Saturday, May 28, 2016

Live Life with Joy and Passion: Some Graduation Advice for My Youngest Daughter

Hannah at Senior Awards Ceremony, American University Honors Program
This is the hard work of life in the world, to acknowledge within yourself the introvert, the clown, the artist, the homebody, the goofball, the thinker. Look inside. That way lies dancing to the melodies spun out by your own heart. – Anna Quindlen
Dear Hannah:

Four years come and go, swiftly, like the changing seasons. When college ends, there is the sense that something significant is over, a phase of life, something safe and protected. Graduation ceremonies help us declare that another milestone has passed and something new is about to happen. A life remains to be lived and experienced.

Earlier this month, you graduated from college, joining older sister Jen among the ranks of American University alumni. On a cool Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., I sat in the bleachers of Bender Arena and proudly watched you in a sea of blue cap-and-gowns as you received your degree. Your smile that day warmed my heart. As your father, I know first-hand just how hard you worked to get where you are today. And I could not help but admire the beautiful and diverse collection of young men and women who graduated alongside you.

By traditional measurements, you (like your sister before you) are on a path to a successful life. You did well in all of the areas needed to build a good resume. You earned high grades and academic honors, gained valuable internship experience, published a number of essays and poems, and held student leadership positions. All of your hard work, the long hours in the library and the late night study sessions were rewarded with distinctions of high praise, with summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. For these honors, you should be immensely proud, for you earned them through individual effort and achievement. But unfortunately, while these distinctions signify academic success in college, they will not guarantee a life filled with joy and passion. Now you must engage the world outside of academia and begin to develop a life of your own.

On the morning of your graduation, I gave you two small books by Anna Quindlen, a writer and former columnist for The New York Times whom I admire for her wit and wisdom about everyday life. Both books originated from commencement addresses Quindlen has given over the years, and each contains a wealth of good advice that I hope you take to heart and occasionally come back to when you feel adrift.

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself,” suggests Quindlen in Being Perfect. Like many young women in today’s world, you tend to internalize the many and varied societal pressures to perform at levels of perfection that are not sustainable or possible. Trying always to be perfect is counter-productive. We learn from our mistakes, not our successes. Besides, as Quindlen notes in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, “It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.”

When I graduated college in 1981, I also claimed good grades and academic honors (which you easily exceeded). But as I quickly discovered, once I landed my first job, no one really cared how well I did in school. Later in law school and in every job since then, I learned that there will always be people who are smarter, more talented, and more driven than me.  As Quindlen notes:
When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life.
American society has a remarkable ability to resist change. Since the Industrial Revolution, many Americans have preached the Gospel of Success and bought into the belief that success equals money, wealth, fame, power, and prestige. Our educational system does little to resist these conventional parameters. Colleges and universities market success by touting their famous alumni and most generous donors. Donald Trump has built his entire presidential campaign on a series of inflated half-truths, boasting of how “successful” he is and defining success by how much money he has made and how famous he has become. And yet, if the Donald drops dead tomorrow, the world will remember him only for his boastfulness, not for any meaningful achievements.

But Donald Trump’s version of success – the egotistical, narcissistic version that our celebrity and sports-obsessed culture embraces – is morally and spiritually bankrupt. Americans love successful people, as long as they are winning (in sports), young and good looking (in television and entertainment), and ostentatiously wealthy (in business). We know that not everyone can be a super-rich celebrity, but we nevertheless connect success to having a high-paying job, knowing the “right” people, living in the “best” neighborhoods, meeting and marrying a “successful” life partner, raising smart and “successful” children, and advancing the legacy of one’s good family name.

Except for a rare few, real life does not actually work this way. If you dig beneath the surface of most lives – even conventionally successful ones – you will find deep-seated insecurities, personal failings, rejected job offers, family struggles. Life is messy and complicated. Most of us are learning as we go. Everyone, even those who appear on the outside as if they have “made it,” stumble and fall many times. Whatever success they have achieved has been due to their willingness to pick themselves up and try again. Luck plays a much greater role in our lives than many of us care to acknowledge.

As young women, you and Jen will continue to face challenges and obstacles with which I never had to contend. The world is a far different place than when I graduated from college 35 years ago. Women then were only beginning to make strides for equality in law, medicine, business, and academia. Today, there are many women doctors and lawyers, CEOs, television anchors, clergy, Senators and presidential candidates. Due to the pioneering spirit of earlier generations of women, Jen and you can advance further and pursue your interests and dreams in ways almost unheard of a half-century ago. At the same time, you should not underestimate how much antagonism there remains against women and how many people would like to “make America great again” by returning to the “good old days” when women (and African Americans) were second class citizens. Our advertisements, our movies, our television shows, even a certain presidential candidate, continue to objectify women and value them only by how they look in a bathing suit.

