Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Swapping Religions

As I was afraid, I may have jumped the gun on the whole potential-Jewish-convert idea.  But it's a thought process, and as long as I'm headed in the right direction, it doesn't matter where I thought I was going.

On a daily basis, for several weeks, Judaism and a Jewish life were at the forefront of my mind.  I discussed the possibility of a family conversion with Alex, who said both, that he was uncomfortable with the idea of converting but was open to learning, and that he is who he is today because he seeks to please me.... He probably knows by now that usually I just need to be able to hear my thoughts out loud, try ideas on as if they were decisions, and then sleep on the result.

Over the past few weeks of discernment, I've realized several things.  I need a label to give myself a spiritual/religious identity.  I thrive on compartmentalizing things; that's how I make sense of the world.  All the more when it comes to answering a question like "who am I".  Up until now, I've struggled with my lifelong identity as a Catholic.  I've given it adjectives (cultural? Christian?).  I've considered alternatives that don't stray too far from the Catholic home-base (Orthodox? Protestant?). No matter what I've tried, I've felt that I'm trying too hard and my religious identity should not be this difficult. That's why I thought a conversion to Reform Judaism would provide me with an official label/category that accurately reflected my spiritually liberal views.

Also, I've realized that I want a spiritual community of like-minded individuals to validate my own spiritual beliefs and values.  I wish this weren't the case.  I feel downright moronic to have admitted this, but if I'm going to move forward on this journey, I need to know exactly where I am, not where I think I should be or where I hope to be.  So, the community at our Catholic church doesn't quite fit the bill.  I recently went through a small-group series at the church where I so wanted to fit in.  I wanted to recapture my faith.  Yet by the end of the series, I knew I was a Catholic in name only, by virtue of my upbringing, nationality, habit, comfort level, but not faith.  I couldn't openly share my views on things that the Magisterium officially teaches against.  I mean, I COULD, but this would create an uncomfortable situation of others seeking to revert me back to the fold, convince me I'm wrong, pray for my salvation even (not so much in the Catholic tradition, which I think is why I've stuck around for so long.)  Again, belonging to a synagogue where the focus is not on belief, but where I know everyone most likely at least believes in a personal God, would allow me the freedom to express my thoughts and opinions without risking shunning.

Finally, I wanted a set of practices that would weave my faith into my daily life.  I used to enjoy the rituals of Catholicism when I was oblivious to what they stood for, even more when I believed what they stood for.  But once I began to be uncomfortable with worshiping the alleged incarnation of the Almighty instead of worshiping God directly through no intermediary, I could no longer in good conscience perform rituals meant to align me with a specific member of the Trinity, which 99% of the time was NOT the Father (the Creator, Source, Spirit).  I felt empty when considering non-ritualistic denominations, like Unitarian Universalism.  But if I'm being honest, the specific details that enriched my spiritual and religious life in the past - stained glass windows, beautiful artwork and statues, candles, silence in the sanctuary, timeless and uplifting music - have long left most Catholic churches anyway.  These are not what makes a Catholic church.  These are details, and many would argue insignificant at that.  Yet to me, they are not insignificant.  They are the stepping stones my soul would use to reach up to God.

As it turns out, I've been looking for something that doesn't exist.  I've been looking for what is perfection to my particular sentiments and needs, and organized religion can't possibly please everyone.  (Of course, that's not its point, either.)  But there was one more consideration that was giving me a sense of urgency about figuring out who I am spiritually once and for all:  my daughter Maya.  I don't want to pass on to her this spiritual uncertainty.  I want to raise her with a clear notion of God's presence in her life.

I don't know how exactly it happened, but yesterday it just dawned on me to reword my hopes for Maya's (and my) spirituality.  I had to peel back the last layer to get to the root of what I believe and start from that central point, not by negating where I happen to be right now.

I believe there is a God, a God who cares about me and whom I will join for all eternity after this life. I believe that the details cannot be known this side of heaven, yet it is precisely the details that every organized religion seems to try to nail down and pass on to its adherents as truth.  The truth is that God cannot be limited by any one religion.  The truth is that God cannot be limited by words, descriptions, explanations.  The truth is that God can only truly be known through direct experience.

So, if that's my understanding of God, and this is what I hope to teach Maya, does it really make sense for me to try to convert the family from any one particular religion to another? I've been looking for a one-size-fits-all religion that will fulfill all three of my needs - an officially recognized religious label in a community setting where my beliefs and values are reinforced and expressed in rituals and practices that can be incorporated into daily life, and this package deal is what I've wanted to pass on to my daughter.  Realizing that I don't believe any one religion is "true", it became pointless to convert from one to the other.  If we think of a pyramid divided into several levels, with the bottom level representing official organized religions, the middle level representing more general dogmas and creeds not necessarily tied to a single religion, and the very tip representing the actual truth and union with God, then I've been headed in the wrong direction - horizontally instead of vertically.

