Struggling towards the light: a backwards glance

February 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey)

I always find it interesting to look back over my shoulder every now and then. If we don’t understand or remember how we got to where we are, how can we learn anything?

A few years back I was not really very happy. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that me and work are never going to get along like a house on fire and I am never going to afford a good standard of living (relative to my society’s norms). I felt like a victim and I thought faith was the answer.

I had crashed out of my religious idealism some years before with angry disappointment, and felt unable to surrender to God. The guilt kept me frozen in all this negativity, unable to progress.

It seems I still viewed faith and surrender as a state I needed to get back to. I saw that as still being the ideal. Similarly I saw a career and material success as something that I needed. I was far away from both, but I couldn’t really question either of them. Pressure!

Where did Islam come in? I do remember as early as 2005 I was defending Islam on message boards. So clearly I had warmed up to it a lot even then. It was only a flirtation though – I wasn’t really prepared to let myself question my prior beliefs just yet.

I think it was through blogs that I started to learn more about Islam, and I must have been a lot closer to it by 2008. I went to the mosque exhibition, and a photo of a young woman bundled up in a white garment praying with her husband really touched me. It seemed to portray the wholesome, positive, spiritual life I wanted. I tried fasting Ramadan that year and made it through not even one day, and to make matters worse, watched “Dispatches: Undercover Mosque” that evening and was so horrified I didn’t want to fast any more. I continued learning through blogs, though, and we went to my husband’s home country over Christmas-New Year, during which I was more bothered by seeing certain aspects of Islam than I had ever been before. I guess that shows that I was wanting to convert but finding it hard to deal with certain things.

By a year ago, I had already learnt enough to be very discouraged. I had forgotten that. It’s funny to realise how my journey into Islam was more like going round in circles. Obviously I wasn’t going to let it go without investigating it more fully, and that last lap round the track was done through this blog over 2009.

So what was it that was drawing me in? I guess it was just that I saw faith as a state I needed to get back to. More particularly, the rules in Islam attracted me because I was a wounded soul looking for a system that would protect me. It seemed it would give me the dignity I had not had before when self-sacrifice was my ideal. Also, the cleaner theology appealed to me.

I started this blog with the intention of making a concerted effort to sort out my spiritual life and work out the truth as best I could. The beauty of it is, I have worked through a lot of the stuff I was stuck on for years. I have come to terms with my loss of certainty. I have stopped burying my head in the sand and started being honest with myself. I have opened the curtain and let the light of day shine into my life, banishing all those fears that thrive in darkness. For that alone, this process has been immensely worthwhile.

And so if you ever wonder why I am intent on questioning religion to the point that I risk destroying it, know this: religion has wreaked a lot of havoc in my life. I am much better off where I am today. The truth really has set me free. In the past, when I wrote questioning posts, I got comments that said things like “I hope you find what you need in your life”. The irony is that questioning and doubting were exactly what I needed. Some people may still look at me as needing enlightenment… and I may look right back at them the same way.

Faith did not cure my victim mentality in the end; time did. Humans are naturally resilient and if you are prepared to ask searching questions, a lot of ills do sort themselves out.

The need for faith as well as the need for material success – the two things I thought I needed before I started out on this journey – are now up for question. Am I doing myself a disservice by thinking that I need to believe in God, or that the world is good, or that there is a purpose to life? Am I just clinging to faith like a mother’s apron-strings? What am I still looking for?

I think my searching and reading is now motivated purely by interest. I certainly haven’t arrived at any particular belief, so there is plenty I could think about. I am startled, though, by how frantic it is. I want to learn more and more, I want to read the holy books of all religions, I want to immerse myself in their wisdom… it’s like the whole world has opened up and I can’t wait to see all of it!

I think, as well, that a year of intense learning and trying to come to a belief has formed a habit. I think I will try to ease off the pace a little bit. 😉


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Angst: the aftermath

January 8, 2010 at 6:20 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, personal, reflections on my journey)

This blog – which is almost a year old, if you include the few posts I imported at the start – has done exactly what it said on the tin: wrestled with religion. I can say it has been a very angst-ridden year. But I really, truly feel that that is behind me now.

I feel the most at peace that I ever have, since… since I started going to church in 1998. More than 10 years of wrestling, although most of it was spent with the worries pushed to the back of my mind. Until this year.

I think it’s partly that I’d never gotten over the guilt of having slipped away from church. I still viewed being committedly religious as my default state that I should try to return to. I didn’t – and don’t – want that brand of religion again, though. I was drawn to Islam as potentially a way of getting back to that religious state, but with less of the ungrounded hype and zeal, and with more support structures in terms of rules that would prevent me hurting myself. I gave it a try, I thoroughly explored it and I’m glad I did. It’s been worthwhile.

