Friday, December 04, 2009

Thoughts from Down Under on Religions and Faith

G'day mates! [OK, no one has actually said that to me yet, but it's only Day 1: I remain hopeful....]. I made it to Melbourne safely, and what a beautiful day it has been! I won't venture to guess what the weather is like in Gettysburg, but please keep the weeping to a minimum when I tell you that it has been around 70 degrees and sunny all day--oh, and at 6:30, the sun has just barely begun to set. I can't wait to see how early dawn comes tomorrow! After 25+ hours on the plane, and in desparate need of some sleep, my day is ending early, but I did want to share just a few reflections from my afternoon.

First, just walking around the Exhibition Hall, I was reminded of Ernst Troeltsch's distinctions between a religion [more of an organized, inclusive institution], a sect [more of a voluntary association with high personal standards from its members], and mysticism [more individual and spiritual], distinctions which were, of course, heavily shaped by his European Christian bias. As I passed booths for The Gnostic Movement, Scientology, and half a dozen others I had never heard of, I thought about my own bias in how I distinguish, for example, between a religion [God-centric], a philosophy [universe-centric], and a psychology [self-centric]--recognizing, of course, that all reality is always "cosmotheandric," to borrow a neologism from Raimon Panikkar. In my view, Scientology, for example, is a self-help psychology, regardless of what it calls itself, but I'm sure my distinctions are equally problematic.

The second observation I want to make concerns indigenous religions. One of my goals during my time here is to be particularly attentive to the presentations that concern indigenous religions,which are, in some sense, the polar opposite of Christianity, as they are closely tied to both place and space, and are thus neither easily transportable nor translatable; this makes them very fragile. One of the two performances I heard this afternoon was by Kevin Locke, a member of the Lakota tribe and a master of the Northern Plains flute. In bewteen songs, he talked about the languages of the many different tribes in North America, and how almost daily Native langauges are dying, as the elders--the only ones who can still speak them--are dying. Knowing how much language itself shapes reality [thinking of Wittgenstein here, particularly] I tend to think that with the death of each language comes the death of a particular world view--a particular way of seeing God, and interpreting God's relationship with the cosmos. That is a loss to all religious people, not just one particular religious community.

This need to recognize and respect the special particularity of indigenous religions, then, made the second performance I heard all the more puzzling: it was Lavalla Catholic College Liturgical Choir singing Taize chants that they have translated into the language of the indigenous Gunai Kurnai people. Frankly, I wasn't sure what to make of it. It was beautiful, of course, but since there was no introduction or explanation beforehand to put the performance in context, it was hard to know what the relationship was between the Gunai Kurnai & the Catholic choir, and what the songs meant to the people themselves. Who were they for, and what were they for? It pushed me to think about why we faciliate such interreligious cross-cultural experiences, and what we hope to gain from them. What sort of guiding principles ought to shape our actions in those situations? It's not always clear to me.

Finally, I ended the day with a screening of one of the most powerful movies I have seen in a very long time--"Praying with Lior." It is a documentary about Lior Lebling, a thirteen year old Jewish boy with Down's Syndrome who is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah. It is perfectly clear that Lior cannot with any depth or consistency articulate anything beyond the most basic truths of his religion--and sometimes, he can't even come up with those. But it is at the same time equally clear that when he prays [Davening], he is both experiencing himself and conveying with others a deep, passionate connection to God; so much so that at the end of the movie, when he has has Bar Mitzvah, as the camera scans the room practically the entire assembly is weeping--and I can assure you that more than one person was blowing her nose in our room here, too! It recalled to mind some of the issues we have been struggling with in the Confessions course around the concept of faith--how much of faith is based on our assent and/or our understanding, and how much of faith is solely God's work. Watching Lior pray, I would have to say that faith is the experience of God doing something, and our rejoicing in it. If you can find it, rent the movie!!

One more thing--as I left the Parliament to head back to my hotel, I passed a few protestors outside the building [By the way, who protests an event with a theme of "Make a World of Difference: Hearing each Other, Healing the Earth"?!] with signs like, "Think--Don't Believe!" My personal favorite, however, was the guy wearing the sandwich board that read, "You think your religion is true? PROVE IT! $10,000 Reward." We'll see if that crowd grows over time.

A good evening to you all.

Kristin Johnston Largen

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