As your father, I want you and Jen to be happy, healthy, and engaged with the world. I want you both to be comfortable with who you are. Understand that you are loved by many people and admired by those who count. You are smart, generous, and kind. Don’t ever diminish those qualities. Always work to improve yourself and enlarge your capacity for compassion. Develop dreams, but don’t be trapped by them. Life is not something that starts when you are older, after you have achieved more milestones. This is life. Embrace it, welcome it, accept it, and build on it.

Remember that success in life is not tied to how much money you make or your status in the social hierarchy. True success is how much love and compassion you are able to spread in this world, whether you have transformed the lives of the people around you and the community in which you live and work. As Anna Quindlen suggests, “If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.”

As much as we try, it is not easy to find one’s direction in life; a sense of purpose that gives meaning and fulfillment to our everyday existence. But as the writer Omid Safi recently told the graduating class of Colgate University:
Know your heart well enough to know what recharges you. It is going to be different for every single one of us, and it is going to be different for each of us at each point in our lives. For some of us it may be prayer, meditation, music, yoga, a really good book, walking in the woods, a wonderful conversation with a beloved friend, sitting down with your family, silence, a great poem . . . if that is what nurtures your soul, learn it. Make it a habit. Make time for it. And if you find that you are running on fumes, recharge yourself.
“Your education is a dress rehearsal for the life you choose to lead,” said the late Nora Ephron at a Wellesley College commencement address several years ago. “Be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.” Life is messy, but you should embrace the mess. The future will be complicated and unpredictable. But you always have the power to move your life in another direction. The things that are most important to you today may be less important in ten or twenty years. Don’t be afraid to shift course. As Anna Quindlen advises, “Think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.”

Most of all, be true to yourself. The best years of your life are ahead of you.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Growing, Learning, Thinking: The Value of Religious Pluralism

I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God . . . – Abraham Joshua Heschel
In The Book of Lights, Chaim Potok writes about a Jewish army chaplain in Korea and Japan in the 1950s who confronts challenging questions about the meaning of his faith. In one scene, the chaplain and a Jewish soldier watch an old Japanese man praying at a Shinto shrine. “Do you think our God is listening to him?” the rabbi asks his companion.

“I don’t know . . . I never thought of it,” replies the soldier.

“Neither did I until now,” says the rabbi. “If [God]’s not listening, why not? If [God] is listening, then-well, what are we all about?”

The rabbi’s questions are profoundly important ones for people of every faith. Does God listen only to the prayers of one particular faith? Do we all worship different Gods or the same God in different ways? What kind of God would refuse to listen to the prayers of this Buddhist man?

“If prayer is a human response to God,” asks Lutheran theologian J. Paul Rajashekar in Engaging Others Knowing Ourselves: A Lutheran Calling in a Multi-Religious World (Lutheran University Press, 2016), “then aren’t all prayers offered by people irrespective of their faith convictions legitimate responses to God? Are their responses to God whether in prayer or in their articulation of religious beliefs any less legitimate than our own?”

Despite two centuries of Christian mission and evangelization, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population continues to adhere to other beliefs or no belief. Christians are taught to believe that Christ died for all people, and yet, some Christians continue to struggle with whether God is accessible to those who choose a different path. Does God hear only the prayers of those who accept Jesus as savior? Christians often talk of reaching the unreached. But unreached by whom? Do we assume God is absent in the lives of others?

In December 2015, Lacrycia Hawkins, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab, or traditional Muslim head scarf. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims,” she wrote, “because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Although a seemingly innocuous statement – after all, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each espouse monotheism and trace their common lineage to Abraham – Hawkins was immediately suspended from her tenured professorship and later terminated by confidential agreement. According to a Wheaton College press release on December 16, 2015, the professor’s “expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” conflicted with the college’s Statement of Faith because Muslims do not accept God’s revelation in Christ.

The Wheaton College controversy reflects a long history of Christian hostility toward other religions. That there exist competing belief systems is disturbing to some. But the more we learn of other religions, and the more we engage with and understand people of other faith traditions, the harder it becomes to justify claims of absolute truth. Pluralism implicitly questions the legitimacy of religious claims that there exists only one true way to achieve salvation or enlightenment.