My anxiety only grew bigger the further I got into Islam, and it seems to me now that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I guess I didn’t want to come so far and then turn away. There were personal incentives for me to convert but I don’t think that was what was driving me. Less than a year ago I set out with a very open mind. I’d been married 5 years without a thought of conversion.

I think I was just every bit as infatuated with religion and the religious lifestyle as I had been at 18. I wanted to justify having that for myself. And I wanted to belong; I wanted to be able to say “this is what I am”.

Even very recently I have looked at more faiths and denominations and briefly wondered if perhaps they could be the way for me – and I feel those butterflies in my stomach, that excitement, anticipating finding my way and calling myself a [insert label here].

Maybe there will always be this tension in me between wanting submission and needing intellectual/moral integrity. Or maybe I will find a path that satisfies both.

Either way, I am far less driven right now. In the process of wrestling with Islam, I have somehow extricated myself from guilt over my journey. I have confronted difficult questions that have sent my anxiety through the roof but which have ultimately been liberating. I finally have the courage to accept that I just don’t know anything much about God, and that religion is largely a human thing. And that that’s okay.

I feel like I should feel foolish for this year’s events, but I really don’t. This is my journey, this is who I am and this is what I had to go through to be where I am now. People may not agree with my approach or my outcome, but frankly I don’t care. 😀

What’s next? Renaming the blog? Maybe. I don’t see being conventionally religious as my default state any more, and it’s strange that I ever did considering I was only highly religious for like 1/10 of my life. But I have always had religious tendencies, and I don’t think I will ever stop seeking the deeper meaning of life. I have no idea what I will become but I know I will not stay the same for long. 😉

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Taking stock – and a break

November 29, 2009 at 12:10 am (Islam, personal, reflections on my journey)

This time last year I had got quite interested in blogs. I was also seriously thinking about Islam. I’m not sure whether one of these things caused the other, or how it all happened, but I remember going through a phase of almost obsessively seeking out new blogs written by Muslims. One blog leads to many others through blogrolls and comments, and so I traversed the blogosphere looking for… looking for what? I suppose I was looking for role models.

I had been assimilating information about Islam for years, but somehow I began to seriously think about it on a personal level. And I used blogs to vicariously “taste” Islam through other people’s writing. It took me a long time to find bloggers whose approach to religion I really resonated with, and who were also open to discussing religion with me. It was worth the wait. Some are Muslim, some are/were just investigating it like me, but all are thoughtful and honest and have inspired me. I am so grateful to them for sharing their thoughts and giving me a chance to do the same, however much of a headache my questions must have given them. I doubt I would have come this far towards religion without them.

It wasn’t enough, though, to find religious role models and simply copy them. It felt intellectually dishonest to be picking and choosing which kind of Muslim I thought I might want to be. Ultimately I have had to investigate the religion, in as unbiased a way as I can, and work out what I thought it was really all about. As I have done this, the picture of Islam that has emerged is actually surprisingly different from the “textbook Islam” impression I had at the start. I’ve found reason to believe that what Islam is is something quite beautiful.

I must have always thought it was beautiful, or I wouldn’t have investigated it so much. Interestingly I think the “rules” were one of the things that pulled me in initially, along with the easy and natural spirituality that seemed to be at the core of a Muslim’s life. The rules and rituals seemed so helpful and sensible. But when people take them to rigid extremes and nit-pick over them, they lose a lot of their appeal. It turns out I don’t think they are even a core part of the religion for the most part, but a traditional practice, that is nevertheless useful and worthwhile. This is a subtle but significant distinction.

I know this puts me outside of the mainstream, and so far it’s non-Muslims that have needed this explaining more often. Who’d have thought I’d have non-Muslims telling me what Islam is? Since I never believed Muslims on what Islam is, and had to investigate it myself, I’m certainly not going to believe non-Muslims.

Anyway, so where has it brought me? There are always more issues to investigate, more questions to find answers to, and this is increasingly pushing me to research areas in which I am not qualified to do the job properly. I just cannot dig that deep. Where does it end? Is this even worthwhile past a certain point? Am I looking for definitive proof? Is that available? Probably not.

When and how will convictions turn into confident commitment? When and how will I be convinced to put my eggs in a basket and place a bet for my afterlife?

