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The Rituals of Faith
By LUCINDA MOSHER
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 Lucinda Mosher
All rights reserved.
To Whom? For What?
A man pours pilk over a statue. A young woman sits solemnly behind a large book, swooshing over it occasionally with a yak-hair whisk. A man sits before a small portrait, puts a dot of red powder between his eyes, then marks a U on his forehead with yellow paste. These are our neighbors, each participating in a ritual of his or her faith. Unless we take time to understand why our neighbors of other religions perform their devotional habits, unless we have some accurate sense of what or whom these acts are directed toward, our neighbors' rituals of faith can seem to us as odd or as trivial as the rituals of a professional baseball player as he prepares to take his turn at bat.
A young girl is watching her mother prepare dinner—perhaps you have heard this story. Mom rubs seasoning on the roast, slices off each end, puts it in a pan, and pops it in the oven. "I know why you rub the seasoning on the roast," the child says, "but why do you slice off the ends?" "That's what my mother always did," comes the reply. "I don't know why she always did that, but her roasts were delicious, so I do it the way she did. Let's ask her." Grandma replies that she was just imitating Great-Grandma, who (it turns out) sliced off the ends so the roast would fit in the only pan she had.
When it comes to rituals of faith, many devout persons in America's multireligious neighborhood are trying to maintain the practices of those who came before them, adapting them to the American context if necessary. Undoubtedly, some just imitate Great-Grandma and leave it at that. But many others have gone searching for the answer to the question, "Why do we do what we do?" America's multireligious context itself has encouraged them to become very clear about what their devotional habits mean, and how to do them well. These are the neighbors we will meet in this book. They know quite plainly to whom or toward what their rituals of faith are directed. They have worked hard to learn how to explain this to other Americans, and they would like you to understand the object their devotion. This is why we are beginning our exploration of our neighbors' rituals of faith with a theology lesson.
The Christian religion teaches that God is in essence absolutely One, absolutely relational, and definitely personal. That, in a nutshell, is what Christians mean by saying that God is Triune (One-in-Three; Three-in-One) and that in Christ Jesus we have Emmanu-el: God With Us. But a nutshell is hardly adequate for holding the mystery of the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation. For centuries, Christians have explained the details to each other—sometimes in scholarly books, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in art. "God-talk" varies, sometimes sharply, from one branch of Christianity to another. It varies within the same branch or denomination for a host of reasons.
If God-talk is complex and varied among Christians themselves, then it should not surprise us that adherents of other religions in the neighborhood will offer complex and varied explanations of whatever is ultimate for them. We might also expect that the ability of our neighbors to explain their religion's teachings will vary according to such factors as depth of training, command of English, which branch of their religion they belong to, and the seriousness with which they hold to a specific position. Conversation about how the "Whom" or the "What" toward which our neighbors direct their prayers and other rituals of faith is tricky terrain, but it is worth traveling if we really want to understand how our neighbors demarcate sacred space and time with ritual and practice.
As we begin, it is also important to remember that many definitions of "religion" presume that religion is inherently theistic —that is, that a notion of God (or Gods) has to be involved. However, the working definition of "religion" used here insists that a religion can be non-theistic: that a religion can be a religion even if it does not operate from a notion of "God," at least as an ultimate creator. We must keep this in mind as we explore whether, when, or how people worship, and as we think about how they describe the focus of their practice, or how they name and explain the object of their devotion.
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There is But One God ...
Having said all that, when it comes down to it, the vast majority of religions do operate from a presumption that there is an Ultimate—a single Source. While most Americans, regardless of their religion, are happy to employ the English word "God" when referring to it, each theistic religion has its own theology—its own way of describing God and God's relationship to the physical and spiritual realms. God may have many names, and the spiritual realm may be quite complex. Yet God is God.
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"As a Jew," a young rabbi offers, "I think about God as Transcendent Being—as a connecting force for all humanity in the world. No matter what's going on, it's always on a much smaller scale than God." For Jews, God is YHWH (or, YHVH). This holiest name is the transliteration of four Hebrew consonants: Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh. It is also shorthand for the Hebrew statement Ehyeh asher ehyeh—"I am that I am"; "I will be what I will be." This is the answer Moses received when he asked for the identity of the voice speaking to him from the burning bush. YHWH is often called the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name). "It symbolizes the essential infinity and eternity of the One Who Was, Is, and Will Be," one instructor explains. It is also unpronounceable. Jewish mystics say, "Go ahead. Try to pronounce it. You'll find that it is pure breath. God is Being Itself, and has in-breathed all of creation." Yes, you can insert vowels and pronounce it as Yahweh if you must, but most Jews think the divine name is too holy and intimate to be spoken. Instead, when they see YHWH in writing, they substitute Adonai (Lord) or Ha-Shem (the Name). For some Jews, it is too holy to write, except in certain circumstances; and, by extension, it is unseemly to write even its English equivalent. So, they write "G–d" instead.
