Sunday, December 20, 2009


so i've been noticing a couple of stages on the way to where i am. (if i knew what the next stages were i wouldn't be stuck where i am now would i?) and i think they explain a lot of irritating behavior and i think that you can dispell a lot of panic if we just name them and move on.
1) fairy tale faith. this is the first one. people tell you what to believe and you just sort of go along with it. this is where you start as a child. God-- the One, the Infinite-- shares a category with the tooth fairy and the stork and santa and elves and dragons and all sorts of other things you have no direct experience of but that people assure you are real and true and meaningful. some people stay here. they are not very interesting to talk to, but neither are they particularly irritating. when you disagree with them, they are bewildered but can't really engage in a dynamic discussion with you about what is and isn't actually true. they haven't really thought about the difference between what they profess and what they believe. they are comfortable and happy. the rituals of religion are for them.
2) intensifying faith. this is where people start exploring their faith, learning more about it. it is an active phase. people read a lot and go to groups and hang out in places of worship and with co-religionists. they are more interesting to talk to because they are more knowlegable, but when you disagree with them they will draw on their holy book(s) and will have nothing of themselves to add to the discussion. it is a crucial step, without which i don't know how you can go any further.
3) clash. in the process of examining one's own religion, one comes across aspects that clash with one's own inner sense of morality. you begin to notice that there is a difference between what you are professing and what you actually think is real. this is the first part that is really painful, and this is where religious people become nearly unbearable to be around. there is no retreat from this step. once you realize that you and your faith are clashing there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. and it is terrifying. to admit that there are parts of your faith that are dead wrong is to be forced to confront your faith on all its levels, to start a painful process of spiritual house-cleaning. if you refuse to clean your spiritual house, you will remain on this level, professing, usually loudly, things you don't actually think are true. you may be spotted because you will, when confronted with your own internal inconsistencies, point to your holy book and say with increasing frustration that it alone is the source of all truth and that you really need nothing more.
4) house-cleaning. here you start to arrange the things you believe and the things you're going to set aside-- "not part of my practice." it is a time of honesty, and a good stopping place. if you stay here, you will be reasonable, easy to live with. you will be pluralistic and will be able to accept people on the fringes of your religion and even outside your religion as probably having a reasonable point of view. this is an optional step and might not be present for everyone. at this point, a lot of the comfort of religion may be stripped from you. depending on your temperment, ritual practice may be less comforting now, less meaningful-- what comfort and meaning it holds may stem more from familiarity than from an honest belief that you are interacting deeply with the Divine.
5) the slope. if your housecleaning persists, if you are diligent and careful and ruthless, you may begin to question whether the God you are praying to is God or some sort of reflection/distortion of God. clearly it is the latter. as you search your heart for what you actually think is true you may find yourself fuming at the things people are saying about God-- the God you are seeking couldn't possibly be the puny/petty "god" these people are talking about. it becomes hard to hear people talk about God. it becomes unbearable to go to group worship. you can feel yourself clutching at the last remnants of the fairy tale God you've known since childhood whom you've been unknowingly unmasking as an illusion, as no one, as offensive and impossible and blasphemous. but you're clutching because you can feel the emptiness opening up around you. you can't stay here. you must either go back to loudly defending a faith that is yours in name only or slide further in.
6) the abyss. emptiness. your prayers are shouted into an uncaring void. it is very, very hard to pray. the straws you were grasping at disintegrate, as does everything you ever thought of as your faith. you are alone in a meaningless universe. to truly enter this place, you will have to renounce your faith. you will have to let go of the little "god" you were clutching all this time. it is an idol and you have to smash it. you may stay here, an atheist, an agnostic. when asked "what religion are you?" you will answer along the lines of "i was raised ______" your parents will be freaking out. those people you used to hang out with at your place of worship will no longer be your friends, but some of them will pray for you to "find your way" meaning "find your way back to them". but it's too late to go back. it is a fairly comfortable place. you are reasonable. you alternately pity and envy religious people, but you can't be one of them. they look backward and ignorant to you, but they also look happy-- irrational, unreasonable, and smug, but cozy. you are above all that.
7) the desert. to be in the abyss and look for God is painful, painful. you are a miserable, groveling, sniveling thing, fervently, snot-nosedly begging God to come back. you look for Him everywhere and see only a bunch of stuff. you are God's jilted lover, leaving a thousand messages on his cell phone. you can't figure out exactly what it is you believe in. prayer is like night in the desert-- impossibly empty, desolate, cruel. but if you sit in your desert long enough, your eyes adjust. you hear the little night animals scrabbling about, you see the infinite stars bathing the place in gentle light, you being to notice the wind, the plants, the glittering sand... the night is impossibly full, impossibly rich. you have fallen through a trap door and emerged into something you can sink your teeth into. your little "god" is gone, and what has taken its place can only be met with bewilderment. you start to get that look on your face that means you have spent a lot of time staring at God. you are open and easy to talk to, and the world looks very, very different to you.
*) not sure where this fits in with the numbering system, but you may have a mystical experience. you may have a couple of them or a lot of them. they may take different forms at different places on your journey. you are not in control of these experiences-- they overtake you. like a victorian maiden, you swoon. they are powerful, they shake you to your core. you sound stupid when you talk about them. once you see heaven/God/Reality or whatever you want to call it and the world closes back in on you you will miss heaven and hate it here. prayer will become a desperate attempt to return, to experience God in that way, to at least touch the edges of it. you will fail.
8) wandering. driven by curiosity, by instinct, by the depth of your longing for God-- which, if you've gotten this far, is pretty deep-- you begin to look for other people who are searching. you read again, but widely now. you read heretics and mystics and you from people outside your religious starting point. as the curtain parts, you see a transcendent unity of faiths-- we are, after all, in the same universe with the same underlying Truth. the differences between faiths start to look uninteresting, their similarities and the way they fit into each other fascinating. you have stopped trying to convert people. you have stopped thinking of yourself as holding the only Truth. you listen. you pray. your prayer becomes more open, more accepting. you stop judging your performance, you stop looking for signs that you are going the right way. you trust God to take care of you. you trust that He knows what He is doing. you begin to look for more idols to smash, for trap doors to fall into, for more and bigger and emptier voids to be lost in. you let go of the wheel and let God drive. your ritual practice becomes curious, mindful, aware-- it becomes an act of trust, a secret between you and God.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