It is just my nature to be full of fear and doubt. And maybe what I’ve learnt about conquering other fears is relevant here. When you are afraid of flying, the wrong way to try to get rid of the fear is by trying to convince yourself that the plane is not going to crash. You look for reassurance, going deeper and deeper into flight mechanics and safety regulations, and there is no reassurance to be had, because there are just no guarantees that your plane is not going to crash. The right way to overcome the fear is to become comfortable with the UNCERTAINTY. You take sensible precautions like only booking with reputable airlines and paying attention to the safety instructions, and leave it at that. Relax and enjoy your flight and focus on the purpose of your travel.

My worrying over making a wrong choice has reached almost pathological levels. It’s funny how I can look at religious people and feel sure they’ve got nothing to worry about. To the person who’s afraid of flying, when someone else is taking a flight, it seems perfectly safe.

So I’m going to stop worrying and concentrate on the purpose of my travel – the kind of person I want to become. I will trust God to guide me, and get comfortable with doubt and uncertainty and not wish them away.

And I’ve noticed that my blog has become primarily a place for me to indulge my worries, so I need to take a little break from it. I think I will try to stay away for the whole month of December. Long enough to break the habit. I will miss it terribly, I’m sure! But a break seems to be the best thing.

So a Merry Christmas when the time comes, to those who celebrate… and I’ll see you in the New Year inshaAllah 😛

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Light at the end of the tunnel

July 28, 2009 at 7:02 pm (personal, reflections on my journey)

Over the past month, there have been times when I’ve let my obsessive side take over. I’m learning that I have to take it easy and stop thinking and reading when I reach saturation point. I don’t have to find answers to everything immediately.

I’m starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, and feel that there has been some value in my research on religion. I feel that with Islam, most of the “wrestling” has been done – I don’t often come across things that need serious investigation now; I am starting to have some confidence that I know the lie of the land, so to speak. There is always more to learn, but the main arguments used against Islam – the main things that are potentially shocking – are things I have already encountered and thought about. Doing this has been difficult, but I now see the value of it as my fear of unknown shocks goes down. I also see that my thought processes are working on all of it, and this takes time… I need to patiently allow that to happen.

The questions I’m asking are really big ones: about the purpose of life; what God wants of us; how God communicates to us; what religion is, and what it is not. It’s perfectly possible to be really into religion and not really ever answer these questions in a satisfying way. Your heart is drawn to a shallow answer, and you go with the flow. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But I want something more stable and secure than that now. I want to build my house on a rock.

Right now I feel strangely peaceful, and I dare to hope that God is pleased with my search. I don’t feel so guilty about my lack of commitment; I don’t feel that blind devotion to doctrine is of much value. I feel better about committing to an honest search.

I think my next move is to concentrate on reading scriptures and see what, if anything, inspires me. I accept that this will take time, that it has to take time, that over-saturation is not constructive. The fear that drives me to obsess is not faith, so I will try to step back and have faith that clarity will come to me.

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Taking stock

July 4, 2009 at 6:28 pm (Christianity, God, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey)

I have theologically rejected a lot of my former Christian beliefs. My thoughts about salvation are pretty much what Jasmine describes here, which is that it’s our responsibility to cultivate goodness in our selves. I then think of heaven and hell as the natural consequences of what we cultivate through our lives, and I’m more comfortable with varying degrees of reward or punishment than with a bi-modal either-or. What about salvation through Jesus? The idea of atoning sacrifices has its roots in Judaism, where I understand it to be about a person humbly sacrificing something valuable to them – an animal – as a form of worship, to draw closer to God, in much the same vein as fasting. This does not apply to the death of Jesus, because he was no-one’s possession to be sacrificed. If you argue that he took the wrath of God altruistically, suffering hell on our behalf, this would be horribly unfair unless Jesus actually was God (which I won’t discuss now but I think is problematic). Nor does it seem to be necessary: having your sin forgiven alone does not instantly make you a better person; we need redemption for it to make sense, and I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that the “fallen” and “redeemed” states of the Christian doctrine are nonexistent. Instead there’s a whole rainbow of natural states through which we move upwards by concerted effort – a concept Christianity seems to sneak in through the back door.

Having said that, I’ve come to realise that my thinking is still wired up in a Christian way in a lot of things. I still feel Christian. I guess our automatic thought obeys habit, and old habits die hard. It means I feel very uncomfortable and anxious about change. This has confused me lately.

As for Islam, I’m not sure whether I can trust it either. I don’t see why Jesus needed to have been born to a virgin, nor why he should return at the end of time. These seem like Christian doctrines that have found their way in somehow. I think Islamic theology is closer to my beliefs than anything, but I have trouble seeing the Qur’an as the literal words of God – I think at least some of the meanings might be from God, but I think putting undue emphasis on the actual words is almost like idolising the message. I also dislike the way Muhammad is revered to the extent that every little insignificant thing he may have done is copied, things that have no spiritual significance. I also feel Islam is too legalistic for my liking, too letter-of-the-law, e.g. specifying to the nth degree things that must be done in worship and things that invalidate it;  but this may arise from hadith, which are perhaps vulnerable to the effect of people’s insecure desire to have detailed instructions vs. God’s instructions which are usually more vague.