Many religious people are threatened by theological and doctrinal differences and view other faith traditions as in opposition to one’s own faith. This insecurity results in an inward focus that shies away from difficult questions and ambiguous answers. However well we think we know our own religious traditions, we are often wrong in what we assume about others. Religious illiteracy breeds misunderstanding and a tendency to notice only the bad traits of other religions – acts of religiously-inspired terrorism, for example – and the good points of one’s own faith.

Contrary to what the administrators of Wheaton College may think, it violates our monotheistic concept to think there is a Muslim God, a Jewish God, and a Christian God. As Professor Hawkins understood, to accept that God hears the prayers of all people regardless of one’s religious tradition is not to suggest that theological differences are meaningless or insignificant. But differences do not necessarily imply right or wrong. The goal of religious pluralism is mutual understanding, not conversion.

I have suggested in past writings that one’s religious affiliation is mostly determined in the first instance by the happenstance of birth. We typically adopt the religion of our parents. In light of this, how do some confidently claim exclusive possession of God’s truth? Most often, claims of exclusivity are based on Scripture, such as the Christian Gospel John at 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”). Theologians have long debated the contextual meaning of this and similar passages and there is good reason to think the text is less clear than most Bible-quoting Christians acknowledge. Of course, other faiths make their own claims of absolute truth based on their holy books. Because we live not only in a multi-religious society, we also live in a multi-scriptural society. There is not one scripture, but many. How does one properly navigate conflicting claims of scripture? Is one Holy Book necessarily more authoritative than another?

I recently attended a course on religious pluralism at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. During one class, we watched a film entitled, The Asian and Abrahamic Religions: A Divine Encounter in America, which explores the surprising similarities among the Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) and the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The film contains scenes of prayer, of worship, of wedding celebrations and funerals in places of worship across the country – in churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, and many others. In watching the film, it occurred to me that the various religions are simply different human interpretations and manifestations of the divine. Although each faith has adopted different symbols and styles of worship, different words to describe God or the search for enlightenment, all provide a communal experience, a sense of order, an attempt to more deeply understand the world and find meaning in life.

As noted by our professor, J. Paul Rajashekar, a Lutheran theologian originally from India, the specific faith claims of different religions are often based on cultural, linguistic, and social distinctions. Christians often speak in terms of salvation, but this is specifically a Christian term and there is no singular understanding of what salvation means in the Bible. Other faiths use terms such as enlightenment, atonement, harmony and rebirth. Hindus seek spiritual oneness. Sikhs speak of moving from darkness to light. Buddhists strive for wholeness and nirvana. Each religion offers a view of life and a guide to living. In reality, it matters less what one believes, than how one’s faith is practiced in relation to others.

If we allow ourselves to grow and be challenged, there is much to learn from persons of other faiths. To engage in dialogue, to listen and understand what others believe, is to acknowledge our shared humanity. Pluralism invites dialogue and engagement with others. To take seriously the faith of others allows us to explore the richness of our own faith. To ignore or refuse to learn about other faiths is to deprive us of the opportunity to grow, think, and learn. Is this what God desires?

Sometimes we confuse faith with ideology. Pluralism challenges all claims to absoluteness and exclusive truth. It is perhaps why exposure to pluralism, to multi-religious societies, breeds fundamentalism – particularly Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, Christian fundamentalism is a 20th Century American phenomenon that coincided with increasing religious diversity in American society.

Christian fundamentalists and some conservative evangelical Christians love to cite the Bible in support of their beliefs. But what many refuse to acknowledge is that our understanding of scripture is influenced by 2,000 years of history and how it has been interpreted. The Bible has been translated in nearly 2,500 languages and there are over 900 different English translations of the Bible. Each version contains linguistic differences that deviate further from the original sources. Similarly, religious creeds and doctrines are merely human attempts to comprehend a mystery that transcends human understanding. In the words of Professor Rajashekar, “Some theological questions will always remain unanswered on this side of humanity.”

Perhaps all we can do is search for God’s presence, in whatever form, whatever language, in light of our human predicament. To engage in inter-religious dialogue requires courage and a commitment to more deeply understand our own faith. It requires a willingness to listen to what others believe and profess. Doing so may allow us to better understand who we are and what we believe. As the late Rabbi Heschel advised, “The world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect; the world is too great for anything but responsibility for one another.”