Mormonism documentary

June 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Christianity, is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, religious experiences)

I just watched “The Mormons“, a long and informative documentary which I found through Staring at the View. It was really quite interesting both to learn about a faith that I knew very little about, and also because of how well it illustrated the various different sides of religious belief in general. I found myself facepalming an awful lot, but also occasionally feeling happy for the comfort beliefs can give people. That is the paradox of religion.

The last couple of minutes of this clip was particularly interesting. Here are two quotes from 9:08 onwards that talk of the collision between faith and reason due to the historical claims of religion:

“History as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ’s resurrection was a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That’s the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that’s a reality that we just can’t flee away from.”

“All religion, western and eastern, is founded upon miracle. It makes little sense to present arguments against Joseph Smith and early Mormonism that would extend equally well to what we are told about the origins of what would eventually be Judaism; the origins of Christianity; the origins of Islam. All religion depends upon revelation, all revelation is supernatural; if you wish to be a hard-rock empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.”

It really is much easier to dispute religious claims when you are not in the religion, and when the religion is comparatively new. Somehow we seem to think that because something happened a long time ago, it has more veracity – maybe because religions become such stable systems that are much bigger and more “complete” than they started out. But as these people are saying, the historical origins of all religions involve highly improbable things, things that you would never believe if you didn’t have some other emotional kind of motivation for believing. The critical comments on the Book of Mormon – its textual style and the lack of any evidence to support its content – certainly felt familiar from my own critical responses to religious texts. I really think faith in religion requires a determinedly uncritical approach.

Joseph Smith came off to me like an eccentric cult leader that somehow created a movement that went big. He reminded me of other cults where the leader has absolute power and can even get away with sleeping with other men’s wives. He also reminded me of Muhammad (who had more than his fair share of women too) with a very similar mode of revelation, bringing a new holy text, creating a theocracy, aggravating the existing communities where they settled and even engaging in military conflict, and making a “hijrah” of sorts.

The reports of a pentecost-like period when the first temple was constructed were so fascinating. Many people reported seeing angels going through its windows and all sorts of things like that. This stuff really fascinates me. The fact that it happens in different and mutually exclusive religions would have to mean that at least some of the time it is just people’s collective imagination, which is easy for me to accept but I wonder how Christians for example feel about these reports from the Mormons. I think when I was into Christianity, miracle claims from other faiths really worried me because what if those miracles are real, and even if they’re not, how do I know the miracles reported in my own faith were real?

Just like Islam, Mormonism has evolved past its origins and become mainstream, and has had to wrestle with some of its darker sides such as the polygamy and the exclusion of black people. I found it very interesting how the leaders described feeling led by God to revise doctrines such as the latter. Of course I don’t think it was divine guidance, I think it was that they allowed themselves to follow their conscience, and then ascribed it to God. But it gives me hope that if only people allow themselves to break with the rigid tenets of tradition and follow their conscience, things do get better.


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Belief is not a choice

April 15, 2010 at 10:06 pm (gender issues, Islam, moral issues, personal, religious experiences)

I was sorting through our possessions and I came across a few photos that reminded me, in a very immediate, emotional way, of wanting to be a Muslim. Here is one of them; one which doesn’t identify the people. It is of one of my husband’s lifelong friends, with his Scottish convert wife and their newborn first child in a pushchair.

I don’t know if I can even explain what it makes me feel. It just looks like a family I would want to be in.

It’s probably partly the traditional gender roles that her dress implies. The idea of being protected and provided for, materially and/or in other ways. Also, it seems to invoke a mental picture of a secure family based on moral commitment and not selfish whim; maybe it is also a feeling of a shared spirituality and a common purpose. Much the same feeling that drew me to Christianity. It feels healthy and wholesome. Maybe it’s partly that I just fell in love with Islam because it is a part of my husband. All of this is totally subjective, of course, and may not reflect reality, but I so rarely write about how I feel or even remember the subjective emotional factors that led me into my journey, and it hit me when I looked at the photos.

Sometimes you have conflicting wants. I wanted religiosity but I also wanted freedom of thought. I wanted peace of mind but I didn’t want simplistic answers. I wanted belonging but I also wanted personal integrity and an honest search for truth. In the end I had to realise that – at least for me – these wants are not compatible, and by the time you realise that, there is no longer any honest choice to be made. I hope the clarity and the relief of dropping the need for certainty will be worth the consequences, but even if it isn’t, it couldn’t have been any other way. You can’t choose to believe something you don’t believe.

