qatarperegrine: (Default)
Visiting the States always provides an interesting opportunity to think about the many ways that living in Qatar has changed me. For example, I'm a lot more gregarious than I was when I lived in Pittsburgh, and generally a lot less fearful -- or at least a lot better at ignoring my fear.

A more obvious example is that I didn't drink before I moved to Doha, and indeed viewed drinking as immoral, whereas now I don't mind drinking. This is actually indicative of a larger shift in my thinking about ethics. Islam is willing to condemn a lot of behaviors which may or may not be inherently harmful, simply because it is believed that God disapproves of them. Of course, plenty of Christians do the same, but my increased familiarity with another religion's list of disapproved behaviors has thrown into sharp relief the problems with divine command theory. It no longer seems reasonable to argue that an action may be unethical simply because one culture's version of God has taken a disliking to it. If an action is unethical, it seems to me, it must be so because it causes harm (is likely to cause harm, has a tendency to cause harm; let's not get too utilitarian here). On a more personal level, seeing Muslims avoiding actions that seem morally neutral to me (like falling asleep on one's stomach) for fear of offending God has made me realize the extent to which my own "moral" stances were motivated by the same desire to be "good enough." I wasn't avoiding alcohol because it has deleterious effects on society; I was avoiding it because doing so allowed me to think of myself as A Good Person. That no longer seems like a good motivation, and thus, I no longer avoid alcohol.

Rethinking the role of religion in ethics made me rethink religion generally, and about six months ago I came to the conclusion that I am no longer Christian. My allegiance is fundamentally not to a Christian worldview but to a secular one. (Thought experiment: if I could choose between a universe in which the Muslim world universally accepted Jesus' messiahship, or one in which it universally accepted the principles of tolerance, free inquiry and rationalism, which would I pick?)

I'm not sure what else to say on this subject, so I'll end here.

I will, however, note that I wrote a long post on secularism a year ago, but never polished it enough to post it publicly. Since I'm unlikely to make any further changes to it now, it is now publicly viewable here.
qatarperegrine: (buddha)
* Meryn Cadell lyric

Maybe it's hackneyed, but the end of the year seems like a good occasion to reflect on 2006 and look forward to 2007.

What can I say for myself in 2006? It was a very strange year, and eventful in private, interior ways I have not much discussed here.

I was not exceedingly happy for the first half of the year, and then around about June or July something shifted in my life, although I don't yet fully understand what or how or why. Perhaps it was the inevitable culmination of reading a lot of Buddhist and existentialist writings. Or perhaps the proto-stirrings of this thing are the reason I was drawn to those writings to begin with.

I began to see, I think, that much of who I was had become ossified, fossilized. My identity was the sum of decisions long past, decisions I remained with more out of habit and routine than because I still believed in them. Or, to switch analogies, I felt that my identity was a series of accretions and encrustrations that had built up on me over time, like barnacles so crowding the surface of a rock that you can no longer tell what kind of rock it is.

I thought of an exercise in one of my cross-cultural training classes in college, in which we'd been asked to write down five things that described us. Good student, I wrote. A Christian. Justin's fiance. An ethical person. I forget what was fifth; shy, maybe, or timid. There's nothing wrong with any of those things (aren't barnacles pretty?) but I began to feel that I was experiencing myself, experiencing MARJORIE, as simply a container that held all these labels. Who would I be without those labels? Would I recognize myself if those things weren't true anymore?

So I started meditating more. And reading Sartre.

I always feel like a bad Buddhist for saying this, because of the strange and paradoxical Buddhist teachings on no-self, but the first time I ever did Buddhist meditation, the immediate result was a very powerful experience of my self-ness, of my astonishing existence. I guess that's a realization I needed to nurture this summer. In some powerful sense, those labels and identities are unreal, unsubstantive. The only reality that exists for me is my self, in this moment, interacting with the world around me. Perhaps this is not so un-Buddhist then. Perhaps I experienced suchness.

I feel I have begun to submit to some indescribable cleansing process by which these encrustrations can be eroded. The barnacles are being scrubbed, sanded off of me -- all those identities that had remained with me only because they were familiar and I hadn't thought to change them. Nondrinker. Churchgoer. Christian, even. They are labels that meant something to me years ago, things I felt passionately about. Now they are... barnacles. And I'd like, once in my life, to see what this rock of a self looks like with no barnacles at all.

I am terrified. Who am I if the pieces that assembled my sense of self are gone? Who am I underneath those labels? Tell me what your face looked like before your parents were born.

I don't know where to end this post, because I don't know where it all ends. That sander buffeting me is coming close to the quick, and I don't know how I'll know when the tired old labels, the unuseful, hindering labels are gone and everything left is what I want to keep. What if I go too far, let go of too much? What if I let this sandstorm keep buffeting me until everything erodes away and there is nothing left?

