Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Interfaith Imperative of the 21st Century

Rev. Heidi Neumark, New York
I reflect often on the accidental nature of faith and the impact it has on our lives – on how one’s religious affiliation is mostly determined in the first instance by the happenstance of birth. We may move away from religion as we grow older, or change our theological and philosophical dispensations. But the influence of our formative years, when we follow the lead of our parents and cater to familial expectations, stays with us for most of our lives.

I continue to identify as a Lutheran because I was born into a family that was deeply involved in the Lutheran Church – my father was a Lutheran pastor in New Jersey and my mother a devoted and faithful spouse who played to perfection the role of pastor’s wife. As a preacher’s kid, or “PK” as we were called, I was expected to put on my best clothes and attend church and Sunday school each week without complaint. Although I fulfilled my churchly duties with occasional grumbling, the Lutheran church influenced greatly the young lives of my sister, brother and I. And despite the rapidly changing social mores and generational conflicts then brewing over Vietnam, civil rights, and the sexual revolution, churches and other religious institutions retained a degree of respect in the 1960s and early 1970s that no longer seems apparent today.

I would gradually drift away from the Church after leaving home for college and discovering a world filled with doubt and ambiguity. I became disenchanted with the public representations of religion that dominated American society, especially in the judgmental harshness of Christian fundamentalism and the growing influence of Evangelicalism. By the 1980s, these forces had begun to push aside the more theologically liberal, mainline Protestant churches to which I had become accustomed. In later years, when I married a woman of the Jewish faith and raised Jewish children, the many assumptions of my childhood faith and relationship to Christianity became further strained.

And yet, although I attended church less frequently, the influence of my upbringing never really left me. I remained connected through family and the pull of heritage to my religious roots. I sought out Lutheran churches and pastors concerned with social justice and that practiced a more nuanced, ecumenical brand of religion. I was theologically and intellectually comfortable in such churches, which allowed me to reconcile my conflicting religious sensibilities. I also came to appreciate and connect with the Reform Judaism practiced by my daughters, and I found solace in meaningful participation in their Jewish education.

As I look back on my religious origins and the faith of my childhood, I find myself decades later with a broader perspective, more attuned to the many faces of religion in the world today. I am less attached now to the institutions of religion than to the human search for God in the 21st Century. I wonder how different my life would have been had I been born into a Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim family, or had I entered the world during another place and time. So much of our fate is determined by our life circumstances at birth, a matter so fortuitous and yet, so determinative of what is expected and assumed of us during our formative years. Still, I am proud of the deep and loving connections I experienced in the religion of my youth, however far I may have drifted from those shores in later years.

I am fascinated by the pursuit of God in modern times, by the human quest for meaning and purpose, and the many ways in which humanity expresses its hope and need for a divine presence. It is abundant in the faces of the people I have seen walking the streets of places as diverse as Philadelphia, New York, Rome, and Jerusalem; human beings made of the same biological design that differ only in appearance, language, customs, and beliefs.

I am presently reading Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith (Abingdon Press, 2015) by Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor in New York City who recently discovered her German Jewish roots and learned that many of her father’s family members and relatives perished in the Holocaust. As a young girl in New Jersey in the 1950s and 1960s, and as the daughter of first-generation German immigrants, Neumark was proud of her German Lutheran heritage. She attended church every Sunday and developed a love of liturgy, a deep and abiding faith, and a strong sense of justice. After graduating from Brown University in the early 1970s, she attended the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and became an ordained Lutheran minister. For the past thirty years, Neumark has devoted her life and career to urban ministry, serving congregations in the South Bronx and Manhattan. She has lived and worked in some of New York’s poorest communities, contending with the everyday struggles of her congregants, with crime, drugs, prostitution, abused and broken homes, AIDS and gangs. Neumark thrived and was strengthened by serving among people who had originated from radically different backgrounds and life experiences.