I turn on the TV and I see a 13-year-old girl in A&E (or the ER) with severe alcohol poisoning, constantly throwing up. And for a moment, I wonder if I could happily raise Muslim children after all. But then I think of how I couldn’t even perform the pillars without cognitive dissonance over rules that didn’t make sense, how I could never honestly tell my family to hide the ham because we’re coming over or to hold the presents until Christmas is well over, how I could never feel any shame if a man saw my hair, and how frightened I would be that my children might learn to hate those who are not like them.

You can’t choose to believe in something you don’t believe in.

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The ineffable

March 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm (God, philosophy, religious experiences, science)

I said

…my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”

But really – learning to read music, learning the technicalities of intervals and harmonies, learning the mathematics of music, does not take away the magic of the musical experience. If anything, it only enhances it.

There will always be the ineffable. And no amount of science is ever going to make it anything other than ineffable. We do experience reality through the lens of our own consciousness, and science does not change that. Art and the ineffable have their own language, and it is not the language of knowledge or fact, but the language of experience.

If I abandon irrational certainty for the glorious state of knowing that I do not know… then I believe I will only be better off.

My values will drive my world view, and my world view will support and shape my values. And above all, I believe honesty with myself will pave the way to reason and empathy.

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What are “messages from God” if they’re not real?

December 21, 2009 at 10:23 pm (Islam, religious experiences)

I have finally finished reading the Quran, and I have to say, the last juz’ contained some very beautiful short suras – I gather these are some of the earliest. Some of them are ones my husband has recited in prayer with me, and are poetically rhyming and sound lovely. I felt devastated all over again that I’ve severed this spiritual connection between us, which today he told me he felt devastated about too. I told him at the time that I wanted to still pray with him, but he never took me up on it. Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to say in this post.

Cornelius raised an interesting question in a comment – if the Quran is not a divine book, then what is it?

I could extend this question to make it relevent to everyone: there are a whole load of people throughout history that have claimed to be receiving messages from God – if they were not really, then what was it all about?

In each case, the possibilities are:

  • fully divine
  • partially divine
  • not divine at all

with other issues of preservation when the “messenger” lived in the past.

I have a theory that the size of a religion is a proxy for how much truth is in it. So the cults led by crackpots who sleep with their followers’ wives and announce ends of the world that don’t come to pass, will never grow very big because they won’t convince too many people.

Of course the amount of effort spent on converting others is another factor in the size of the religion. So religions that don’t actively missionise or conquer, e.g. Judaism and Sikhism, will stay comparatively small.

So basically I think there is significant truth in all major world religions, but it seems likely at least some of them must contain significant falsehood too. For example heaven and hell vs. reincarnation – can these both be true? Maybe… in some deep way that we can’t understand, they are both allegorical descriptions of aspects of the same thing? I don’t know.

I feel that both the Bible and the Quran contain significant human elements – understandings that are reflective of the cultures they came out of. My readers may feel that – for example – the Sikh holy book contains human elements or even, is entirely human in origin. So my question is: how can a person believe they are receiving messages from God if they’re not really? (I am giving these messengers the benefit of the doubt and assuming they were not fraudulent.)

Not all people who claim to get messages from God – even those with modest followings – are crazy or evil people. For example Neale Donald Walsch seems fairly innocuous. So I do not take the person’s normalcy as proof of the message. If they all brought exactly the same message, then maybe. But they can not all be literally true. And to be honest, I could probably believe Muhammad was a messenger of God if I didn’t have to believe his message was the literal words of God. If it was just meant to be his divinely-inspired understanding of things, I could almost believe in it. (Some things, like his being “commanded” to marry Zainab to prove a point about adoption, are still questionable though.)

So what is it that causes sincere mystical experiences if they are not real? (Think Paul on the road to Damascus if you are Muslim.)

I do have some doubts about my conclusions on Islam – some things that make me think, hmm, maybe I can’t dismiss that.

  • Muhammad was really serious about prayer, and charity to the extent of living in poverty – he didn’t seem to be looking for worldly gains – so I think he was sincere
  • Quran is really consistent throughout, and its values about renouncing dunya really resonate with me and have had an effect on me
  • Long break in revelation after the first part – a troubling test for him – why would this happen if he was fooling himself?
  • Their early military success was against all odds
  • Quran apparently foretold a Byzantium victory

But there are many other things I can’t square up. It’s a puzzle.