What if barnacles are all there is?

2006. A year ago I knew who I was. I wasn't always happy, and I was struggling mightily with a big lump of dissatisfaction in my life, but I at least felt like I had a basic grasp on who I was. Today, not so much. Whether this is progress or regress remains to be seen.

Ros: I remember when there were no questions.
Guil: There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter.
Ros: Answers, yes. There were answers to everything.
Guil: You've forgotten.
Ros (flaring): I haven't forgotten -- how I used to remember my own name! And yours, Oh, yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it -- people knew who I was and if they didn't they asked and I told them.
Guil: You did, the trouble is, each of them is... plausible, without being instinctive. All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque.
qatarperegrine: (buddha)
Yesterday I went to my very first Buddhist retreat, at the Zen Group of Pittsburgh.

I was somewhat terrified by the prospect of meditating for seven hours, when I had previously only meditated for half an hour at a time. Much to my surprise, it really wasn't that hard. I find I usually have an easier time meditating in groups, and after listening to a dharma talk or meditation instruction. When left to my own devices, I tend to get distracted trying to control my mind, which never ends well.

The general format of the day was 30 minutes seated meditation, 15 minutes of walking meditation, rinse, repeat. We broke at lunch for a formal meal, which was really nice. The teacher guided us through the rather intricate and graceful process of unwrapping our bowls, setting them out in the formal pattern, and receiving the meal (water, rice, soup, salad) in the proper manner. At the end we learned how to wash out our bowls with steaming green tea and then drink the tea, like mendicant monks with no access to soap would do.

Another highlight of the day (I feel slightly awkward talking about highlights of Zen practice) was meeting the Zen teacher for my individual interview. I told him about practicing vipassana, then stopping practicing for a while and being uncertain why I'm supposed to practice if part of the lesson of meditation is to relinquish my attachment to striving towards a goal. He rather quickly turned the conversation to some central questions that I had, and when I attempted to get him to answer the questions for me, he smiled and told me I should investigate them in meditation. Then he asked me some questions, and I think I realized what I needed to realize about koans, at least for now. Except that that makes it sound like I understand something, when really the point was that I don't.

It seems strange to be writing about this. Like reporting how Confession went.

At the end we chanted the Heart Sutra and something in Korean (apparently The Great Dharani), and then had Circle Time when we had the opportunity to say thank yous or talk about our experience. (I got so excessively shy, I not only said nothing but also had to be reminded to bow in order to pass my turn.)

Overall, it was an easier experience than I expected. I keep wondering whether that signifies progress (that it's now easier for me to meditate than when I stopped trying in August) or regress (that I was really just spacing out instead of doing real meditation), and then remembering that I'm not supposed to be thinking in terms of progress and regress. Then I remember I'm not supposed to be thinking in terms of "supposed," either, and it's all downhill from there.

It also makes me realize how attached I was to the idea that I'd get some kind of Major Life Experience or Personal Insight out of this enterprise. I didn't, particularly, although I did have an interesting insight about my practice when I woke up this morning, so that may be related.

(Also, last night I dreamed I was talking to someone about the unsexiness of moustaches and then realized I had a moustache. So I resolved to shave it off and grow a little soul patch goatee like the Zen teacher. What on earth was that about?)

Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed -- that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.

Then what is the one pure and clear thing?

Secularism

May. 28th, 2006 05:00 pm
qatarperegrine: (Default)
This is a topic I've thought about a lot, and wondered how to write about, but I'm not sure I can do it justice. I think it's the most important realization about culture that I've had as a result of moving to Qatar, but the thoughts are still rather inchoate. Maybe by writing this I can clarify them a little.

When I moved to Qatar, I worried about whether my religious views would be offensive to our students. So I did what any good American would do: I acted as though I didn't have any. I didn't bring any apparel that would betray my religious affiliations (cross necklaces, church T-shirts, Goddess keychain) and I didn't talk about my own beliefs, even when students tried to engage me in conversation about religion. Because, you see, by setting aside my religious beliefs, I am less likely to offend those of a different religion. Right?

Right?

I think I'd lived here a year before I really realized how backward I got things. I was acting out of my deeply embedded understanding of secularism: the way to accommodate religious diversity is to purge the public sphere of religiosity, so that people of different faiths can work together on the basis of a shared, ideologically neutral, worldview. We can avoid offending people of different faiths by all acting, most of the time, as though we have no religious views at all. (Which, of course, presupposes the odd notion that it is possible not to have any religious views at all.)

