Saturday, March 1, 2014

Searching for Meaning in the Beautiful Tapestry of Faith

There is nothing more efficacious for restoring humility to the human spirit than confronting people who do not share your “self-evident” truths. Because Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are distinct spiritual paths, they bear witness to the complexity and fullness of the Divine reality. . . . to the radical diversity within human consciousness and the rich mosaic of views and practices inspired by the quest for God in human history. - Rabbi David Hartman.
The father of my best childhood friend died last week. To me, he was always Mike’s dad or “Mr. Dennehy.” A kind and quiet man, he greeted me with a friendly nod whenever I saw him, which in my childhood years was quite frequently. I can still picture him admonishing Mike, usually with increasing levels of exasperation, to take out the garbage, cut the grass, or clean up whatever mess Mike had inevitably made, after which he would glance my way and release a slight chuckle. He was a solid and stable presence in Mike’s life and, indirectly, in mine as well, during those difficult and awkward years of adolescence. In later years, long after Mike’s mom had passed away, Mr. Dennehy remained close to Mike and his family, living in the next town over and regularly joining Mike or his sisters for Sunday dinner, an afternoon of sports on television, and other moments of quiet interaction.

The funeral service, at St. David the King Catholic Church in central New Jersey, was an emotional and uplifting hour of music and memories. Similar to other Catholic funerals I have attended, there was a mixture of sadness and celebration to the affair; the emotional pain naturally involved in losing a father, grandfather, and friend, and a celebratory sense that Mr. Dennehy is now at the right hand of God, eternally at peace. It is the comfort of conviction, a faith in the hereafter and eternal salvation.

For many of my Catholic friends, there is comfort to ritual, order, and the certainty of faith. For my good friend Mike, there is peace in the knowledge that his father is resting in heaven, reunited with Mike’s mother, eternally blessed by God’s presence. It is a belief shared by millions of Christians the world over. Indeed, for many people who share a strong sense of faith, whether expressed in the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Islamic traditions, there is a feeling of internal peace and solace in the traditions, beliefs, and connections associated with one’s religious background. I do not always share in the certainty of such convictions, but I admire those who do. And I understand. 

It is times like these when the finite nature of life causes me to reflect on its meaning and whether I have made the most of my limited time on earth. “What is a meaningful life?” asked the Rev. Timothy Capewell, the parish priest who presided over the service for Mr. Dennehy.  It is a difficult but important question, he acknowledged. To his fellow Catholics, he preaches the virtues of faith, hope, and love. A life of faith provides us with a sense of purpose and connection to our Creator. A life of hope gives us the strength to overcome difficult times. A life of love connects us meaningfully and compassionately to our fellow human beings. Mr. Dennehy had certainly met these criteria, and the love he felt during his lifetime for his family will continue on for time eternity.

What is a meaningful life? It is a question I ask often. Although Father Capewell provided a helpful answer, it served also to remind that there are many ways in which people of different faiths, or of no faith, attempt to find meaning and purpose in their lives. I don’t believe there is one correct answer to this or the many other questions we contemplate in our daily struggles to resolve life’s mysteries. Nor do I believe there is one true way when it comes to God and faith. As a Lutheran, I have witnessed many people inspired by the grace of God’s love to help and serve others. In the Jewish tradition of my daughters, a social justice ethic stems from the rabbinic teaching, “Beloved are all human beings created in the image of God.” While other religions may employ different language, practices, and traditions, each at their core teach us to love our neighbor and to reflect God’s light in the world.

I am often disappointed by religion, and in how religious people so frequently misunderstand their own faith and the faith of others. But if we open our hearts to the many voices that make up the human condition, if we listen carefully to the different voices of sincere and compassionate faith, we will find valuable insight in most of them. The mosaic of religious diversity in the world reflects the many ways in which human beings attempt to understand their place in the universe, their relationship to God, and their connection to each other.

In A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999), the late Rabbi and philosopher David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, articulated a vision of religious pluralism that helps shine a light on the human condition. Much like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hartman believed that God is responsible for all of creation and that human beings represent God’s divine presence on earth. It is a monotheistic view of God that is easily accepted by each of the major faith traditions and which “creates the widest range of empathy for human beings.”

