Thursday, December 15, 2011

Yup. I'm Religious.

I remember the first time the word 'piety' was poo-poo-ed. Mom was reading Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress aloud to us. -- In college,  I learned this book was one of two on every Christian family's shelf, a best seller, next to the Bible, for a century plus in both Europe and America. In it was a spiritual life that is nearly foreign to today's Christianity. Aside from words like piety, who has used 'vainglory' or despond or diffidence in spiritual terms recently.

I don't mean to disabuse my mother's good intentions when she was trying to critique hypocrisy, not piety. I did the same for years. In my years at a Christian college, I rejected the word 'religious' for the term 'spiritual.'  I was all about non-traditional worship, the house church and a kind of pluralism in faith. The reasons for my sudden pluralism are complex and cultural, but suffice to say, I wanted to prove wrong those who me, as a 'religious' person, of participating in the oppressions and violences of the history of mankind. Pluralism seemed to solve the problem, it said, "I'm peaceful and get along with everyone, since we all just want love anyway." A few years of study later and I realized that I was committing treason against all faiths. Chi, Karma, Allah, Jehovah, and the Trinity are not the same, and saying all beliefs systems are about love is to misunderstand those systems on their own terms, for the most part.

So I re-embraced my religion.

This week, when "All-American Muslim" is getting the heat, I remember what makes me happier with this state of mind. When I first drafted this, I said I chuckled at the heat evangelicals were throwing about this show. Not true. I just don't get upset by depictions of other people, living out their faith in the same zip code, continent or planet as me. As a true believer, I know I am as mutually exclusive as believer, and in this there are commonalities. 

I've been teaching teens for ten years and it's weird how I build the close rapport with the religious students- the Fundamentalist Evangelical, the devoted Quaker, the Muslim, the Mormon. These kids are devotees to their faith. Some of them know what fasting is like. Some of them pray as many or more times a day than me. Some are as passionate about their scriptures or living out the justice of their faith. Some of them have saints, or 'get' my cyclical calendar of faith-based life, the feast and fasts. For most, they aren't nudged to re-invent the holy. This fidelity to one's faith, the refusal to re-invent Eid Al Fitr, or new-historize Joseph Smith, is their kind of piety. Don't get me wrong, we have to maintain mutual agreement that I won't be proselytized, not that some don't try- they give me cards with tracks for LDS or the Watchtower Society. Most don't. They politely correct my "Eid Saeed" with the correct greeting and apply admirable peer pressure on the more militant, or more lax classmates of the same religion. I have to confess, that being as pluralistic as I must be in the public education sector feel awkward.

It isn't easier within the company of fellow Christians. Some have implied that I am an idol worshipper. This is born of my devotion to the Saints and prayers before their icons- the windows they provide to Heaven. Others doubt my fidelity because I've never zipped up nicely into one political or cultural system. I've had the 'wrong' views on sexuality, violence, justice, hermeneutics, and science one too many times. I have had students who've turned away from God tell me that my 'openness' empowered them. I've experienced this with friends and colleagues as well.

I worry that saying this will create a little joy, but I take those comments to Confession trembling. It doesn't settle with my spirit that others tell me their crisis of faith was permissable because I would talk straight about doubt or evolution, or complicated sexuality. I may not subscribe to blind faith, but I do embrace mystery. Much of what I believe may never proven empirically, nor appear consistent and reasonable to a logical mind. I live by the Creed. To quote Rich Mullins, "I did not make it, no it is making me." I believe in miracles and warfare on spiritual plains.  In other words, I embrace the life-long process, that struggle, of working out two tenants that appear to exclude one another.

It's true that I cannot worship with someone who believes Christ is a mere prophet and not a person of the Trinity, but I can be friends with  and talk about spiritual discipline with that same person. It's not my only realm of struggle. I'm still working out what it means to be a woman in a Church where men are charged to be primary icons of Christ, serving at the Altar every Sunday. It's the interstice of devoted faith and self-less struggle to love others.

I have to live this out in my profession as a high school teacher. Kids come with a lot of questions; teens always ask what I believe about a topic. I wear a lot of hats in school system- educator, mentor, believer, democratic American. I won't spoon feed them the answers. I won't slough off my faith. I won't exclude or refuse any student. I try to keep my passions in house, but I give in at times. They trick the answers out of me, and since I've got to serve them all, I end up loving and defending them all. I've earned a reputation as an activist and for being a bit outspoken.

I'll go along with that label for a distance.For instance, I ripped a social justice ad from my Sojourners magazine, while getting a wee thrill about what controversy I would stir, when it was found posted on my corkboard in my bathroom. Things hidden in the loo don't get a lot of action. Not even my kids and husband were baited to respond. I fumed a little that the only props I got came from someone who doesn't do church any more. I don't know where she stands on faith, but she credited me recently for being one of the reasons she left the church. (Lord, have mercy.) It reminded me of a story of a gal who works for a social justice organization who believes her days at work are church enough, so she no longer attends to pray and worship on her weekends. Folks like this are embracing the social activism as a faith itself. This is not the objective of our Faith. Christians, for instance, don't just believe in the idea of love, they are devoted to the Person and God-head of love, Christ Jesus, with his Father and the Holy Spirit, one in essence. Christian piety is devotion to that faith, lived out. It is lived out in vocation and in worship. It asks our whole lives of us, as one monk told me it would. So the evangelicals mad about Muslims in Dearborn living out their faith in the midst of American culture, are living the same way, presumably. We're all trying to be devoted.

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