Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Religion Is What Holds Us Over

I read a sweet story today about a Jewish bakery in New York being saved from closure (and kept kosher!) by a pair of Muslim cab drivers.  It's a neat story for many reasons - long time cabbie buddies embarking on a new adventure, preserving a 91 year old business, great only-in-New-York intersections, etc.:
Peerzada Shah and Zafaryab Ali recently took ownership of the Coney Island Bialys and Bagels, a landmark fixture anchored at 2350 Coney Island Avenue for 91 years. 
The bakery was about to shutter in September when Ali, a former staffer, learned of its demise and decided to save it — keeping it in the same spirit of its original owner, Morris Rosenzweig, a Jewish immigrant from Bialystok, Poland, who founded the shop in 1920.
Oh and the story also features a really great quote from Shah that assures me that everything's going to be juuuuuuust fine: “It’s the same bialys, but I don't have time to talk right now, we're busy.  I have to make sure customers are taken care of, because they come first.”  Right on.  This story is, of course, being presented as a "oh MIRACLE OF MIRACLES look, people of different religions can get along!" story, and I always find that mode of presentation very strange.

Not everyone is religious or even spiritual, which I understand, but everyone who is religious has to face up to the reality that they will not receive any kind of universal authority by dint of their beliefs until after their death. Faith is at its heart a belief in something that cannot be definitively proven.  Though we can understand anything in the world around us as evidence of God, God's existence not on Earth requires that we believe it in spite of His coming down to point at the flowers or our friends or skyscrapers and claim them as His work. This is in fact why we can base such far reaching moral structures on working towards the idea of Him.  If God was of this world, we would inevitably understand Him as a limited entity - limited by geography and power and volume.  Our experience of "things that exist on Earth" does not allow for us to understand things we encounter as greater than we are to the extent that would be required to construct the same constructs we have build around God as we understand Him.  This is also why Jesus works so compellingly as a human figure and why he needed to die in the Christian mythos; his time on Earth (as laid out in the Bible) allows us to think about what a religious life might look like, but were he immortal, his significance would ultimately decline, eroded by continuing interaction with the world.

I also like Aristotle's concept of the Unmoved Mover, laid out in the Physics and Metaphysics, where he goes through an argument that everything is material and moves, and this movement is the basis of time.  He then explains that everything moves because it's continually bumping into other things, either materially or in time (stay with me here, guys), but concludes that there must be something that starts all of this movement, and settles on an Unmoved Mover, ultimately a thought thinking itself, that all of these other movers are so inspired by that they move in turn.  I like this kind of aspirational love, and it's how I think of God; as something so elemental, so universal and so beautiful that we all move towards it in each movement we make. Notice that there is no moral component here.  Good, bad and neutral movements are all inspired by this divine love.  I think this is where our language of impulse comes from...we call ideal employments our callings and say we felt drawn to have children.  We fall in love, we are drawn together.  When you think about it, it is strange that when we talk about the biggest, most life changing and most definitive aspects of our lives, we so often adopt incredibly passive speech.

Now, you might think that Aristotle and I are full of hooey.  Aristotle also believed that there were crystal spheres floating around moving things, and science has checked space pretty thoroughly for those to no avail. But I think that one of the beautiful things about religion is that we are able to conceive of God so differently, and that these concepts conflict.  If you do think of God as an inspirational force in the vein of Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, it makes sense for so many of us to conceive of a divine entity differently (and not at all).  It all movement is movement towards and away from this mover, it seems logical that when we try to understand it, we will have to grapple with what, precisely, it is, even though we can't ever understand it, earth-bound as we are.  And too, if all things come from this one source, then all the world's religions stem from it as well.   What purpose does this serve?  If there is one true God and one true answer, then why allow these other religions to contradict that answer?

I think the answer must be, "to understand that one true God more completely."

It is easy to point to the Bible, or the Quran, or any other text, and say "here is the answer, in black and white."  But we have all seen that this kind of manicheanism leads to the worst kind of bigotry, and the least virtuous behavior.  This is, of course, because we have accepted some fellow earth-bound person's interpretation of the Divine without consideration, without interpretation, without a struggle to understand.  Without intensive consideration and without argument and challenge, our religious faith is worth nothing at all.  Without a struggle to do right and live by a religion's tenets in a modern and changeable world, religion shrinks down to yet another checklist, something earthly and mundane.  Religions differing from ours are a way to develop our faith; all religions are a part of the same project.

Considering all this, is it really so surprising that religious people manage to get along?

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