With Alexius recuperating from his long and nether-worldly Christmas bacchanal, I’ve decided it’s time to jump in and make with alienating our audience with religion talk. Pleasures abound in this winter season, most of them quite small and fleeting. Suffering, whose presence is amplified by the electric pandemonium of the media, has taken its customary place amongst the bright lights and shriveled pine needles. Snow slows the whole world down, causing delays, cancellations, and injuries both humourous and lamentable.
Which is to say that this winter has me thinking hard about the complications of the world we inhabit. Wishing to inject a modicum of positivity into this forlorn darkness, I have compiled a list of “holy envies,” aspects of religious traditions other than Christianity that I respect so much that they become edifying. I generally avoid writing about the religious underpinnings of my thought: they’re often either better left unspoken or in extreme cases could be a barrier between my writing and the audience I hope to reach. It’s not out of duplicity or disingenuousness that I refrain, but the fact that this blog is not primarily about religion that I maintain some opacity about such matters.
That introduction out of the way, here is a non-exhaustive list of aspects of other religious traditions that I envy. I’ll list them Abrahamic religions first and then moving outward from there.
Judaism: The High Importance of Hermeneutics
Christianity certainly has a long tradition of interpretive Scriptural study. Living in North America and attending a Christian college, however, I am consistently disappointed that we do not more consciously embrace the practice of intensive reading and analysis of Scripture, nor is there much recognition of the dynamic interaction between the community of faith and the books we call sacred. There is a passage in the Talmud, the record of Jewish oral tradition and collection of rabbinic commentaries on many subjects, that explores this dynamism:
(Talmud Sanhedrin 34a)
Thus there is a preservation of the value of interpretation, of multiple meanings. Though the Scriptures are of course held in the highest regard, many interpretations can be found in them. Applying one’s intellect and attempting to find deep readings and resolving contradictions through analysis and comparison are thought of as spiritually commendable. No doubt this comes close to sanctifying argument and debate itself. Texts cannot be left on the shelf and consulted for therapy–the nature of the Scriptures is that they appear fiercely contradictory, requiring careful discernment. Protestants like to talk about the sole sufficiency of the Bible itself, but that requires us to believe that we are somehow inspired when we read it since Scripture is not just found in the words but in the interpretations that gather around it. It is a play between active participants in a living tradition, rooted in history but committed to the text not as a safeguard of status quo but as its own entity that needs to be understood and lived out in the real world.
Islam: The Legal Tradition and Five Pillars
Islam was the most difficult religion for me to envy. Many aspects of traditional Islam are those that I have been discarding in my own Christian belief/practice. Predestination and the belief in the Quran as the verbatim Word of God (divine inspiration is difficult enough) presented the main obstacles. Stymied at first, I pursued more Islamic writing and concepts before settling on what I have called the “obligation” inherent in Muslim faith. The very name of Islam is “submission to God” and this theme of submission and responsibility runs strong throughout everything I have read in relation to the world’s second most popular religion.
Looking even at the most basic duties of a Muslim, namely the Five Pillars, I was impressed at their ability to encapsulate an experience of total dependence and submission to God and to the community of faith. Almsgiving is not just expected it is specifically demanded by the principle of zakāt, obligation to the historical roots of the faith is mandated by the pilgrimage (hajj) requirement, the practice of fasting is likewise upheld as a basic need and not just a helpful addition or personal choice. In this way, despite the differences that do exist among the large number of Muslim denominations and legal traditions, there is a strongly-enforced unity of practice in the faith. Christianity is set specifically against this kind of legalism–a word I will use despite recognizing that for Muslims no one can hope to achieve any good but for the grace of Allah–but I find both the simple and vastly complex legal traditions of Islam inspiring me to greater discipline in faith and longing for more outward signs of nonconformity with the larger Western world.
Christianity is a religious tradition that encompasses a vast written, oral, and cultural tradition that contradicts itself constantly and gives rise to all sorts of apparent and actual absurdities. Working through these has been an illuminating process and a welcome intellectual challenge, but there remain basic precepts of Christianity that I believe are rightly questioned both by many inside and outside the Church. One of these is the idea of Trinity, the complication and thorniness of which I will not discuss here. Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism all adhere to a far more alluring and harmonious conception of God: pure monotheism. I choose to discuss this issue in the Sikh context because it is in this tradition that I have found the most edification and value so far.