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Worship – rituals and feelings

November 25, 2009 at 2:20 pm (Islam, religious experiences, religious practices)

From Chapter 2 of “Struggling to Surrender” by Jeffrey Lang:

“After the first euphoria of conversion, there comes a stage where the rituals become routine and burdensome. As I said earlier, new believers will report that they find them to be a powerful test and strengthener of will. Later, they will say, the rituals become less of a discipline and more of an experience of peace, and this becomes their primary motivator in praying, fasting, and observing other aspects. At a further stage, and this is in conjunction with their persistent daily striving to better themselves, they will say that the rituals, especially the prayers, have become a very powerful emotional and spritual encounter – a time during which they are acutely alert to God’s presence, wherein the ritual is more an act of love, a divine embrace, and it is that love that comes to dominate their lives. For Muslims, the rituals are a door to a breath of life, a life more real and meaningful than anything here on earth, and eventually this thirst for divine life and love conquers them.”

I don’t often see people discussing their experience of worship. It is much more common to focus on discussing external matters such as rules and morals.

So I thought I’d open up that door with this encouraging quote. Do you agree with it? Have you ever struggled with the feelings side of worship, and with motivation? How do you deal?

Personally it took me a little while to take on the salaah ritual and really use it as a medium to express myself. It was a bit of a “culture shock” at first. Then I started to get into it. Having had a different tradition in the past, it’s interesting to compare. I miss singing as part of worship, in a way. But then I see nothing wrong with singing to God as the Sufis do, so I think I could do that as a Muslim if I wanted. Also I could learn proper tajweed (recitation) which is quite melodic. Something that is new for me is the movements – bowing and prostrating. And I love that. I really didn’t realise physical movements and postures could be so powerful.

I like the refreshing feeling of wudu (ablution) but honestly it can be annoying when the weather is cold and I’m all bundled up in winter clothes. I can never do it without getting part of my clothing wet. I think as well that there is a deeper spiritual significance to it that I haven’t grasped emotionally. I just do it without being very mindful of what I’m doing or why.

It was when I had started to pray with so much force and khushoo that it all went down the tube for me and I was in a panic of doubt all of a sudden. Some would say this was shaytan, and I don’t know what to think. Questions came thick and fast and I felt unsure of religion, and hence, unsure of God. Praying has been more of a struggle since then.

I think convictions are important and when we have them, we should hold onto them, because feelings are fickle things that are just inclined to make us unstable. I am still forming my convictions, looking for them in amongst the mess of history and tradition. That takes as long as it takes. But I feel so vulnerable, and I am trying to hold onto God. I just pray God holds onto me.

So we force ourselves to be sensible and rational, and not get sidetracked by petty issues just because they make us feel anxious. Over time and with worship rituals we train our emotions to support what we believe. We reinforce our beliefs and we challenge our hearts, nudging them five times a day towards consciousness of God. That’s what I think it is about.

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Reason and passion revisited

August 14, 2009 at 11:33 pm (Christianity, God, Islam, religious experiences)

I am attending a few talks at a mosque, which are held in the main prayer hall while men come and go to offer prayers in the other side of the hall, their audible invocations occasionally echoing across the high-ceilinged room. It’s a remarkably inviting atmosphere.

The one I’ve been particularly waiting for, about Jesus, was delivered by British Catholic-priest-turned-Muslim, Idris Tawfiq. What an opportunity!

I found him to be a skilled speaker and a warm, likeable person. He started by stressing that he had no axe to grind about the Church, but intended merely to reflect on his own journey towards Muslim belief. He went on to describe Islam as being not a religion founded by a historical figure called Muhammad, but a natural state of submission to God which has found expression in a variety of ways over the ages. This is one of my favourite things about Islam – so beautiful. In fact if I was sure that was all Islam was, I would embrace it right now. Later, in response to a question about the status of faiths outside the Abrahamic traditions, he was more generous than I’ve heard many people of the Abrahamic faiths be. He said that while belief in more than one God is wrong, he feels that God does speak to people and any goodness in their traditions has to be from God.

Regarding Jesus, he discussed how the Biblical account of what transpired in Eden differs from the Quranic account in that God did not forgive Adam and Eve, and so people have been trying to atone for their sins ever since. This culminated in the belief in a superhuman act of salvation. That was interesting but I’m not sure the difference is so stark, in practice. He then delved into the history of Christianity and of gospel-writing, which he dealt with very diplomatically and generously, but ultimately concluded that the belief in the divinity of Jesus arose out of an exaggerated love for him by his followers and not out of the teachings of Jesus himself. This mirrors what I happened to read last night in “How to Read the Bible” by Richard Holloway (which someone lent me and so far, is a great read, a sort of review of Biblical scholarship).

