition there is an environment of evolution and revolution. The faith itself grew out of Hinduism in a manner which I see as reformism, perhaps originally evolutionary in nature, but an evolution that became more like revolution over time. Similarly Christianity grew out of Judaism, and is based on teachings which included, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Since the time Paul wrote his letter to the Christians of Ephesus (pictured above), it has continued to grow, change, and diversify. And Islam regards Muhammad as the final prophet in a lineage that includes Abraham, Moses, Noah, and Jesus, and regards the Torah and the Gospel as scripture.
What struck me today, as I was reading the Qur’an, is the range of different ways I could read the differences between my own faith and other faiths:
- I can see the world as containing – or comprising – a fixed, comprehensible truth in which, for some miraculous and unexamined reason, I am in an exclusive club that has “right” belief and practice. I can see my faith as the faith with something special absent in other faiths, and my own understanding of that faith to be perfect and without blemish. I can see myself as having a privileged access to God or godhead or enlightenment denied to others.
- On the other extreme I could see my human existence as frail and flawed and prone to error, not just in my life but in my practice of faith. I could see my faith as a construct suitable for my culture, my time, and my understanding, designed to allow me to approach an immense and incomprehensible deep truth….and other faiths similarly as constructs suitable for others in their own time and place. And I could see my own understanding as limited and never fully adequate.
- …and of course there are any number of perspectives on a continuum between these…or maybe on a plane containing both!
The first approach, I would suggest, is a troublesome reading. If I am to adopt this reading I suspect I naturally come to see myself as smarter than others. I suspect, over time, I will come to see myself as in all ways being superior to others. Looking back on my life, I have felt something akin to this reading when I saw the world as scientifically defined by the Big Bang, by evolution, by quantum mechanics and by relativity. I also felt myself in this very special place at certain points during my evolution as a Buddhist – a place that I found myself assuming when, at certain points the only way, I found my understanding irreconcilable with the understanding of others. And when I was in that place, I could not see my own blind spots. and in particular could not see the arrogance of my worldview.
The world’s religions as they evolve, grow, and give birth to new faiths, are constantly adjusting for our idiosyncrasies, for our tendency to take ourselves too seriously, and for the natural tendency to either get stuck or to skew off center into a limited, one-sided view. I am finding ever increasing joy in this diversity, not just for its own sake, but because I am finding that a broad reading allows me to open up and begin to see the extent of my limitations, my inability to comprehend, the limited nature of my frail and temporal human form. And I begin to see that this evolution and transformation of religion will continue for so long as there is a human race to perpetuate it.
Above all I have come to see this as a thoroughly good thing. Sure, there is ugliness and suffering at the collision points between major tectonic plates of faith, but the dynamic and open path is one that allows – nay, embraces – the growth of the heart. It is only the sincere and deep spiritual quest that allows us to become both fully human and to move towards the divine. A lot is spoken about making the world more compassionate, but I don’t believe growth in compassion is possible without wisdom. And at its root wisdom, which is about connecting with the divine, is also about connecting with humanity. Compassion – the golden rule – admonishes us to love the other as ourselves, but it is only when I cultivate the wisdom to see that the other actually is me that I can really do this. Two facets of Islam that keep me coming back to the faith are: (1) its explicit and recurring recognition that God is beyond anything we can ever conceive; and (2) the recurring call to charity, equality, and egalitarianism. Engaging in Muslim prayer and reading the Qur’an pull me in the direction of Christ’s teaching, : “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” not as metaphor but as direct reality.