at the gym

the gym

about quarterly, and the last two times at the gym, i get spoken to by born again christians who are trying to save me.

(wrapping my khimar around my bosom so as not to be disturbed does not weem to be going as planned, at least for me. i rather suspect that i would be much less disturbed, at least in this way, if i were half naked in skin-tight clothing. the born again gym community would thereby be assured of my salvation, being able to see half my skin and all of my figure and thus assure themselves that i had accepted jesus christ (upon him be peace) as my personal lord and savior.)

as you may have been able to figure out, i'm still smarting from my last encounter.

this one was a protestant minister who travels regularly to turkey to convert muslims to christianity. he hasn't tried saudi arabia yet, and i would advise him not to do so. he was a very nice man, a widower, who knew his bible in koyne greek and was quite conversant with the council of nicea, which is refreshing.

the last one was somewhat less qualified, although rather more conversant with muslim ideas of modesty.

then there is my professor, who cornered me while we were carpooling and made me cry at work. and there are my classmates, who don't say anything but look at me with a mixture of wonder and pity that i may be misinterpreting as "she seems like such a nice person; i'll sure miss her while we're in heaven. if only God (high above all things) were more reasonable"

but this guy just planted himself in front of me and patiently explained that i was crucifying christ (upon him be peace) with my apostasy. and i tried to listen to him, and listen behind what he was saying to the love that motivates him, that drives him to speak to heathen like me, to what he thought he was trying to accomplish. at least it's a noble sentiment-- save the heathen! but it was very hard, because i was trying so hard not to say that it's that sort of judgemental exclusivism that drove me from christianity in the first place. i cannot and will not believe that i am more reasonable than God (highest above all things, which includes, clearly, me) and i'm not about to send anyone to hell for not calling God by the correct name, for not reciting their prayers in the proper language or in the proper format, for not believing a particular story as opposed to another story.

and i couldn't even begin to tell him about God because it never really was my turn to speak.

and i couldn't even begin to tell him that i thought we were on the same team, that there's only one team because there's only one God (unbegotten, unique, perfect-- beyond our understanding, the merciful, the subtle). but i did tell him that i am a doctor who has devoted her career to the service of the poor and who lives with God in my mind and in my heart and all around me.

but i also wanted to take off my scarf and fricking finish my workout.

Monday, September 28, 2009

severe heresy

more stuff i've been thinking about:

the physical relationship between evil and freedom

in a newtonian clockwork universe you could hold God accountable for everything-- every star, every butterfly, every case of cancer, every child hit by a car-- the universe would be set in motion and the conclusion would be written at the moment of formation and every single event would unfold as planned.

this sounds very boring for God. and it also sounds wrong. (but hear me out, there's predestination and free will all wrapped up together in the package ahead...)

because we don't live in a newtonian clockwork universe. we live in a heisenberg uncertaintly principle, quantum mechanics, schrodinger's cat universe full of collapsing probability fields. we're not on a table of billiard balls all colliding predictably down to the last particle; the universe is built with chaos woven right into it.

in a newtonian clockwork universe, every thought you ever thought would have been destined from the beginning of time. you would move through your life like a wind-up doll, feeling spontaneous because you were programmed to feel so and dying at the moment it was planned for the truck to hit you or for your heart attack to occur.

in a heisenberg uncertainty principle universe, you are a set of probabilities down to the chemicals in your head and the atoms that make them up and to the unimaginable tiny bits of reality that make up the atoms themselves. in order to give freedom of thought you have to weave it into the fabric of reality, down to the chemicals that the neurons use to talk to one another, down to the tiniest details of the universe.