By the grace of God, it was this realization that made me realize that the best way to teach Maya what I believe about God - that He is not limited to a single religion - is actually to expose her to many different religions and NOT to merely pretend we "belong" to one interpretation but not another one. Granted, this immediately presents an obstacle to the first need I have - a label for that part of me that is religious.  There actually are a few labels I've considered before that came up, and some new ones I recently read about.  The idea is, if someone asks "what religion are you?" they're just looking for a label.  I can say "Spiritually Independent" (because indeed, my beliefs are independent from any organized religion), or "Seeker" (because indeed, I'm seeking God, and as I just realized, not religion), or "Ethical Monotheist" (something Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all purport to be at their core but sadly often fall very short in practice).  But considering actually identifying with any of these labels to the exclusion of a better recognized religious category seems cumbersome.  In a real life conversation, my interlocutor would either have no idea what I'm talking about and I'd have to explain, or, as with "Seeker", the assumption may be made that I'm sort of "in between religions" and open to considering theirs.  Sometimes, in life, a quick label that doesn't beg any further questions is needed.

And lo and behold, that's when it occurred to me that God has been drawing me to Himself all along (as if there was ever any doubt) by bringing me back around for the third (?!) time to Quakerism.

I've long held that I am a Quaker at heart.  My attendance at Quaker meeting-houses has been sporadic at best, so I've never even attained the status of ongoing attender, much less come to a place where I might request that a clearance committee consider making me "official".  The freedom of belief that nonetheless remains based on the teachings of Jesus - something I'm familiar and comfortable with - does beat out the freedom of belief available in Reform Judaism, since Jesus would pretty much have to become irrelevant all together.  I've heard it said that Jesus is to Judaism what Mohammad is to Christianity.  Perhaps he's fine as a teacher for those who follow him, but he's outside the scope of our world view.

For a long time, whenever I looked outside of Christianity for a potential spiritual home, I didn't feel right leaving Jesus behind.  Not because I believe that he is God, but because I'm familiar with the wording of his teachings.  I know that many of his lessons can be found in the teachings of other sages, those that came before him and those that followed him.  But I cannot pretend that my culture doesn't in part make me who I am, and my culture happened to include the particular teachings of Jesus.  So I never really liked the idea of leaving Jesus behind, but I felt I was between a rock and a hard place.  It seemed that I could either have Jesus as God or not at all.  Most recently, it became apparent to me that if indeed I had to choose, I couldn't continue to worship anyone but HaShem the Almighty.  Every time I thought of praising Jesus, I thought of the Jewish and Muslim accusation of idolatry.  I couldn't, in good conscience, continue to divert my worship from Allah the Creator.

But going back to Quakerism, I was reminded that I actually did have another option.  I could join a group of people who speak of listening to the Christ Within, a group of people who believe as I do that Jesus can teach us how to live right by God, without any particular creed or dogma about the theological details.

In Quakerism, I can have the label I desire, the community of like-minded people, and some tradition (mainly in the way things are worded, which is cool because as a linguist, I like words!).  But what about my stained glass and candles?  And what about not being able to have Alex worship with me because the silent worship leads to his snoring (ahem)?

Well, having come to the realization that what I actually believe and what I actually want to teach Maya is that it doesn't matter to God where or how we worship Him, so long as we serve Him by doing His will, it no longer became necessary to have a "family religion".  I could fulfill all of my spiritual needs so long as I quit fixating on trying to stuff them all into a single religious prepackaged box.

So how do I envision our family spiritual life now?

For starters, I'm going to have to make a better effort at finding a meeting house where I can feel at home.  I may have to drive a bit farther than I'd like to do that, but something's got to give.  Since Alex and I have not both been able to be attentive at Mass since Maya started walking, we've toyed with the idea of Alex going to a different Mass, my himself, and then watching Maya while I attend another Mass.  Well, this phase will end once Maya is old enough to sit somewhat still and pay attention to what's going on.  At that point, we can go back to attending Mass together as a family. Hopefully by then we'll find a church whose beauty is inspiring enough, whose music is uplifting enough, whose homilies are engaging enough, where I can still get some of my spiritual needs met there (while of course simply ignoring those aspects that I find questionable, objectionable, or unnecessary). In the meantime, I'll watch Maya while Alex attends Mass, and he'll watch her while I attend worship at a meeting house (there are two about 12 miles away that I want to check out).

That takes care of the weekly corporal worship aspect of our family's spiritual life.  But there's more.  Once I'm a full-fledged member of a meeting house, I'll feel a lot more comfortable participating with the Catholic community, since I'll be able to voice disagreement on theological issues without causing concern as a "lapsed Catholic".  Instead, I'll simply be a Quaker whose views differ from those of Catholics  In the meantime.  I'll need to become an integral part of my meeting-house and make friends there.  Not only will we be able to participate in each other's primary places of worship's activities, but Maya will also be able to benefit from the children's programs at both.

Furthermore, we'll periodically visit other places of worship and incorporate learning about other faiths into our homeschool curriculum.  As for Maya's religious identity, she can either be both Catholic and Quaker (at least the Quakers won't mind), or we can say that she is too young to have a religious identity of her own, and that she will decide when she's old enough.

With this arrangement, we can continue to celebrate Christmas and Easter and focus on our understanding of these holidays.  The same goes for religious art around the house, and the wording of our prayers.

Thank you, Lord, for opening my eyes to the possibility of serving You if only I think outside the box of a single family religion.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested in Unity