There are many people who in the name of faith or love persecute countless people around them. If I believe that my notion about God, about happiness, about nirvana is perfect, I want very much to impose that notion on you. I will say that if you don’t believe as I do, you will not be happy. I will do everything I can to impose my notions on you, and therefore I will destroy you. I will make you unhappy for the whole of your life. We will destroy each other in the name of faith, in the name of love, just because of the fact that the objects of our faith and of our love are not true insight, are not direct experience of suffering and of happiness; they are just notions and ideas.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Let’s talk experience:
1) On Christmas morning of 2012, I found myself standing in a gas station in Bernalillo, New Mexico. The attendant, a Muslim man, reached across the counter to take my money and, smiling broadly, exclaimed “Merry Christmas to you!”
2) April 2003, Jackson Square, New Orleans: The Final Four is in full swing, and I am wandering through the French Quarter with an armload of little New Testaments and not the foggiest clue what I’m doing (that last part being completely in retrospect; at the time, of course, I thought I knew exactly what I was on about). As I walked through the park, I was hailed by a gaggle of transients deep in discussion, a comparison and contrast between the Bhagavad Gita and the Memoirs of Kurt Cobain. Why did they call me over? They saw my point of view in the bundle under my arm, and wanted to add my voice to the chorus. They weren’t afraid of the authoritarianism of the Bible; they just wanted to play with it a bit, and see how it might inform their way of seeing and interpreting the world.
3) May 2013 (roughly): I meet the Muggle. Up to this point, while I had encountered a number of atheists of the straw man variety, I had never interacted (at least not seriously) with one made of flesh and blood. And brains, it turns out. I was raised to fear these people: if God was the glue holding the world together, atheism was the turpentine dissolving his adhesive. In the Muggle I discovered, to my surprise, an extremely open individual willing not only to put up with respectful and well-considered disagreement, but even to entertain the potential validity of opinions other than her own. Color me surprised (and somewhat sheepish)…
None of this jives with the lines I was fed during the first several decades of my life. Everyone knows Christians and Muslims can’t mix, especially post-9/11, and in any case, one faith tradition cannot encourage another without descending precipitately into relativism and doubt. I thought about telling the guy he wasn’t supposed to do things like that, that as a Muslim he was supposed to hate Christians and everything they stand for, including and especially one of their chief holidays. (One wonders if anyone has ever bothered to ask him how Ramadan is going.) I thought about reminding him that, as a soldier in the ongoing culture wars, he ought to be burning manger scenes right and left, and doing all he could to take the “Christ” out of Christmas. But I just didn’t have the heart…
As for my gypsy friends in the Big Easy, I’d always been led to believe that non-Christians can have one of two reactions to the Bible: conversion or cardiac arrest. Furthermore, anyone who even considers the truths of any extra-biblical scriptures must be a non-Christian, an assumption which itself reveals the mental space I was in at the time. I have since had the great pleasure of meeting many Christians who are far more open than that in their approach to Truth, but it is a fact that many, many more refuse to look outside their own tradition for wisdom based simply on the fact that it comes from outside their tradition. I consider that one encounter to be a pivotal moment in my personal journey: there is always another perspective to be added to our understanding of the Absolute.
Finally, the atheists among me: simply put, atheists hate not only God, but anyone who believes in God as well. Or so I’d been led to believe. Then I met Madalyn (that’s street speak for the Muggle), and I realized how easily we allow preconceptions to cloud our ability to relate to people who don’t fall exactly in line with our own view of the world. I have learned a great deal from my Muggle friend, and I don’t mean just facts (although that, too). I have learned to be a better listener; I have grown in my courage to say the things I need to say, and not just the things others will like to hear. Most importantly, my faith in the possibility of civil, productive, respectful conversation and debate has been given a shot in the metaphorical arm. I am astounded once again at the fact that so many Christians, the “God’s love” folks, are less inclined to act in a loving manner than the evil, EVIL atheists I was taught to fear, who supposedly peddle only in a particularly nasty brand of nihilistic hatred.
Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted above, taught that the sound of a bell is equally clear whether it comes from Buddhist temple, Catholic cathedral, or Protestant church. In other words, we know the Truth when we hear it, and if we truly know how to listen, we will hear it (or at least the bits and pieces of it we’re capable of understanding in our finite, human Being) everywhere and in everything.
This life, as I see it, boils down to an ongoing search for meaning, and at the end of the day, everything means something. And no one can see everything. Which means we need each other’s eyes, each other’s perspectives. We need the seed of wisdom we each cultivate on our individual paths in order to glimpse the Garden in which we grow.
We need each other, not to become like each other, but because in our difference we complete each other.
What matters is not whether you agree with my religious views, or I with yours. What matters is what we each make of our views…and what they make of us.