Religion and the search for beauty

During an all-hours-of-the-night conversation with one of my best friends, I was asked by him, strictly from a place of genuine curiosity, how someone as educated and intelligent as I appear to be could “fall for” or “buy into” religion (“fairy tales, wizards and magic” as he put it). It’s a valid question, one I’ve been asked before in some form. I’ve always found it difficult to deliver the kind of succinct answer that would satisfy such a question. To be honest, I myself ask myself regularly how or why I believe what I do. Not because I think I’m in danger of losing my faith or anything like that, but because I am genuinely curious about the path I’ve taken, and about the mechanics of this device that operates in my soul.

The premise

First of all, let’s set the stage. In our culture of opposition and antagonism, there is this much-hyped “debate” about religion vs. science, or religion vs. secular politics, or religion vs. the individual, etc. Everything in our culture is built on this confrontational models. It’s easier to broadcast extreme divisions of opinion, because the clash between those two extremes makes for great TV. But why should we let network executives define how we approach these different aspects of human life?

I say we should identify the extremes: rabid secularism on the one hand, blind sectarian religion on the other. Then, let us do to these extremes what should be done: marginalize them. Why? Because they are marginal, they are extreme positions.

Most people who can and do talk about religion in calm, educated tones are eager to point out the fact that most people readily search for some form of “meaning” in their lives (define that however you will—fairy tale or Beatles song). That is a statistical fact, and that represents the 80% of us in the middle who are categorically silenced in our culture of opposition. But we are the majority.

Let us no longer be hijacked by a media that resembles Don King rather than Socrates! To the extremes: I cast thee out! I imagine Christopher Hitchens and Ayman al-Zawahiri scurrying to darker places, to the refuge of shadow, as we shine some light on the conversation.

And it is a conversation, not a debate. Conversation represents the constructive sharing of experience. Debate represents the attempt to win. Debate represents two sides, who view themselves as embattled, trying to counterattack. Stop the madness, I say. The rationale of “If I only bash them over the head hard enough with my superior view” is Cro-Magnon (no offense to France).

Why religion?

So let’s pick up at the starting point: Why do I “buy into” religion? From the point of view of a secular person, perhaps even an atheist, religion is nothing more than a series of fantastical tales about magic, a kind of Lord of the Rings that we’ve turned into an oppressive institution and an assault on human intellect.

Okay, fine, I understand that viewpoint because I know where it comes from. It comes from post-Enlightenment philosophy, from philosophers who were reeling from the excesses of the Christian Church. To reel from excess is a natural and perfectly acceptable reaction.

So back to me. I’m a pretty well educated, intelligent, even intellectual, person. I understand politics, sociology, literature, economics—even theoretical physics to some degree. So why would I bother with this unprovable hypothesis, or so-called legends about bearded mystics who wandered across towns, talking about beings in the sky? Why deal with the specific traditions that I subscribe to, anyway?

Well, I think we’re looking at the situation backwards, with 20/20 hindsight. We’re looking at institutional, doctrinal, dogmatic religion as opposed to starting at the historical roots. And being a fan of history, I love digging at those roots, because it helps me to contextualize human ideas, to understand the hows and whys behind those ideas.

One thing I’ve come to see as I read more and more about the history of religion is that religion is always a response. It has always been a major response to suffering. It has not, however, ever been a series of hypotheses designed to replace theoretical physics or evolutionary biology. It’s only the absurd modern preoccupation with viewing poetry as literal record that has allowed us to have these ridiculous “debates” about evolution.

In response to genuine questions about human suffering, such as the Asian tsunami, or HIV/AIDS, or even global poverty, our present-day doctrines have little to say. We’re too busy bickering over which group of people is more chosen then the others. Good grief. And it’s of little consolation to think that some Santa Claus-type figure is sitting on some throne on a cloud somewhere waving a magic wand that makes big-ass waves. This anthropomorphic view of God is something I’ve talked about before as something we need to get past.

The search for beauty

Now that I’ve explained what I think is wrong about our cultural views of religion, the question still remains, “Why do I buy into religion?”

What attracted me to Islam or to religion at all? First off, it’s part of my cultural inheritance. But everyone inherits something from the past, and in the case of religion, many people choose to jettison what they perceive as archaic, irrelevant and implausible ideas. So why then do I keep going back, why do I keep talking about it? I guess it’s because when I confronted my own faith or tradition, when I started asking questions, I found things in my inheritance that were beautiful, things that were deep, things that vibrated with music, things that spoke to me, things that inspired me. (If an adolescent rejects his parents, but, with time, learns to embrace them, does that make me an adult?)

