Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Paradox of Believing

Where are you from?  That's a question I've never really been able to answer.  People always ask you that when you're new.  Maybe you never noticed.  Unless you moved a lot.  As I did.  Eventually, by  my mid-thirties or so, I simply started answering "from the womb".  It was true.  It was a short answer.  It turned the question upside down.

There were two moves that were easy.  One was going to college, when just about everyone had arrived from somewhere else.  The other was in high school because it turned out just about everyone's dad worked for the government in some aspect of guided missiles.  I have to say it was the most wonderful experience to meet people who had lived all over.  Military brats have that experience all the time.  But I really only had it that once - fitting in easily, everyone open to new friendships, knowing what it was to be the "new kid" in a new school.

Fortunately I was blessed with an ability to make friends easily.  But that did not make it easy to be uprooted and plunked down yet again, every few years.  By the second grade, I'd moved 7 times and been in 3 different schools.  In the fifth grade we moved yet again.  Eighth grade, same thing.  Three high schools.  And the longest time in a single school was college.  Also my final graduate degree.

There are pluses and minuses to being a nomad.  For one thing you learn that rules for games might be different in different places.  You find this out the hard way.  Accents, of course, are also different.  Indeed whatever accent you arrive with marks you as different.  A sensitive child, as I was, quickly comes to empathize with anyone else who's on the outside, looking in.  So as I think back I can see that I always reached out to those on the fringes, those who were bashful or new or felt excluded.  I'd been there - I knew how painful that was.

By and large I think all of this taught me both compassion and acceptance.  There was never really a chance to become exclusive - even if my church taught that to some degree.  I knew people attended different churches and had different customs for holidays or ways of making recipes or rules for games they played.  Schools marched to different drummers.  Families and homes were unique - and I could see how that affected the children who grew up in them.  Once I even knew someone who lived in an orphanage.

So, as I say, there was never really a chance to become exclusive.  Even when I knew I belonged to a group or a church or a club, even when I gathered that those things were somehow interpreted by others to exclude me, the drawing of boundaries or the view that the other side of the fence was one to be avoided never really entered into my character.  As I think back I guess I was more interested in simply getting to know where people were coming from in a psychological sense.   What they thought.  What they believed.  How they viewed the world, themselves.  I have no idea how many other people sat around and talked about such things in high school.  But I sure did.  College, same thing.

All of this is partly like groundwork I'm laying for where I'm going with this post.

I was always very interested in religion.  I suspect I had a firm sense of God as Real in my life - from very early on.  I suspect, as well, that this offered me a kind of stability in the midst of so many changes growing up.  And I'm not talking "church" really.  I'm talking a sense of God as mattering - or even deeper - a sense of mattering to God.  Which is pretty amazing for a kid - now that I think on it.  In fact to some degree it amazed me that my own parents seemed less aware of this, less attentive to it, than I was.   Though Judy's family surely was aware, and their daily lives made that evident (the keeping of Kosher, the lighting of candles, the fact that religion, for them, was part of family life).   In my own way I guess I let God - as a Reality - become part of my life.  As a child God seemed most Real to me when I was alone in an empty church.  Empty of people, but full of God's Presence.  God was also very, very real to me in the woods.  Indeed, I think nature, for me, was always infused with a sense of God's Presence from my earliest years.  And later on as well.

After those years when I was introduced to Judaism (by Judy's family - from about ages 7 to 11), everywhere I moved I was fascinated with the religion or denomination of other people.  I was especially interested not in what the churches preached, but in what people thought or felt - their inward experience of this Sacred Reality - which grounded me through all those moves.

Even though I was really only exposed to Christianity and Judaism, I knew from reading and rereading my book on the The World's Great Religions that there were other traditions as well - traditions which affected people's lives, which invited ceremonies and rituals, which called to some people so strongly that they left family and home and everything to seek the Divine.

The only call I ever felt was the call to priesthood.  And it was the shock of my young life when I learned that girls could not become priests, or even altarboys.  

Now where am I going with this post, you may be wondering...  Ok, I think I've laid enough groundwork to do that now (not just in this post, but across posts, within this blog as a whole):

I think I've tried to help you see how much Holy Mystery matters.  But also how firmly convinced I am that Holy Mystery is so far beyond our conception, beyond our classifications, beyond our limited grasp of what a participation in Divine Life might mean:  That no honest response to God is outside of God's rejoicing.  Even an honest atheist!  An honest agnostic!  That God loves everyone And will meet you on any path.  That God has made every effort, and will continue to make every effort, to reach out - to each and every person.  Because God is a seeker, a beggar - a humble supplicant.  Yes, we on our end may search as well.  But Holy Mystery is the Great Seeker.  The Great Giver.  The maker of holy souls.  Without exclusion!

Now, I well realize that there are many religious folk out there who will vehemently disagree with me.  And my response to that is:  Take it up with God.  Be my guest.

Because a long time ago, in high school  (I can see myself exactly where I was when I had this insight), I realized (was it inspiration?) that we humans each have our own unique relationship with Holy Mystery (as I prefer to call it now).  That it's as if God is at the center point of a sphere - and each person on the globe is arrayed around this central point.  And each and every one, like the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, has a particular vantage point, a particular view of "who God is" - and unless we're standing in their shoes, looking from their perspective, we may not understand what they see or how they see what they profess or experience.

So I had this image.  It has never changed.  It's importance has only grown and deepened.

I live a paradox.  I realize that.  I've long ago accepted it.  For I profess a Christian faith.  (I now feel very at home within the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  I am striving to deepen my understanding of this.)  Yet at the same time I have so much reverence for other faith traditions, other ways for comprehending the Divine in our midst, Ultimate Reality, all the myriad ways that God tries to reach people, to shake them up, to get us to see and care and mature spiritually.  Or ethically. To me, that is PART of this Divine Life, this Holy Mystery, which surrounds us and invades our lives and dwells within us.  Holy Mystery - so far beyond our human limitations, our philosophical exclusions, our tightly-wound doctrines, our efforts to define and pin down the Sacred Mystery which can never be pinned down, which never has to follow the rules humans have come up with and imposed on each other.

So yes, I do have my unique vantage point from which I experience the Divine in our midst.  Yet at the same time I have this larger image which is also a true perspective for me - from which I see everyone's connection to Holy Mystery.  I just love that it's all a mystery!

And what about the Christian's responsibility to preach the Gospel?  Well... if you have failed to hear the Good News in this post....