Friday, April 08, 2016

My Neighbor's Faith: NPR's Theology?

A rabbi, a preacher, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a feminist respond to a writing prompt.

It's not a joke, but the premise behind My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation, edited by Jennifer Howe Peace, Or N. Rose, and Gregory Mobley (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012).  The book is part of the curriculum for Education for Ministry (EfM) out of the School of Theology at The University of the South, Sewanee, an Episcopal seminary.  Around fifty short essays tell of faith discovered, challenged, or reinvigorated by encounters between traditions.  

The thing is, I hear stories of such encounters every day on NPR, where voices represent a wide range of religious / political / cultural views, mediated by erudite, respectful, curious correspondents.  I find myself wondering, so long as we have NPR, who needs Church? 
NPR's theology
While I settled in to read the book, I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition Sunday.  In just the space of a few minutes, I heard a Republican office-holder in Wisconsin who sees "no good" in the Trump campaign, regardless of Trump's drawing voters to the party, because of the candidate's lack of respect for others.   A gay businessman in North Carolina deplored the state's new "bathroom" law for what it says to any LGBTQ fifteen-year-old, who may even hear parents approve the law; yet the businessman has determined not to follow other businesses out of the state, but to remain a sign of hope for that hypothetical kid. 

During a break in the program, we heard that NPR is sponsored in part by the Gates Foundation, its tagline a precis of this statement from the Gates website:
We seek to unlock the possibility inside every individual.  We see equal value in all lives. And so we are dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world. From the education of students in Chicago, to the health of a young mother in Nigeria, we are catalysts of human promise everywhere. (
The rest of the day, I heard Gates' values resonating in programs about the arts, politics, stories of individuals with tough problems, Krista Tippett's On Being,  and Back Story's survey of the influence of local political networks on the history of the USA.  As one expects with NPR, within 24 hours, I also heard a Trump supporter, and the sponsor of Georgia's own version of North Carolina's law, who commended his interviewers for always treating him fairly. 

This bedrock assertion of every individual's equal value derives from the same stream of thought as the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and "the pursuit of happiness."  As our founding document proclaims that any government that becomes destructive to these ends must be abolished, Gates and NPR work to clear away impediments to good health, education, and fair participation in the community's economy and governance.

Of course, this secular faith in the worth of the individual derives from a thread running through the major religious traditions.  One of the essayists in My Neighbor's Faith cites the Tibetan saying that "everyone was once your mother" and the Jewish story of Adam and Eve as expressions of the same idea that we all are interconnected and worthy of respect (Kamenetz 189-190).  But the idea, self-evident, no longer needs religious scaffolding. 

So, what value does faith add?
The first half of My Neighbor's Faith is about learning to see adherents of other traditions as dignified, respectable, honorable individuals, as NPR does just in the way its hosts ask questions.  The book's second half reaches towards an answer to my question. "What does faith add?"

The closest direct answer comes in an essay by the son of Baptist preacher whose family befriended their neighbor the Rabbi and his family.   Later studying at a secular, lefty college during the secular, lefty late 60s, author S. Mark Heim found "allies" in classmates of any religious tradition: "History was choosing sides," he writes, "and we had chosen the losing one" (193).  His few curricular encounters with religious writers, regardless of tradition, were "precious evidence that intimations of transcendence and the integration of faith and reason were matters worthy to occupy the wise."  Then he writes:

On the great moral challenges of the antiwar and civil rights movements, the churches...seemed like weak and hesitant echoes to the vibrant campus consensus [but] as I struggled to make my own decisions... it was religious convictions that finally counted.... [I observed] a steadied endurance to the engagement of many religious people I knew that contrasted dramatically with antiwar passions that evaporated with a low draft number.

Heim became a student of religious pluralism, and wrote a book that "seems now embarrassingly backwards" because it "treated religions in terms of ideas" (194).  The remainder of his essay tells of a breakthrough experience of moksha or "release" from self.  "But I was not sad to see [the experience] end" and "it was not...a vision with a moral."  He concludes "that behind each tradition in principle there lies something of this same order of otherness and wonder" (196).