This sort of continues my prior questioning on how relevant history is. I was veering towards the notion that we can discern truth and falsehood without recourse to history. But history is also convincing. One of the slightly aggressive Christian questioners in the audience (there were a few) asserted that faith and the Holy Spirit are what verify Christian belief. This reliance on feeling cannot be argued with, which is precisely what the speaker said in response. But clearly, feeling leads different people to different conclusions. So perhaps history and reason has to constrain feeling, to some extent. Truth may be found in the tension between reason and passion.

My enchantment with the idea of a primordial belief and way of being is a result of my reason and my feeling. And what is primordial to me from my early memory is a belief in God and a belief that God and goodness are linked. A belief that praying to God makes you a better person. That is all I have to hold onto. Whether I choose to express it in terms of redemption through faith, or in terms of returning to the Source, almost doesn’t make any difference.

Lately I have been wondering whether I should primarily regard this intrinsic belief as my religion, rather than focusing my efforts on picking a religion from a range of pre-set options. Perhaps I should even identify myself as Muslim on the basis that true Islam (in the generic sense) describes what I believe in pretty well, and practical Islam (the religion) along with other faiths are an attempt to realise true Islam. There is no need to choose between Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because elements have been preserved from all revelations and it is all good. Reason and feeling together show us what is good in amongst what is artificial or distorted by history.

Does this mean I am actually starting to trust myself?? 😀

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Worship, emotion and stability

June 14, 2009 at 9:37 pm (Christianity, religious experiences, religious practices)

A lot of people seem to be very excited at Chris Moyles apparently bigging up Christianity.

Here is the link to the youtube page itself so you can see the comments from proud Christians about how much fun and how exciting this type of service is. I think it’s clear that the last thing they want anyone to think about Christianity, is that it’s boring. Funny… I probably used to be just the same way.

My old church is having a mission week, and we just got a flyer through the door for it this evening. They are putting on a range of activities, including “special guests from Boston, USA [who] will perform music and street theatre to convey the relevance of God for the world today.” I’m not sure it’s appropriate to talk of the relevance or otherwise of the creator of the universe, but the relevance of church is clearly an ongoing concern.

I certainly found this type of church compelling, as I’ve described before (I won’t repeat myself). I have to admit that watching the video was a bit of a blast from the past for me; it reminded me of going weak at the knees, wanting to give in to the emotion of it all and join in with gusto. With my rational hat on now I can see that it’s all too easy to be swept away on a feeling, and for those who are inclined to believe in God and are a bit emotionally vulnerable, this type of worship is a very effective lure.

I’ve spoken before about Christians using this “exciting” worship style as a selling point, and how I feel that when they do this, they are trying too hard to attract converts for the wrong reasons. Calling people to the worship of God should not be reduced to the level of selling an experience. So I guess the point of this post is just to show some illustrative examples that have come to my attention this week.

Also, to think a little bit about worship and expression of emotion. I strongly believe in participating in worship on a heart level, which naturally involves the emotions. I believe the feeling of surrender to God can bring peace, and happiness, and that heartfelt praising of God can move one to tears. I also believe, now, that it should be based on knowledge and understanding.

My pentecostal adventure was characterised by emotional highs and lows: the ups and downs of my khushoo (I can’t think of an English word that works as well for that) in the twice-weekly congregational worship; my intermittent ability to think of things to pray about, and to dare to try; the fluctuations of my faith level depending on what sermon I had heard or who I had spoken to; and most of all, the meandering search for the voice of God.

I understood the power of music to affect one’s mood and thinking, and I fully agreed with its use within worship to provoke and express feelings. And yet there were times, after the first year, where I just wanted to go back to the calmer, simpler traditional format I had grown up with. It just all felt too intense, too introspective, too complicated. It didn’t feel grounded enough in reality. Because I guess for me, it wasn’t.

I now want to be on a more even keel. I want stability. I don’t want to let my zeal exceed my maturity. And so for me, spirituality now requires a bit more discipline, rationality, and long-term investment, and a bit less demonstrative loudness. I want to develop the soothing constancy of an intrinsic spiritual rhythm.

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The Aramaic Jesus and the Sufis

March 3, 2009 at 7:40 pm (Christianity, Islam, personal, religious experiences, religious practices)

Went to “The Aramaic Jesus and the Sufis” today. I’m tired because I was up late again last night, but I want to record my thoughts after the workshop before I forget them.