but this freedom comes with a price-- earthquakes and cancer and typhoons and flower pots falling on your head and the thousand accidents of physics and happenstance that you allow when you let the universe be the kind of place where freedom can happen. at this price you buy autonomy for your servants, you graciously allow them to chose to love and serve you.

predestiny can still happen in this setting, but it is more subtle. an apple seed is made capable of growing into an apple tree-- of setting out its apple leaves, of growing its apple tree trunk, of bearing its apples. this is destiny-- your goodness is inside you in the same way the apples are inside the apple seed: secret, hidden, possible...

more heresy

moving on to more things i've been thinking of:

the purpose of reality

i've been struggling with why God would want a universe in the first place and us in it in the second and i can't say i've gotten very far with this. given the choice, i think people of faith would rather simply sit at the feet of God in adoration rather than eat and sleep and fart our way through wherever we are right now. God, being kind beyond measure, must have some reason. we, being servants, must serve some purpose.

i was watching a movie yesterday called fast cheap and out of control (which was interesting for many reasons, but i'm not writing to try to get you to watch it) and one of the people in it started talking about the interaction between consciousness and sensation. i think the point he was trying to make was that you need some sort of environmental input in order to shape consciousness. imagine a brain in a box with no way to interact with anything (somehow alive-- hey, it's a thought experiment: anything's possible in a thought experiment). i think it would be very boring for the brain and that the consciousness residing in that brain wouldn't get very far. now if you stick some hands and eyes and, well, a whole body around that brain and set it in a complicated world it would become a lot more interesting very fast.

maybe people are like clay-- if you want to form them you have to form them against something: push against them with your hands or with tools and they turn into a vase, let them just turn untouched on the potter's wheel and they remain unformed lumps.

not really sure, but maybe that's the point of having a universe full of stuff-- maybe that's the stuff that pushes against consciousness and helps it form into something interesting.


so i've got a few things i just have to say in public and i don't know if anyone is out there and i don't know how any of it is going to go over but here it is:

the transcendent unity of God

a few concepts keep running through my mind and then click into place. they're heretical, hence the title. the first one i want to write about is the transcendent unity of God.

God makes a huge point of being one God, the one and only but why bother? if you are the only God there is, then whoever is praying is praying to you. you feed them and tend them and look into their hearts and listen to their prayers-- what does it matter what they call you? why bother pointing out that you are not only the river god and the mountain god and the god of the trees and the sun but all thoes wrapped up together?

and, being God, who sees into everyone's hearts, you know that people who are praying to you each have a different concept of who you are. they are, in essence, each praying to a slightly different god. you, being more than can fit into the mind of a believer, squeeze yourself into their hearts and, being patient, do not mind the flaws in their concept of you. why bother to correct them with your number?

i think the point of the distinction is to keep people from fighting tribal wars, all in the name of "my god is bigger than your god" by reminding them that you are the God of their tribe and the God of their enemy, of the rocks and the trees and the oceans-- that there is no need to fight over you, that you wish they would stop.

i've heard speeches about "false gods", about money and status and sex and i agree that these are distractions and can't be the direction of a meaningful life, but i don't think anyone is seriously sacrificing goats over them. to call them false gods is to use metaphor; i don't think those are the false gods at all.

it is a subtle thing, but i think that when we bicker over whose religion is "right" we are setting up false gods ("their god" and "our god") while setting aside the point i think God is trying to make-- he is God of everyone. we are all wrong and we are all right. we are all mistaken about God and God is big enough and patient enough to let it slide. but we need to stop pretending that we disagree about who is God-- there's only one and God is the only game in town. the unity of God unifies religion. everyone who prays prays to God and God hears us all.

Monday, September 21, 2009

am i doing this wrong?

so about a week ago one of my friends showed up to work in a headscarf. she called me over and told me she'd been thinking about it for years now and decided that this was the moment, this was the time. and the time she decided this was while she was watching me give a talk at work.

so today it's off.

and yesterday, at eid, i was the only woman there in a scarf. it was a south indian party, so there's kind of a cultural difference in interpretations of what you're supposed to wear, but i felt just about a conspicuous as i always do.

i think that's the thing. i feel conspicuous. and paradoxically naked. if i were walking around in a miniskirt and cleavage no one would be able to tell my religion or how important it was to me. granted, they still really can't-- with me all covered up-- but with this thing on my head i think they can hazard a guess. and they're right: yes, i'm muslim. yes, religion is very important to me. yes, i think it's safe to say that i spend all day trying very hard to do the right thing, the kind thing. and i'm always worried that i'm falling short.

i eat halal. i don't paint my fingernails. i'm (sporadically) trying to learn Arabic. when i pray i mean it. but somehow the depth of my faith-- and, frankly, the name of my faith in this Christian-majority country-- are kind of personal. and they're much more personal to me than my hair.

so today i sat in the middle of work feeling like a ridiculous fraud in my pretty, pretty scarf and for the millionth time since i put it on i thought about taking it off. and for the millionth time i didn't.