I just finished reading the Life of Pi (an amazing book that I recommend to all who haven’t read it!) and it gave me a lot of things to think about that fit in nicely with what we’ve been learning about, especially our lectures on religious plurality. Pi, the main character, is a devout Hindu, Christian and Muslim (Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil the book for anyone…) His religious nature confuses his parents along with the leaders from his religious communities. They all insist that Pi cannot possibly be all three and that he must chose. Pi asks his father for a prayer rug and also to be baptized. His father doesn’t understand and wants to know why Pi can’t just choose one religion. Pi answers very honestly, “Because I love God.”
Pi’s sentiments on God and religion were very familiar to me as they closely reflected those of a woman, Anggi, we heard speak at the non-profit, Interfidei about two weeks ago. Interfidei’s main mission is to facilitate and create opportunities for dialogue between the different religions in Indonesia. It’s not an easy task, as each religious community doesn’t really know much about the others. To give some context to this, when kids are in school, everyday for an hour, they are split up according to their religions and they receive specific instruction on their own religion. There is never really an opportunity for kids to learn about other religions and so misconceptions and misunderstandings begin at a young age. Typically, kids are raised in the religion of their parents and so in that way, they don’t have much choice over their religion. There is of course the chance for them to change religions later on in life if they so choose but that is not as common.
Anggi was possibly one of the most inspirational people I’ve met and her words on religion seemed to just click with me. Anggi spoke of her own experience finding her religious identity (something that she admits she is still looking for.) She came from a mixed marriage; her father was a Muslim and her mother a Christian. She grew up hearing that she belonged to neither community and struggled to find her religion. Before long, she was told that she had to choose one over the other, that she could no longer remain in limbo where she had sought some sort of refuge. She told us that she began to realize though that to love and serve God, she did not have to choose a religion, that to love God required no religious tradition. She realized that she did not have to choose a religion because if God was truly all-loving and all-compassionate, then the same God could not possibly force one to choose one religion over the other. Therefore, she told us that she has chosen the religion of love for her spiritual life and she hopes that soon people can come to overlook their own religious divides and acknowledge what God truly means. She says that God is not concerned with how people pray or their religious practice and that there should be no thought of God and religion but rather of God and love. Through this, people can learn to live harmoniously with one another, regardless of religious traditions.
There were a lot of similarities between Anggi and the activities we had today. In the morning, we went to Pineview Pentecostal Church in Ypsilanti. None of the students including myself had ever been to a Pentecostal church service and it was quite an experience. I was immediately struck by people’s friendliness. As soon as we walked in the doors, people came up to us and welcomed us to the church and expressed how happy they were to have us there. That’s not something that happens everywhere, especially within mosques and more traditional churches. After the service we met with the Pastor, Nathaniel Nix. He was a very interesting man and told us up front that he believes that religion has failed people at large. Instead, Pentecostals focus on a personal relationship with God. They leave traditional practices aside and instead engage in a lively worship. Like everyone we have met on this trip, I had great respect and appreciation of Pastor Nix and I’ve been thinking about something he said in regards to the tragedy of human nature- that we as human beings tend to focus on the ways we are different rather than seeing the ways we are similar, especially in relation to religion. For Pi, the differences among his three religions become negligible to him. Instead, he sees the ways they are similar and finds his spiritual peace within that. (Once again, I strongly recommend the book!)
When we went to the Dearborn Islamic Center in the afternoon, Eide, the community outreach director, had the same outlook. He said that these differences that people perceive among religions really should neither be the focus nor the issue. Instead, there should be a greater understanding and appreciation for the ways in which we are all the same and the ways in which we value many of the same things. He quoted a verse from the Quran that reads, “O Mankind, we created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” Eide continued that if God wanted everyone to be the same, then he would have created it so. But we’re not and we’re here to learn from each other- something this program is allowing both the Americans and Indonesians to do. I don’t think it matters whether or not people are religious or believe in God, I think that these lessons that we’re learning from these religious communities are universal- we’re all searching for ways in which we can respect others and have a positive and meaningful impact on our world.
At first, I wasn’t too excited about the U.S. part of the trip but it’s turning out to be extremely interesting. We’re all being exposed to things we never would have sought out ordinarily. I mean, how many people can say they’ll spend their 21st birthday at a Tibetan monastery?!
Thanks for reading, and for also understanding our lack of blog posts- there’s a lot going on including recovering from jet-lag!!