Hartman was a modern orthodox rabbi who both loved and challenged traditional Judaism. Raised in a Hasidic family in Bronxville, New York, he attended orthodox schools and received a Jewish education deeply embedded in tradition. “I was a nice religious boy, until I began to read,” he said during an interview with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being in 2011. “And then it all changed.” After reading the philosophical works of William James and John Dewey, his mind opened and his world expanded beyond the narrow confines of Hasidism. A student of history, Hartman could not look at Auschwitz and conclude that God is always present. “I met a finite God,” he said, “a God that is not omnipotent.” He was no longer satisfied with the answers offered by conventional orthodoxy and could not accept a theology that “ignored the lived reality.”

Hartman spoke of the dilemma most people of faith confront at some point in their lives: “God is there, but he is not there. Our wanting him to be there does not make him there. So, we have to come up with new ways of thinking and connecting.” He was haunted by the fragility of life. It is a state of mind with which I continue to struggle, and which easily surfaces when confronted with the reality of death, as occurred last weekend with the funeral of Mr. Dennehy, to whom I have been indirectly connected through my friendship with Mike for nearly four-fifths of my life. Only days ago he was alive. Now he is but a memory and a photograph to those whose lives he touched. As Hartman explained to Tippett, “The fragile quality of life drives me crazy; today you’re here, today you smile, today you make love, and tomorrow you don’t know what’s gonna be.”

For the many of us struggling to make sense of it all, or who face the death of a loved one, a sick child, or tragic loss, there is often the cry, “Where are you God? Where are you hiding?” In his interview with Krista Tippett, Hartman told a Hasidic story of two children playing hide-and-seek. As they were hiding, one child started crying. A rabbi walked by and heard the crying, so he approached the child and asked, “What is the matter?” The child replied, “No one is looking for me.” The rabbi glanced compassionately at the child and said, “Now you know how God feels.”

There is a passage in Psalms, which says, “Joyful are those who seek God, not those who found God.” The search for God is not always clear. Some of us find God in nature, others in acts of kindness or the compassion of strangers. Some find God in the symbols of the world’s great faiths, or in the majesty of music, art, and great literature. The reality of death forces us to consider how we use our limited time on this planet. What have we made of the gifts we have received? “Where is the spirit that awakens you?” asked Hartman. “Where is the spirit that wants you to search, to find out?” The whole truth is not given to one person or confined to one theological premise. 

How does one contend with religion and faith in today’s secular, irreverent, and fast-paced world? How can we make sense of the many contemporary trends in religious life today, from fundamentalism and biblical literalism to new age spirituality and secular humanism, conservative to progressive Christianity, ultra-Orthodox to secular Judaism, liberal to radical Islam, and everything in between? There is much confusion, contradiction and ambiguity when it comes to religion. Certainly all expressions of faith and claims to ultimate truth cannot be right. But does that make all believers wrong? Is it possible to find certain truths in many of the varied expressions of faith throughout the course of human history? Is there more than one way to validly maintain a belief in God or a higher power without resorting to exclusion and intolerance, or rejecting science and human knowledge?

Hartman most often addressed these issues in the context of an internal dispute within Judaism, in conflicts between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) movements, and between congregational and secular Jews. Much of religion, of biblical and historical scholarship, is a question of interpretation. In Judaism, interpretation is not just for the sake of defining or clarifying Jewish law; it is to define the reality of the religious world. It is not enough to say that Judaism is a religion of the law, “because if the law doesn’t point to a God, what does it all mean?” But there is great vitality in disagreements if one is open to other possibilities; “one point of view is not the truth, only of possibilities.”

The search for meaning requires joy, depth, and critical reflection; the ability to change one’s mind and not be afraid of thinking new thoughts. As long as there is mutual respect among people of different faiths, acknowledging the dignity and existence of other faith traditions need not violate our own beliefs, but can instead enhance and expand our awareness of God’s presence in others. “God affirms our humanity in its otherness, in its diversity, in its finitude,” said Hartman.

Coming from the Lutheran tradition, I appreciated the liturgical consistency and personal warmth of the funeral service for Mike’s dad and the words of comfort that helped those present mourn and celebrate his 90 years of life. Over the years, I have attended Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic funerals and have found that each, in their own dignified way, enable family and friends of loved ones to process death in a meaningful and compassionate manner.

We learn from one another when we are open to different expressions of faith and styles of worship, to sharing our varied understandings of humanity’s relationship to God. All of us – people of different faiths, those with no faith, and everyone in between – inhabit a common world crying for mutual respect and understanding. “The Jew, the Christian, the Muslim are all one, insofar as they are creatures of God,” wrote Hartman. “One thus acknowledges the sacredness of life common to all human beings irrespective of their ways of life and modes of worship.” This gives me hope.

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