The range of Jewish notions of God is quite broad. "For me, God is Creator, Law- giver, Loving Father," says a Conservative political scientist. "There are Jews who are non-theistic, however. They may even call themselves atheistic. For them, ritual is more about filial rather than divine obligation." The Humanistic Judaism movement, for example, offers a place for people who want to identify somehow as Jews, who find meaning in the rhythm of the Jewish calendar and in some of Judaism's rituals, but not in "God-talk." The Reconstructionist movement also makes room for atheists and agnostics as well as theists.
On the other hand, says Rabbi Jack Bemporad, "Reform Judaism holds the rather classical view that God creates the world and, perhaps, in some form or other, guides the world, but is distinct from the world—and I don't mean logically distinct, but ontologically distinct in the sense that creation is an independent entity that has an integrity in its own right."
"I think my rather fundamentalist, very observant Orthodox upbringing managed to instill in me a child-like innocence in my feeling about God," a Talmud scholar explains. "Intellectual skepticism does rear its head periodically, but those very early, basic, simple understandings about God stay with me even as I've gotten older and my theology has gotten more complicated and conflicted. Now, as a parent of small children," she continues, "I realize that when you are trying to convey a message about what you believe to a child, you've got to strip it down to its essentials; and so I do call upon the fact that, if you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me, I would say, 'Yes, I do believe in a personal God.' That's important to my children. I also want to combine the more particular Jewish notion of God and the more universal concept of God, and convey that to them as well. We have lots of discussions about that."
"In some ways," says a Conservative rabbi in New York, "I have a personal relationship with God, and I need to take care of that relationship. And, since, according to Genesis, we're all created in God's image, there's a relationship between human beings, and that relationship is based on God's presence. This underlies my whole outlook on life. I have to believe that people are basically good, because the image of God is part of everybody."
"In my brand of Judaism," says a Michigan writer, "God does not have a 'personal' feeling. I conceive of God as the power that drives the universe—part of which we can see. I believe that God has, at certain points, intervened in history, and may have some kind of relationship with the Jewish people that may not be quite the same as the relationship with other people—but that is hard to know." Because Hebrew is a gendered language, "even rocks and rubber tires are bound to appear either 'male' or 'female.'" He makes poetic translations of Jewish texts for liturgical use at his Conservative synagogue, and, he says, "I presume that God transcends our typical human understanding of male and female, so that implying that God is masculine in an English translation may well be misleading."
"I try to think about each image of God," says one young woman. "No matter how much I might not really like some of them, the challenge is to think about how I can relate to them positively, instead of just throwing that language out. I think that speaking of God only in gender-neutral terms or non-hierarchical terms puts a limit on God. It's saying that it's impossible for God to be manifest in that way, just because I don't like it. Just as using only male language about God has been limiting, so, too, is doing the opposite."
"If there is one big misconception Americans have about Islam and Muslims that I would like an opportunity to set straight," says a Shi'ah university student, "it is that we pray to something else besides God! I always get that question: 'Who do you pray to?' I pray to God, I say. 'Well then, what's Allah?' I'm like, 'Allah is the Arabic word for God.' People just don't understand it. I think it's because in movies, if there is a scene with Arabs in it, they throw in the word 'Allah' to spice it up a bit and make it look authentic. It does so much harm. I think people need to get their language straight. It's offensive when somebody thinks I don't believe in God, or that I am praying to some other deity. It's disturbing."
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Literally, Allah means "The God" (al-Lah, from the Arabic ilah: "god" or "deity"), and Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians also use this word to say "God." When visiting a mosque, look for Allah in Arabic script (which runs, visually, from right to left)—perhaps as a wall-hanging, or perhaps imbedded in the architectural details.
For Muslims, God is Wahid—absolutely One. Tawhid—all of the implications of God's Oneness—is, therefore, a core Islamic concept. God is totally other than humans (or any creature), Muslims stress. But, as the Qur'an teaches, God is also as close as your jugular vein. "God is the One who created me and continues to provide for me," adds an Alabama astrophysicist. "God is compassionate, just, caring, and always available. He can be tough sometimes, but I am convinced that those times are ways of educating or training us, or even challenging us to help us grow even more. Knowing that God is just helps me cope with certain difficulties in my life. It means he does not do anything that is not fair." God is demanding, but God is just. God may be wrathful, but the Qur'an's references to God's compassion and mercy outnumber its references to God's wrathfulness at a ratio of five to one.