Generally a problem I have with organised religion is the need for an explicit belief in God and in that religion. As Jasmine said in a comment on her post, faith may be more subtle than that. Everyone is not equally able to join a religion; it depends on exposure and many other factors, so this seems an unfair criterion for salvation. I don’t like the assumption that someone is “in the fire” because they did not profess a particular faith, and I don’t like a refusal to pray for their forgiveness based on that assumption.

But to be honest, I want to believe in something. I want to find a path that I can trust, I want the hope and self-esteem that comes from committing to spiritual self-betterment and having some success with it. It’s really tiring me that I’m not.

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Between religions and terrified

June 23, 2009 at 12:07 am (personal, reflections on my journey)

Being “between religions” is sometimes a really scary place to be.

More than once now, I’ve started to trust Islam, started to open myself to it, only to find that anxiety hits me. I suppose I worry that everything I’ve liked and agreed with about the faith is a misunderstanding, and that really the message of the faith is something quite different, something I shouldn’t open myself to at all. I also get all caught up in the shoulds and shouldn’ts, the rules, and I struggle to see how I am going to accept it all, and even if I do find I can accept it, how I am going to manage to practise it.

Of course I had times of acute anxiety in my fundamentalist Christian phase too, when I doubted what I was following. I remember worrying intensely over things I read in the Bible that didn’t fit my understanding. Maybe I’m just naturally insecure and untrusting. Maybe faith is always going to pose some issues for me. The difference for me back then was that I was practising, so through prayer and worship I was sometimes able to lead myself by the hand back into a positive frame of mind – manipulate my own emotions to get to a more peaceful place. Right now I got nothin’.

The last time I got into a panic like this was towards the end of last year, after having taken a step towards Islam around September (Ramadan). It led to a few fairly negative, detached, skeptical posts about religion that are at the beginning of this blog.

All I can do is press on, trying to evaluate which religion(s) I think are right, how much of them I think is from God, and in what way it’s from God. I really don’t know at this point. With Islam, I was thinking that once I had read the Qur’an I would know one way or another. But now I think, what if I agree with some bits and not others? What if I feel the Qur’an is from God, but it turns out my understanding was wrong? What if I find I have to accept the authenticity of hadith that I don’t like, and how can I even find time to read all the hadith? How much do I have to read before I can be sure what I believe about the religion?

In Christianity I understood the idea of one’s testimony was very important – one’s personal reasons for believing. These were what kept you going through times of doubt. They were generally personal and experiential, usually memories of religious experiences of some kind. They were not necessarily rational. Maybe rationality can only go so far in these matters, but I’m bent on taking it to its limits. The problem is that my search to think it all through and take nothing on trust demands a lot of time. It is also driven by fear, and fear is the opposite of faith.

I am just not confident enough in what limited set of beliefs I actually have at this point, to be able to take on the enormity of a religion, and all its derived laws and rulings, and wrestle with it in confident curiosity. I am overpowered by it; I don’t feel I can partially surrender to it on the basis of some low-level agreement with it, while simply begging to differ or suspending judgment on the rest. It’s all or nothing for me because I’m not strong enough to hold my own in the grey area in which I currently reside. This has been my problem all along with religion.

So my fear is about the destabilising effect of trusting something and then realising I shouldn’t; or, worse, trusting something and not realising I shouldn’t.

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Islam and Christianity

May 26, 2009 at 10:09 am (Christianity, God, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey, religious practices)

Don’t worry, I’m not about to attempt a comprehensive comparative analysis of these two faiths in a single post. 🙂 I just wanted to say a few things from a personal perspective that hopefully address the question, “why did I lose my commitment to Christianity?” Not that anyone has asked me this question, but I felt as if someone might after the last couple of posts.

In a nutshell, the answer is that there was no good reason, but perhaps there’d been no good reason for the commitment in the first place.

I went through some disappointments. A lot of what I’d taken on board from sermons and books turned out to be wrong. There is a lot of what I now call “cause-and-effect theology” in radical Christianity. It goes along the lines of, “if we do X, God will do Y” and for the life of me I don’t know what they base their predictions of God’s behaviour on. Because of my lifelong spiritual hunger, I guess, I swallowed it all up, gripped by the idea that God can intervene in our lives in spectacular ways. Eventually I saw it for the smoke and mirrors it probably was.