The guy leading it has written many books and is a Sufi teacher I think. He was very likeable, not in any dramatic or over-the-top way, but just quietly inspiring. He was another one of those people that just exudes contentment. The day was spent with him teaching us things, and reading things, interpersed with singing in Aramaic and Arabic and – shock horror – even dancing of sorts.

I was very pleased to hear about the diversity in early Christian traditions, and that the Aramaic tradition is still ongoing in small numbers although largely unknown to western Christians. They have other gospels and other stories about Jesus passed down orally that are unknown to us in western churches. A lot of the stories about Jesus in the Qur’an come from these traditions which Muhammad would have been exposed to while managing Khadija’s caravan business. There is much agreement between their view and the Islamic view on Jesus, and Aramaic Christians are pretty much unitarian. Although the Qur’an asserts that the Jews did not kill Jesus, it doesn’t explicitly say that he didn’t die, and the traditional Islamic position on this used to be that it meant he went willingly to the cross rather than being forced. The Qur’an also endorses the virgin birth and the second coming.

An interesting point was made that religious traditions start with diversity and then cohesion occurs and uniformity emerges later. Ideas about returning to an earlier “pure” form of a religion are common but the reality was probably that religion in the early days was a lot more messy than people like to think.

The Sufi take on “la ilaha ila allah” (there is only one God) is that it speaks of universality, of the connectedness of all people. Rather a different perspective from “our religion is right and all of yours are wrong”, or “you’d better not associate anyone or anything with God”. I wondered how it was possible to see universalism in the Qur’an. I think they interpret a lot of it in its historical context. When I see the harsh words of a punitive God, it scares me away, but this guy paraphrased them in a humourous way, as if he was completely comfortable in his understanding of God. I remembered preachers doing a similar thing with Old Testament stuff.

I actually kind of enjoyed the simple dances, they were what I would think of as Hebrew style, in a circle, going round with steps. I wasn’t crazy about having to hold hands with people though. One dance even involved embracing people! That was really extremely tough for me, to embrace strangers. But I managed.

At lunchtime I found myself realising that I still wasn’t getting anything out of the singing, and that the love for God that I used to be able to feel was not forthcoming, because I no longer think I know who God is. Or even whether God is, really. I’ve enjoyed discovering information that undermines the simplistic views I used to hold, but where does it really leave me? It leaves me wondering whether God’s hand was at work in the whole mess of history. It leaves me wondering what the truth about God is, and how it should be understood. It leaves me in limbo.

I asked myself why I am so happy to learn about alternative histories of religion anyway. It wasn’t just today: I recently relished finding evidence of a big ideological clash between Paul and the original apostles which is smoothed over in the writing of Acts; and I was pleased to read in someone’s comprehensive summary of the doctrine of the entire Bible that the notion of the trinity and of Jesus’s divinity is not Biblical at all, and neither is the idea of hell being a place of eternal torment. (Whether I believe in any of this is not the point; the point is, I am happy to see that there are a variety of plausible positions.) I am also happy to reject the idea that there is something special about the 4 gospels that made the cut and were canonised at the Council of Nicea, as compared to the other historical literature that didn’t. Islam treats the ahadith (historical sayings about the life of Muhammad) in a probabilistic way based on historical evidence for their authenticity; it’s not a simple pass/fail; and ordinary Muslims know about this. Why has Christianity treated its literature in a much less rigorous way, and come to regard the process of recollection, writing, and compilation as having miraculously been absolutely perfect to the extent that the New Testament can be viewed as the word of God?

I suppose the reason I relish all this is that it quite nicely justifies my abandonment of evangelical western Christianity. If I’m honest, which I haven’t really been with myself for a long time, I’ve continually wondered whether I made the wrong choice. Whether I should have just been stronger, and kept praying, and been obedient, and I would have found the way. Whether I’m at risk of going to hell now.

I don’t think I really got much from the singing and dancing until the very last one. I don’t know why but something in me just connected with it and I didn’t want it to end. I think my icy heart softened a little bit, and I caught a glimpse of the beauty of surrender and of fellowship. I felt that in singing the words, I was acknowledging that actually, I’m not afraid of any of it. Aramaic, Arabic, any of it. And I’m prepared to believe that God might be in there somewhere.