"Muslims are taught that we are never truly separated from God," a Muslim chaplain explains. "Our illusory constructions about ourselves veil us from a Reality that has never stopped being present. We originated in the presence of God and we will end in the presence of God. In the meantime, we have this bumpy period—life—which is kind of a test. The question is, Can we recollect the Divine Presence in the various challenging situations in which we find ourselves, and can we act in accordance? We are bound to fail a lot, but that's okay. It's understood from the beginning that failure is going to happen. What's important is that we persevere in this learning experience."
Islam teaches that God has spoken through a series of prophets. According to Islamic understanding, Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets (the last one God will ever send). Like several before him, he is a prophet who received a "book," and that makes him a Messenger of God. The Qur'an (Islam's holy book) is believed to be God's very words. That the Angel Gabriel assisted in transmitting this revelation to Muhammad points to the fact that Islam teaches of a cosmological hierarchy. Angels were created before humans, but rank below them in certain respects; jinn or spirits (who have been created out of fire, but share some qualities with humans) rank even lower.
When the Islamic call to prayer asserts Allahu akbar, says scholar and peace activist Rabia Harris, "it has enormous implications which are lost in translation! Allahu akbar doesn't mean 'God is great' or 'God is greatest'; it means, 'God is greater.' That 'greater'—akbar—is where the phrase becomes spiritually active. Because if we say it to ourselves, and grasp what we've actually said, then wherever we are now, God is greater than that. Whatever is depressing us, whatever is exalting us, whatever we are patting ourselves on the back about, whatever we are feeling defeated about. No matter what's going on, God is greater. And that moves you."
"Allahu akbar is a useful recollection when it comes to race relations, gender issues, or any sort of power struggle," Harris suggests. "Allah akbar says that you may feel like you're being tromped on now, but God is greater than this moment and the time will change. It's also a warning that power is always a test, never a gift. If you've been put in a power position, you had better remember that the moment of accounting is waiting for you. No matter how great you think you are, God is greater. It keeps us honest, if we listen to it."
According to a well-known hadith (authenticated report), the Prophet Muhammad said that "God (great and glorious is He) has ninety-nine Names, one hundred minus one; because He is One, He loves odd numbers, and whoever believes in what the Names mean and acts accordingly will enter the Garden [that is, Paradise]." As one graduate student explains, "God's ninety-nine Names include every attribute, every polar opposite. God is the Honorer, and the One Who Brings Down; the One Who Creates, and the One Who Destroys. You get this very wide vision of who Allah is, which encompasses the personal and the impersonal. More than anything, that has influenced how I see God." The Beautiful Names are drawn from the Qur'an, and include descriptions like the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Just, and the Patient. Human beings may reflect any of the divine attributes, but only God possesses them all at once and always; and of all human beings, say Muslims, the Prophet reflected more of them at once than anyone else.
While it is safe to say that all Muslims are aware of the notion of the Ninety- Nine Beautiful Names of God, the range of emphasis placed on it by various Muslim groups and individuals is quite wide. And, Muslim mystics are likely to say that the number ninety-nine is too low. "It is just a convenient way of coalescing the Qur'anic references to the divine," says one. "God has 1001 names," says another. "God's names are infinite," says a third.
The Bahá'í Faith stresses three principles: the Oneness of God, the Oneness of humanity, and the Oneness of religion. "There is a oneness to God, there is a unity to the divine essence," a New Yorker explains, "but also an incomprehensibility, an unknowability. We are dependent creation; God is independent. So we can know of God through the Manifestation of God." By the term "Manifestation of God" Bahá'ís mean prophets. Bahá'ís believe in "progressive revelation"—the notion that the one-and-only God has been revealed through Abraham, Moses, Zarathustra, the Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, and Muhammad, and has spoken through Bahá'u'lláh. "They all had the same essence," explains a Bahá'í athlete. "They all served the same purpose throughout history." For Bahá'ís, Bahá'u'lláh is "the Manifestation of God for the current age." "Another term that Bahá'ís sometimes use for the Manifestation of God," says a middle-school teacher, "is 'The Dawning-Place of Understanding.' For Bahá'ís, this is where knowledge of God begins. We know of God because we could see Jesus and know what he said and did, and what Muhammad said and did, and what Bahá'u'lláh said and did."
Excerpted from Praying by LUCINDA MOSHER. Copyright © 2006 Lucinda Mosher. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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