Regardless, it’s not a case of linear logic: “Hmm, I need a system of thought to base my life on. Let’s see, we’ve got philosophy, we’ve got atheism, we’ve got scientific materialism, we’ve got this religion thing, this whole God thing, we’ve got nihilism, and we’ve got pop culture. Okay, so, let me read the arguments for all these different systems of thought and decide which one is the most internally consistent, and follow that.”

I’m exaggerating, of course, because it’s not like these things I’ve just mentioned are all mutually exclusive to the person who is willing to make the effort at letting them all swim messily within one’s self. One can be absorbed by comparative religion and still find time to watch American Idol (ahem…something caught in my throat… Cough! Melinda-Doolittle-should-have-won! Cough!).

But I’ve often heard the argument that people aren’t religious because they don’t believe in God (the idea being too contradictory or implausible) or that they found nothing of relevance during their childhood experiences in institutional religion. Furthermore, we turn on the TV, open up a paper, or surf the Web, and we are continually offered proof as to why “religion” is a destructive, coercive, tribal mentality that needs to be shelved for the betterment of humanity.

These are all perfectly logical statements. Yes, God is a difficult idea full of paradox. Yes, institutional religion can be stifling and boring. Yes, religious passions can be inflamed to the point of condoning oppression, violence, anti-intellectualism, and pettiness.

We never, though, hear of beauty. Journalists find beauty to be an awkward emotion to deal with. Beauty, though, is what I search for. Beauty is why I keep going back. I find beauty in religious scripture of many traditions, beginning of course with the Qur’an. As Islamic doctrine proclaims, every community on Earth was sent a messenger, a portion of the truth, something relevant to that community. So I find common threads in different traditions and tie them all back to a perennial cloth.

I find beauty in the ideals that religion pursues—the idea of living in harmony with those around us, of caring for others and being there for others, of pursuing social justice, of being addicted to knowledge and learning because every bit of truth around us is an epiphany waiting to explode.

Why the ideas of Muhammad should appeal to me is because, let’s face it, it’s part of my culture as a man of Pakistani descent. It’s part of the language I use to relate to the world. But the more I learn about the vast variety of Islamic thought, the more I encounter ambitious, cosmopolitan, soul-searching, beautiful expressions of humanity. And I don’t limit my search for beauty to Islam; I look in other traditions, I look in other areas of human thought. I look at birds, for crying out loud.

The most peaceful moments of my day are those moments when my forehead touches the fibers of my prayer mat as I bow my head toward the Divine. Yes, I do pray, although I’ll admit that the majority of the time I pray, I’m merely attempting to pray because I end up being too distracted by a million other things that flood my mind. I’ve heard the same said of people who attempt meditation. But I keep showing up, because that’s important to me. It’s important to me to keep cultivating that garden even though the soil is often arid and the flowers only sprout according to their own whimsy.

Fairy tales and science fiction

Religious text is full of stories of supernatural wonder. It’s easy to draw comparisons between the wonder-working of Jesus or Siddartha and the wonder-working of Yoda lifting the X-wing out of the swamp, or Gandalf coming back from the dead, or whatever. And in my more cynical moments, I accept that, for all intents and purpose, these mythical stories are the same.

Do I accept that there really was a global flood and that all the animals marched into a boat? What about Muhammad being whisked off to the heavens, or Jesus bringing a man back from the dead?

Whether or not there was a real Noah’s ark, or a real Garden of Eden, or a real Jesus, or a real Muhammad, misses the point. My own view on the matter is that the more historically remote the story, the more difficult it is to prove its historicity. On the other hand, most of those very remote stories—Noah’s Ark, as an example—are representative to me of some possible event that might have taken place way back when. A global flood? Probably not. What about a regional flood that was experienced by millions of people as a destructive force? Heck, that’s practically what the Asian tsunami was. So out of some ancient event, a story was told, passed along orally for hundreds or thousands of years, and eventually put down on parchment a few centuries BCE (in the case of Noah’s story).

The point of the story is that it’s a response. In this case of Noah, it’s a response to human suffering. A story creates a type of distance to an event that allows us to deal with the reality of that event without getting too bruised. Today, we too easily look at the plot of the story but don’t ask about the theme. What’s the moral of the story?

To draw an analogy, most of us understand the moral behind George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, even if we haven’t read it. But the moment government starts to become more overbearing, the moment freedoms of the press or of the individual become threatened, the moral of Orwell’s story is invoked in public discourse. And although Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t the basis of a religion, neither is the story of Noah’s Ark (by itself). Instead, it serves the same purpose that modern-day science fiction such as Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451 do.

And we really do need to remember that the story of Noah’s Ark, indeed most of the stories of religious scripture worldwide, existed in oral form long before they were ever put down into one single book. Those books only took shape as institutions began to form. Those books became a way of preserving those stories that might have been lost otherwise.

The point of the story is not to convince someone to join a particular institutional form of orthodoxy. Reading the New Testament doesn’t, by itself, make you want to become a Christian.