In Hidden Inheritance, Neumark explores her family’s past and discovers that she descends from a long line of German Rabbis that ended with the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. Many of her family members experienced the horrors of Kristallnacht; a cousin was murdered on the streets of Dresden, her grandparents and several great aunts, uncles, and their children were deported to the concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where many of them died. A few fled to other countries. Years earlier, perhaps to evade anti-Semitism and in an attempt to assimilate into German society, her father was baptized as a Christian. In 1938, before the Final Solution had materialized, before the worst of the pogroms and death camps, he immigrated to America, never to reveal the secrets he took to his grave.

It is a fascinating tale of history, heritage, and the legacy of conflicting faiths. Among the most compelling parts of the book are Neumark’s reflections on how insight into her newly-discovered past affects her own inner faith journey.  I was particularly moved by her reflections on the sacrament of Holy Communion, in which Lutherans break bread and drink wine as symbols of the body and blood of Christ, the spiritual nourishment of the Christian faith. For Neumark, the newly-discovered knowledge that family members perished in the Shoah with the partial complicity of the Church in its failure to oppose centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, has forced her to reflect in a new way on the very sacrament that gives her sustenance:
“On the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread.” I feel partly like a traitor myself – that I have betrayed my own Jewish kin, albeit unknowingly. And yet I cannot turn away from the altar where for me, in spite of everything I now know, these remain life-giving words. . . . [offering] the hope that life can go on, that one day, we can sit together and share a healing, liberating meal, that shalom is possible.
Neumark’s experience is a dramatic example of how thinly veiled is our religious heritage. Had her father not been baptized, had he retained his Jewishness and passed it along to his daughter, Neumark might today be a Rabbi. But instead of lighting Shabbat candles or reciting the kaddish at Friday evening services, she preaches the Gospel on Sunday mornings. Hers is a compelling story that naturally leads me to wonder how any one religion can legitimately lay claim to exclusive truths, for what we believe and what religious rituals we practice are so often determined by chance and the circumstances of one’s birth.

*     *     *     *
Jerusalem's Old City, April 2015
Last week I listened to an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, in which she interviewed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and a prominent author, religious leader, and philosopher. A leader in the Modern Orthodox movement, Rabbi Sacks spoke of the challenges and opportunities presented by a world of diverse faith traditions.

“I think God is setting a big challenge,” he explained. “We are living so close to difference, with such powers of destruction, that [God] is really giving us very little choice.” Sacks believes that we can either accept the beauty and life affirming nature of the diverse and multi-dimensional world in which we live, or find ourselves on a more negative course. Ultimately, it comes down to whether we can see the presence of God in the face of a stranger.

Two months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Rabbi Sacks stood at Ground Zero in friendship, fellowship, and shared prayer with leaders of most of the world’s faiths. “It was then I realized it is either we go in this direction or a more negative way.” When we understand that we are enlarged and not threatened by other faiths, it becomes more difficult to practice religious arrogance and exclusivity.

Wisdom lies in the bio-diversity of life. “Everything that lives has genetic code written in the same alphabet,” Sacks explained. “Unity creates diversity. . . Don’t think of one God, one truth, one way, think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways.” If we consider that the human race has developed nearly 6800 spoken languages, why should we think there is only one language to speak to God?

Sacks contends that the 20th century witnessed the collapse of moral language, and that today only the loudest and rudest voices win. And yet the greatest single antidote to violence and misunderstanding remains conversation, in speaking and listening to others. In On Being, Sacks observed that one of the most powerful movements for peace in the Middle East is a group of Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost children to violent conflict. By their example, they witness to the world that through empathy and understanding, speaking and listening, one can change hearts and minds. When we can get Israelis and Palestinians alike to think of what is best for their grandchildren, rather than focus on individual claims of injustice and victimhood, we can make real progress towards peace. “It is when you can feel your opponent’s pain that you begin the path towards reconciliation.”

The world will forever remain a complex place, full of disappointment and despair. Religious extremism and religious conflict are part of the problem, but so is religious illiteracy -- the failure to understand the "other" and the many dimensions and faces of religious belief and practice in the world today. Perhaps if we recognize how fortuitous are the origins of our own  religious identities, we will make more meaningful connections to people of other faiths, or of no faith, and the many who remain conflicted about faith. Then, too, we may see more clearly that which we have in common -- the desire for community and fellowship, the need for foundational principles, and the search for God in a broken world. 

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