I recently attended Bolton Central Mosque along with about 50 other people connected to Altrincham Interfaith Group. It was a most interesting and spiritually powerful experience, the hospitality was both warm and generous and I learnt quite a lot that I was not aware of. What surprised me the most was the physical nature of Muslim prayer, which became very clear when observed in the flesh. During the evening several men talked about the mosque and what Islam meant to them. Throughout the night there was one man who shared quite frequently with us. He was a recent convert and talked passionately about what the Islamic faith had given him. There was no doubt that he was at peace and he certainly knew his stuff. He had been a devout Christian most of his life but had become interested in Islam due to the phrase he once heard “people of the book”. This had taken him on a journey of exploration which had led, three years previously, to him converting to Islam. The man talked about the history of Judaism and Christianity and the many shared prophets and figures, particularly the importance of Jesus and Mary. It was Islam’s veneration of Mary that seemed to move him the most; in fact it brought him to tears as he spoke of her. In Islam, of course, all the prophets led to the final prophet, Mohammed. This is where I really take issue with Islam, just as I question the concept of Christian Uniqueness. I personally cannot accept that Divine revelation occurred or incarnated at one time or to one human being at one particular moment in human history and on this small rather insignificant rock rotating through the vast cosmos. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It does not sound like the God of universal love that I have come to know.
The problem with absolute truths and certainty for me is that they lack humility and lead to people needing to protect themselves and what they know. It also seems to me to be a denial of reality and truth. I have come to accept that it is personally way beyond my human capacity, to fully comprehend that great mystery that I feel comfortable today naming as God.
At some point in our lives we all ask the question where do I come from, what is this all about and where are we heading to? We humans seem to be the only creatures that do so, or at least the only ones who can communicate this question. I’ve not met anyone who can answer that question perfectly whether through religion or the secular world. For me this ok today, it is humbling and as a result it keeps me open to seek and to search and to experience. Humility reminds me of my smallness. No matter what we learn about life, death, God, and the universe at the end of our lives we will still know next to nothing.
Openness promises the opposite. For the heart there is no limit on how much we can learn, change and love. Yes we need knowledge gained from honest experience; but we also need to accept that our rational minds, whether informed by religion or science, can never resolve the mystery and miracle of life. I believe it is beyond out human capacity to ever make complete sense of this mystery that creates life from nothing.
Forrest Church asserts that there are two keys to religious living, humility and openness; that by working the two together; remaining humble about how little we can possibly know while maintaining an openness to how the sky is the limit in terms of our growth, we experience a dynamic to life that is wondrous.
“No ceiling limits the expansion of the human heart. Yet, humility teaches that when death visits, we will have attained only a flickering notion of what life and death are all about. The light we discover will be framed by darkness. But, when we ponder the nature of our shared mortality, meaning may begin to emerge. Not unlike when we leave a warm, brightly lit room, go outdoors, and contemplate a dark winter sky: one by one the stars come out.”
I do not believe everything is ever revealed to one person and at one moment in time and even if it was I believe it would be beyond our capacity to fully comprehend it. I am not convinced we would even be fully aware of it, even if it was.
Of course for many people this is not what they are looking for in their search for truth and meaning. Many people do seem to be looking for certainty for definite answers. I suspect that they are also hoping to find ways to finally transcend the ultimate in humility, our own deaths. Likewise there are those that will reject any or all of our religious impulses just because religion cannot offer them definite answers any longer.
I remember a few years ago when I was a member at Cross Street Chapel in Manchester that the minister led “A Building Your Own Theology” course. For me it was a defining experience in realising that I belonged in a Unitarian community. I remember our denominational Chief Executive Derek McCauley had recently begun attending when this course started and I often wonder if this played a part in cementing his Unitarianism. Most of us, who were mainly new people, gained greatly from the whole experience, but one man didn’t. He was a man of science who was obviously going through a particular crisis in his life. He was like several of us seeking some answers and perhaps he thought he had found them in Unitarianism. Half way through the course he stopped coming and wrote a letter explaining his reasons for leaving both the course and the chapel. He said that he had begun attending an Anglican church and that the structure and certainty that it offered him was what he needed at this point in his life.
Some people need answers; they need firm solid absolute answers in order to give themselves some order to cling to in the uncertainty of life. Humbly accepting that we cannot know the whole truth does not satisfy many people. This leads many folk to give up on any attempt at religious living or can lead them to take on the whole belief structure of one path without asking any questions. As a result they batten down the hatches, put up the barriers and say this is the truth and I do not want to question it. For me this seems impossible and if I do that and settle for the one truth, forever, I suspect that I might miss out on those other stars as they slowly start to reveal themselves out of the darkness.
Forrest Church offered this advice to his congregants: “If you believe in God, the best thing you can do for yourself is to suspend your belief for a while, because undoubtedly your God is too small and you must grow beyond that God. On the other hand, if you don't believe in God, your very disbelief is a stumbling block. Kick it away and place your faith in something, in something more ennobling than disbelief. Take a flier. Expand your purview. Take a leap of faith."
One by one the stars come out...imagine that