In Sikhism God is given the name Wonderful Teacher or Waheguru, and the beginning of the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, addresses this genderless, unitary being thus:
One Universal Creator, the Name is Truth, Creative Being (personified), Without fear, Without hatred, timeless Image, beyond birth and Self-existent by the Guru’s Grace
This conception of God accords far more closely with my own than the orthodox Christian idea of a tripartite, superpersonal being who is the universal creator of all things, the Son or Logos incarnate in a single person with a dual nature, and an ephemeral Spirit who works in the universe to mediate God’s grace to people. This is not to say that my own unitary view of God is unprecedented in Christian history; it is simply by far the minority view and I find few fellow-travelers in the Church. Another aspect of Sikhism that I envy and that I perceive as connected to the broader cosmology of this religion is the form that devotion to this God takes. Devotion to God is worked out in a largely internal fashion (I see some parallels with the Religious Society of Friends) without needless formal rituals. Yet there are, of course, strong delineations between Sikhs and non-Sikhs. Through committed practice a believer becomes more and more in harmony with the Divine Order until achieving salvation. I find myself more and more finding very little discord between much of Sikhism and my own beliefs, though I work out those beliefs in Christian language and within the Church as a community. I could dwell on this for some time, but I must exercise some discipline. Onward.
Unfortunately, to speak of Hinduism is to do a disservice to a sweeping variety of movements, schools of thought, and local traditions. This is to an extent true of all religions. Hinduism is an especially broad and diverse camp, however, and it is in this very expansiveness that I find its chief reason for envy. Part of a continuity of faith more ancient than any presently existing religion, Hinduism affords its practitioners many ways to achieve salvation from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. Within just one document, the Bhagavad Gita, the only one of the myriad Hindu scriptures I have read in its entirety, there are three paths or skills to achieve unity with Brahman or ultimate life and reality. Karma yoga, or the practice of action without attachment, Bhakti yoga, or salvation through unceasing remembrance and devotion to God, and Jnana yoga, or the path of wisdom and direct experience. Baffling to the narrow and specific prescriptions of Christianity and many other religions, Hinduism reminds me that within one religious tradition there can coexist countless permutations that each have their own merit. I wish I could say more, but to do so would be to scratch depths I could not hope to wade into without going dreadfully wrong.
That ignorance unfortunately applies equally to Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto. I have read large sections of some of the core texts in these religious/philosophical traditions, but cannot comment on them with any depth of insight. This leads to the final envy:
Buddhism: Don’t Get Me Started
Over the past several months I have been sketching maps where before there was only trackless wilderness. My maps have guided me into a position where I have become immersed in both Buddhist literature and practicing Buddhist meditation. Buddhism first chief appeal to me was its rejection of an underlying self that persisted through the unending processes of change both our physical and mental aspects undergo. From that beachhead Buddhist ideas have infiltrated my thinking. For now, my Buddhist thoughts are fevered with enthusiasm, clumsily interpreted and, I’m sure, inexpertly implemented. As I read more and more into both the ancient Pali canon of scriptures and the later teachings of various schools of thought, I find myself struggling with them in a way unlike my more distant engagements with the other faiths on this list.
With all that overheated rhetoric past, I still remain a Christian in name and truth. What do I envy of a faithful Buddhist? I envy the lack of attachment to specific ideas of divinity, the recognition that suffering is the chief problem of humanity and is caused by ignorance and attachment to that which we cannot hold onto, the virtue of compassion for all beings, the internal peace that comes, miraculously, through detached introspection and observation during meditation, the conflicted (often beautiful, often troubling) history of how the faith spread and worked itself out in the various places in which it landed. Buddhism in the West is often an individual practice, beloved for its serenity and aesthetic starkness and its promises of release from the frantic striving of modern life. I think I am beginning to love it almost as much for its flaws, for the powerful realness and humanity of it, and its frank acknowledgement of that.