The "morals" and the "ideas" of religions are what overlap with NPR and all humane entities; what faith seems to add is power.   It was a staying power that Heim observed.  A Rabbi, co-author with an evangelical Protestant, writes,  "Faith for me is not a confidence that Something Really Nice will happen later, because Someone I can't see is taking care of things.  It is about finding the ability to give love now, in this life," something he and his friend have both found in taking care of severely handicapped daughters (Gottlieb and Leonard 90).

The source of power may be "a generalized sense of a meaningful and life-affirming connection to a transcendent reality" (95), writes Jeffery D. Long, a "born-again Hindu" raised Catholic (98).

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer would tell us that the faithful are empowered by an actual Spirit bestowed by that Transcendent Reality, not from a mere "sense" of connection. Some of these essays do tell of mysterious or mystical moments when the authors felt or witnessed something outside the physical world.  Besides Heim's moksha, Ruben L. F. Habito writes of a similar breakthrough in "A Christian Confronts a Zen Koan" (165); and Roger Kamenetz, an American Jew, gives us a "shaggy dog story" about his dog Taxi, so taken with the teachings of a visiting guru that he runs away after his new teacher, and, months later, follows him into death -- presumably to be reborn with him to pursue their dharma together (191).

I can see that power -- for good, and for evil -- comes from identity, the feeling that one belongs to a defined community, that one "stands" for the people of that community.  The word doesn't come up much in these essays, though Paul Raushenbush, a Christian preacher, writes of pride in his family's Jewish identity, stronger than doctrine: "To put it bluntly [about afterlife]: if I can't hang with my Jewish cousins up in heaven, then it doesn't sound much like heaven to me" (108).   A Jewish woman who has always seen herself as an outsider in US society is shocked when Black classmates see her as an insider who can "pass" for White anytime, while they "always carry their black identity with them front and center" (Boys 141).    

Narrative gives power to ideas.  While one can haggle with one's conscience over an idea -- "What exactly does justice mean in this instance?" -- it's harder to argue with the vivid parable of the Good Samaritan or the example of Jesus stepping between a woman accused of adultery and the mob intent on stoning her.  In My Neighbor's Faith, an Episcopal priest tells of a Sikh peacemaker motivated by Jesus (Gibbs 180).  A Lakota man finds a way out of hatred of Whites and his substance abuse through the story of Jesus' life, though he refuses to choose the RSV, NRSV, KJV, NIV, CEV, or NKJV, or to accept that "to become a new creation" must mean "to become white" (Twilly 161).  Two essayists give credit for life-changing decisions to Prince Arjuna's story in the Bagavad - Gita, how he hesitates to launch a battle that can have no good outcome (Long 93, Makransky 197).

One essayist sees power in the "discipline" of ritual.  This is a Muslim, familiar with the act of prostration, stunned to see Orthodox Christians bend themselves in the same way (Ziad 117).  He relates the "pain" of bodily discipline to Mary's pain in childbirth, giving us words by Rumi: "The body is like Mary. /  Each of us has a Jesus, but so long as no pain appears, our Jesus is not born."  The author continues, "all ritual is imitation," a way into prayer and unity with God.

Where My Neighbor's Faith might be seen to be blurring boundaries, our clergy may be seen as defining the lines more distinctly.   Fr. Roger Allen and Fr. Daron Vroon have led a series of talks and sermons around such questions as, "Why Christian?  Why Episcopalian?" But I don't see their teachings as rejection of other churches, only as an extension of their ideas expressed often, that there's transformative power in regular prayer and communion, living into our Baptismal covenant, living in community, all beyond the ideas of right beliefs.

During our EfM seminar meetings, we have often heard each other attest to the power of liturgy to comfort or move us, and we've told stories of how memories from these words and rites have motivated us at critical moments in our lives.

Having read most of My Neighbor's Faith, I can stand with that Protestant preacher Bill Leonard, who writes that he and his friend the Rabbi are  "both people of faith, at times coloring outside the canons of our respective Jewish and Christian traditions, but stuck with and in them nonetheless" (89).

That sounds right to me, "stuck" as I am "with and in" the traditions of the Episcopal Church.  When I doubt myself, or my path, when I'm most vulnerable, even the most reasonable voices of NPR vex me with news of strife and intractable problems.  I turn off the radio, and go to my "go to" sources -- the prayer book, the music, the writers, the Bible, the Church itself.

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