I think we’re just too accustomed to this approach to “beliefs” (I use that in the broadest sense), this process of reading a book, chewing on the intellectual pros and cons of the so-called argument, then deciding if we agree with the conclusion. But that’s just not the way to cultivate the spiritual dimension of human life. This spiritual dimension, which is really only one part of being “religious,” requires experience. It requires poetry, music, passion, breathing, inspiration, dreaming. It requires beauty.

Getting in the ring with God

While I am not a proponent of reading religious stories as we would a modern-day history book, I do believe that people such as Jesus or Siddartha existed. One may doubt their miraculous powers, but when you listen to their words and stories, you realize it’s not so unbelievable to imagine they existed. After all, we hear echoes of their words in people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King (both of whom were religious figures).

But what matters above the historicity of the stories is that the stories encapsulate important messages that relate to everyday lives of people in the here and now. The story of Moses and the liberation of the Hebrew slaves, for example, was a powerful touchstone for African slaves in the American south.

I myself am deeply attracted to the story of Jacob wrestling the angel. It’s a part of the Torah, which is a part of Islamic tradition. I’m attracted to that story because it speaks to me, because it makes sense to me.

The Biblical patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham, was traveling from one city to another. He set up camp one night in the wilderness of ancient Israel. He was greeted by a man who walked out of the desert, a man who begun “wrestling” with him. Jacob spent all night wrestling with this man. At some point during this “wrestling match,” Jacob became aware that his opponent was either an angel or other agent of God, if not some incarnation of God Himself. So after wrestling this angel for hours, he finally demanded a blessing. Only then, Jacob said, would he submit. So at long last, the angel did bless him. Jacob is then given the Hebrew name Israel, “one who has struggled with God.”

It echoes similar stories of Muhammad being confronted by the archangel Gabriel on several occasions, most famously during the first revelation. Muhammad was a rather spiritual person who reflected on transcendent matters as much as on the state of society around him. He would retreat to a cave in a particular mountain to meditate. It was on one such occasion that he was enveloped by a frightening divine presence that crushed him in its embrace. He came to understand that this presence was the archangel Gabriel. Muhammad was convinced that he was going loco, so he resolved to throw himself off the mountain face. But when he exited the cave, the archangel was once again around him, wherever he turned. Finally, instead of killing himself, he went back to his wife, collapsed in her arms, and stayed in bed for days. He spent the next few months of silence pondering whether or not he really had gone insane or not.

This, to me, is the life of faith. It’s a life of doubt, of wrestling with angels, of experiencing music every now and then as we walk through life, only to hear nothing but deafening silence for months on end. Like a song that’s at the tips of our tongues, we can go through long periods of questions, asking ourselves, “How does that song go?”

Me versus religion

As much as I can’t rationally explain these strange feelings of transcendence that grip me every now and then, I can’t ignore them, either. The best I can do is to have faith, to keep showing up. I get the feeling that it’s inappropriate to talk about these feelings because talking about them can’t do these feelings justice. Or, at the very least, I can’t talk about these feelings in normal, everyday language. I’d rather do what ancient humans did: turn to art to express the ineffable.

Religion was a part of that artistic expression. I admit that’s a rather idealistic, artsy-fartsy mode of thinking. Most people, after all, demand something a little more concrete. Rules. Buildings. Rituals. And let’s face it: people like being around other people, especially when they all agree on something. Institutional religion is just another way of doing that. It works in the sense that it does bring people together, and it does help define common experience out of otherwise baffling circumstances.

The anarchist in me would argue that large institutions are inherently dangerous, and are prone to groupthink. I think that the larger the institution, the more it veers toward ideology, much like nationalism or free-market economics. People like being told that they are better than “those other people.”

Ultimately, though, religion is different things to different people. As much as some authorities would love to create some kind of conformed, consistent community, religion is really just a big-tent term under which so many other human activities can be understood. More often then not, it’s more of a big top than a big tent.

How you approach religion depends on how you define it. Again, I think we allow religion to be defined by the media and ideologues rather than through the personal experiences of other people, our fellow human beings. And truthfully, it’s very easy to be a bad religious conversationalist, the kind of person who tries to convert, convince or counterattack rather than to explain or educate. Those three Cs have more to do with ego fulfillment than with beauty.

I’m also learning the rather self-evident truth that being spiritual is just one part of being religious, and it’s why I don’t think I’m religious yet. Religious ritual is part of deepening one’s spirituality, but what about the idea of trying to make the world a better place?

Being fully religious would involve doing something good for society. Yes, I’ll be some kind of journalist, but I would also have to do something on a more personal level. I have thought on and off about volunteering at a hospital after my own experiences there. Service like that is, to my mind, a religious experience. Well, it’s all a work in progress…