But does that mean that the fundamentals of Christianity as stated in the New Testament are automatically untrue? No, of course not, and I never intended to stop being a Christian even when I first took a hiatus from church. Does it mean that my decision to date and then marry a Muslim was rational and sensible? No! I have never made a reasonable relationship decision, and this was certainly a pretty rash move on paper.

When you are steeped in a particular mindset such as a religion, opening your mind and learning about something else can be scary. To be honest, I’m not even sure whether it’s always beneficial to do so. I would like to think ideally that every religious person has thought it all through and considered alternative perspectives, but realistically, many choose the nearest or most convenient path to God without giving it much cross-examination. I’m inclined to think that sometimes it’s actually better for them to do that than to confuse themselves with endless questions.

But in my case, it so happened that I opened my mind and learnt about something else. How it happened may not have been admirable. By lacking dedication to my faith. Melting when the heat was on. Chucking it all in, then trying to justify it to myself later. But this is perhaps what happens when you have been over-zealous and naive. Perhaps that initial bad decision sowed the seeds of all of it. In any case, it happened… and I am happy it did, on balance.

And I haven’t ruled out Christianity yet. I’ve got a much clearer view of it now than before. Aside from the divinity of Jesus, I don’t see any really significant theological differences between it and Islam. Even the “saved by grace” thing has parallels, just without the human sacrifice element. I suppose I am coming towards the idea that perhaps it doesn’t really matter what religion you belong to. Perhaps it is all the same journey of faith with all the same perils and pitfalls.

I do think most of the differences between faiths and faith groups are about implementation. And this is where Islam is one up for me. I’ve already said that I like the ritual element. I generally find the approach to worship and to morality much more practical and sensible. Actually it makes Christianity look completely bonkers: drinking, but only in moderation; dating, but no sex; and the expectation of complete mental self-control?

I guess it all boils down to two tasks:

  • working out what I think was the nature of Jesus and Muhammad
  • taking the long road towards a mature faith, whatever religion (or none!) I settle on.

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Religious belief

January 11, 2009 at 3:42 pm (personal, reflections on my journey)

At this point in my life I find it hard to relate to an uncritical, submissive approach to religion. To get to that point, you have to:

  • believe that there’s a God, a creative consciousness behind the universe
  • believe that God created us for a purpose, or requires certain behaviour of us
  • believe that God chooses to communicate with us about these requirements through prophets/revealed religion
  • believe that a particular religion truly has this type of divine origin

I have been religious in the past, but at this point, and it frightens me to say so, I can really only tick the first of these, and am less sure about the rest. When you’re an insider to a religion, faith reinforces itself experientially. But if you have to decide from scratch about religion, how do you decide?

It seems to me that you can only judge the truth of what a religion teaches by how much it agrees with the opinions you already hold… in which case why do we need religion to tell us things we already know? Having said that, learning about Islamic dress has taken me to a happy place I wouldn’t have got to otherwise, so I do think that religious morality has something to offer us. Some would say only “weak” people rely on external guidance for how to live; I reject this. We are not as independent and free-thinking as we would like to think we are; we all rely on external ideas. But nevertheless, deciding a religion is true on the basis of liking its principles (and lots of converts do just that) has two problems for me: firstly, it assumes that God necessarily wants the things that we like, and where’s the basis for that? Secondly, if it leads to wholesale swallowing of religious doctrine and toeing the party line thereafter, this could be disastrous if the religion is not in fact true or if its interpretation has not been done correctly. Given how many widely differing scholarly opinions there are on just about everything in religion, one has to admit there is a high probability of that. I cannot stomach the arrogance of people who firmly believe they’ve got it right and go around attacking anyone who disagrees.

At this point, I feel that after years of learning and thinking, I have loosened myself from all attachments and am now as near to unbiased about spiritual questions as I could possibly be. I’m painstakingly aware of all the temptations and pitfalls that make people join religions for wrong reasons, but I can’t help wondering sometimes if the reasons for joining are less important than the direction it takes you in. I envy people whose spiritual beliefs and pursuits are an anchor in their lives; people who have a source of calm and a sense of direction and meaning; people who are not easily torn apart by skepticism and fear. And I know that it wouldn’t be called faith if you could work out for sure that it was true. But I hesitate. I hesitate not least because I know how immoderate I am; my zeal exceeded my maturity when it came to my own religious escapade and this led me into peril. It hasn’t been possible for me to be unquestioningly committed since then. Actually, I was never unquestioning; I just thought the path I was on held answers I was yet to find. Now, I am no longer on any path, and I don’t know where I am going. But I finally feel free of all constraints and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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