Sunday, February 6, 2011

Keeping the Faiths

Today in church I participated in a discussion about the book The Faith Club, in which a Muslim, Christian, and Jew discuss their faith. One woman pointed out how great she thought it was that children can go to school with people from all different religious background, and that this might circumvent some of the prejudice and ignorance held by previous generations.

The comment reminded me of a conversation I had with my Christian Formation co-teacher at Colegio del Nino Jesus, Cornelia Lackwood. I was explaining to her how the volunteer corps that sent me was a Catholic organization, even though I myself was not Catholic. (On a sidebar, I was really impressed by how this was taken in stride by the local nuns and the Catholic religion teachers I worked with. When asked if it would be okay for me to work with them even though I was Baptist, they all simply said, "Oh, it's all the same God." This is not a view I encountered so much in the western part of the country.) I told her that I had learned to value various elements of Catholic tradition, and particularly the spiritual teachings and mysticism of various saints. Baptists don't do mysticism well, and I think our spirituality suffers for it. She asked me if at any point I had felt a draw towards converting to Catholicism (she herself had converted from the Moravian church). I explained to her I hadn't, because my heart still lay firmly with my own tradition. It's a very important part of my identity, because it connects me with my extended family, generations that came before me, and the faith community that nourished me when I was growing up. She then asked me a question that gave me pause: "Do you ever feel like you're riding two horses at once?"

I didn't bother telling her that I was attending a Moravian church and had previously taken various courses on Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, all of which influenced my religious thinking. So if I am riding more than one horse, I must be mounted on at least a half-dozen. I struggled a bit with my answer, which is that I don't. I guess at the end of the day, I know where I belong, which church I'll be going back to. But I feel like no religion can fully capture God. Some religions elucidate certain elements of God very well. Catholics are good with forgiveness of sins and the usefulness of meditation, Lutherans nail the grace thing, and Quakers have the absolute egalitarianism of human souls before God. Jews have this awesome idea that God made a covenant with people, and people have a right to hold God accountable. I recognize that and appreciate it, but I feel like it's important to belong to one community in which I can know and be known, where I share all of these thoughts and reflections, and feel like I'm participating in a tradition that reaches back generations and will continue on for generations.

I'm probably writing it a bit more eloquently than I explained it, but I said something to that effect. I was a little self-conscious, because I thought her point had validity. Even setting aside debates about cultural appropriation, cherry-picking religious concepts has only limited value. Most elements of religion really work the best in the context of their whole tradition. I can practice yoga as a spiritual aid, but I know that I will never experience its full power because I will never fully embrace the spirituality and worldview behind it. Her response, however, was quite touching: "How different would the world be if more of us thought like that!" I appreciated the vote of confidence.

For a community of people with very strongly held and often conflicting religious beliefs, the overall spirit of ecumenism in Puerto's mainline churches always moved me. According to Susan, even Mormon missionaries preferred Puerto Cabezas to other Nicaraguan sites they visited, because the people there were generally more open and willing to hear them out than they were in other places. Maybe this is because of the long history of two dominant churches, the Catholics and the Moravians, rather than just one. Or maybe it's because Puerto is just a pretty cool place.


  1. The Pony Express certainly understood the value of fresh horses.

    I believe a person does not need to be riding each horse at the same time, nor do they need to fully embrace a particular horse's shortfalls to be truly appreciative of that horse's contributions to the journey.

    If your goal is to truly know your horse, select a horse and ride it completely. If your goal is to truly experience your journey, select multiple horses and allow each to enrich the journey in their own unique way.

  2. Kathryn,

    May I link a friend of mine to your blog? She's been doing some interesting work on interfaith interactions and I think the two of you might see eye-to-eye on a great deal. Also, I believe she may have been to Bilwi at some point.

  3. Wish I'd said that! This may be the best expression of appreciation for all/many faith traditions while also appreciating the strength (necessity) of BELONGING to some PARTICULAR tradition or perspective. Great words. Thanks. Save your words. Publish them.