Because the thing is, although it’s become hard for me to believe that there is any one pristine, clear-cut path to God, I can’t rid myself of the idea of God. I don’t want to. Even if it’s not true, I’d rather believe in something good and never know I was wrong. As long as it is good. That’s what I am being so careful of.

I feel that after this workshop, my preference in religion is tending towards the simple, because the simplest of messages – love your neighbour as yourself – is the hardest, and anything else can easily become a red herring, a distraction from that hard task. He mentioned a verse from the Qur’an telling people to keep the message simple and not let it get turned into culture and politics (or something to that effect). But I am somewhat torn between on the one hand, this simple approach with its off-the-cuff morality, and on the other, my appreciation of the practical benefits of rules. I suppose I think that rules might have protected me from the nonsense I put myself through in the past, and as I’ve said before, I just think they are incredibly sensible. Having said that, they are not bullet-proof, and applying them in an extreme way across society can make them look far from sensible… so the jury’s still out.

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Sufi dhikr workshop

February 28, 2009 at 5:07 pm (Christianity, Islam, moral issues, personal, religious experiences, religious practices)

I attended this workshop this morning. It was basically a participatory introduction to Sufi dhikr (remembrance of God through chanting/singing) with some talking about love, peace, compassion and kindness in-between. It was led by this beautiful lady with a gorgeous voice, and a couple of others.

I went in to the room, which was bright, peaceful and bathed in sunlight, and sat on a bench by the wall. There was a circle of chairs put out but no-one was sitting there yet. They did a soundcheck, and the moment I heard the drum beat and the “la ilaha ila allah” sung to a lovely melody, my spine tingled and I felt overcome with emotion. I thought, oh boy, I’m in for a rollercoaster ride.

The workshop got underway and I found it fairly easy to forget about everyone around me. But I didn’t find the dhikr as moving as I expected to. Maybe I’d unconsciously clamped the lid on the emotions after the soundcheck caught me off guard. (I can’t let my heart get involved in this!) What I did find, is that it was incredibly like being in church. A total flashback. It didn’t make any difference that the words were Arabic. The words used were mostly phrases I was familiar with: “allahu” (the name of God); “la ilaha ila allah” (there is only one God); “astaghfirullah ya allah” (God forgive me). I didn’t really get into it, if anything it just picked up where I left off in confusion from church. I thought that I don’t really know God. Not anymore.

The lady leading the workshop had such a warmth about her. She exuded peace. I’d love to be like that, I thought. Much of what she spoke about had to do with being true to our fundamental nature, which is peaceful and compassionate, even though layers of conditioning and emotional baggage have encouraged us to be other than that. It made me think of FutureGirl’s latest post. This turning-the-other-cheek thing is really, really challenging. If understood the wrong way, perhaps with too much enthusiasm, it can turn you into a doormat. That’s sort of what happened to me and it’s still really difficult for me to take this message on board. I don’t understand how to love yourself AND your neighbour. I went from unbounded loving of others to bitter self-protection because I couldn’t get that balance.

I think part of what attracted me to Islam was that dignity and self-respect are so paramount; I would never have to pour myself away for another. I know it doesn’t necessarily work like that in practice, but I’ve always been far more interested in ideals than the messy details of implementation. (Scientist, not engineer.) I’ve searched for perfection, for a utopia, for something I can fearlessly throw my whole self into in the knowledge that it is sound and will not let me down. I thought I’d found it. I’ve been proved wrong, and gone looking for it all over again. And now I’ve come full circle and heard the same message I lost faith in.

I guess I’m forced to admit that maybe there is no blueprint for life. Maybe there is no way to plan the whole trip in advance. Maybe it can and should be much more muddy. Pain is often a sign that something is wrong, and only a fool would refuse to learn lessons from it. But that doesn’t mean having to throw the baby out with the bath water. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

I still believe in the fundamental goodness of people, and I still want to rekindle the goodness in me. I want to live boldly and love without fear. I do. But I know how weak I am. It hasn’t taken much to break me, and like what frequently happens with the PhD (and everything else), I am just too afraid to get back on that horse. I don’t want to be hurt, and I don’t like setting myself up for failure. Survival-mode living just seems so much safer.

All in all the workshop was a positive and interesting experience. It has provoked thought and the desire to know God – i.e. the desire for peace within myself, for that pilot flame of goodness to grow and consume me again.

I’ve booked another one, an all-day one on “the Aramaic Jesus and the Sufis”. It sounds so interesting and so tailored to my interests in particular. I’m sure you’ll hear about that in due course.

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