In the U.S., this what I expect in public discourse. Thus, although my own religious beliefs definitely shape my approach to, say, politics, I do not see it as acceptable to justify a proposed policy on religious grounds. If I am discussing politics, I bracket the religious basis of my opinions and argue those opinions on the basis of reason, augmented by some generic, secular values of the type enshrined in the Declaration of Independence or the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. I wouldn't (outside of church) give a religious justification for, say, ending the death penalty, even though my own reasons for opposing it are more religious than not. And, while there are certainly people even in mainstream political debate in the U.S. who do make policy arguments from religion, let's face it, I look down on those people. Even when I agree with their positions (e.g. the right-to-life position on the death penalty) and I agree for explicitly religious reasons, I still think we ought to be able to support our views rationally, without resorting to the weak "because God said so" defense.)

So there is definitely a paradox here, but one I have happily lived with. I am religious and I love religion, but fundamentally I have seen religion as an added dimension of life; it can be set aside, leaving some common bedrock of secular logic and values that public life can be built upon. In short, I am a secularist. Secularism so permeates my thinking that I have been able to think of it not as my worldview at all, but as an ideologically neutral default that remains when religion is stripped away.

To leave my cross necklace behind when I moved to a Muslim country is, I think, a good symbol of this. I thought that leaving it behind made me religiously unmarked, neutral, and not in opposition to Islam. This is, of course, patently ridiculous, because it is not Christianity that Islam perceives as a threat, it is secularism itself -- an ideology that reduces religion to an optional add-on to life, a structure built onto the bedrock of our thinking instead of the bedrock of life itself. An insidious ideology that pretends not to be an ideology but objectiveness itself; a worldview that thinks it is the absence of religious bias instead of simply another viewpoint on religion.

Everything I have said so far is the point I had reached in my thinking on secularism in September, when Georgetown's presentation at the Education City symposium made me think about Christian public discourse and secular public discourse in Qatar. (And this is why I've been less circumspect about discussing my religions views with students this year: I realized in September that my Christianity is less likely to offend them than the suggestion that religious beliefs can and should be bracketed in public discourse. I still don't wear my baptism cross, but I no longer have illusions that this abstention can result in my being seen as unmarked or unbiased.) I came to realize that that secularism is not really a default and that I am wrong to see myself as being objective when I act from within my secular worldview.

But since then, my thinking has been changed again, this time by the Mohammed cartoon controversy. Again and again I have heard the same question asked in Middle Eastern newspapers and by Qataris I know: how would you feel if it were your prophet being defamed? They ask this as though it is unheard of for Jesus or Christianity to be ridiculed in the West, and I find myself explaining again and again that, actually, Jesus gets mocked a lot in the West as well. And the truth is, I'm perfectly fine with that. I think I really CAN compartmentalize in the artificial way of secularism -- to be personally affronted by insults to my religion, but still cherish living in a society where people can mock prophets with impunity. This is not a popular attitude here in Qatar. So, having become temporarily disillusioned with my secularist worldview after realizing that it is a worldview and not a basic fact of life, I am now realizing that I still very much value that worldview.

Kismet

Oct. 27th, 2005 10:38 am
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
A student was telling me about his financial troubles the other day, and explained them by saying, "It pleased God for my father to lose 20 million riyals in the Doha Securities Market."

Acerbic comments about the DSM aside, this statement represents one of the aspects of Islam that I find the most difficult, even though I know that kind of fatalism exists in my own religious tradition as well. Does it really please God for people to lose $5 million in the stock market? Does everything that happen please God? Does God's sovereignty necessarily imply that nothing happens in the world that is not a reflection of God's will?

The will of God... )

Orthopraxy

Oct. 16th, 2005 09:02 pm
qatarperegrine: (quran)
The subject line of this post -- orthopraxy -- is a word that means "right practice." Its counterpart, orthodoxy ("right belief") is a more familiar word, probably because Christianity is more concerned with orthodoxy and less with orthopraxy than many other religions. This has quite probably not always been the case, and it's certainly not an unassailable position, biblically speaking. Nonetheless, if I polled all of you about the requirements of being a Christian, most of the responses would probably involve beliefs people feel Christians ought to hold rather than ritual actions Christians ought to undertake.

Islam tends more towards emphasizing orthopraxy: if you poll Muslims about what it takes to be Muslim, most will probably tell you about the Five Pillars of Islam. Only one of these pillars (the shahada) is doctrinal; the other four (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, charity) have to do with practice. Of course Muslims also have doctrines, and of course Christians also have prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and charity. The point is simply that the emphasis is different.

Today I realized something about people I know here who are not very strictly observant. I've sort of thought of them as progressive Muslims, as I think of myself as a progressive Christian, because they fall short of Muslim orthopraxy like I fall short of Christian orthodoxy. I think the analogy is lacking something, though, because in reality I do not see myself as falling short when my doctrines are not completely mainstream. In conversation with a less-than-perfectly-observant Muslim recently, I realized that she does believe that she is falling short, and that it is better to be more strictly observant than not. So while she doesn't wear hijab, for example, she is absolutely 100% clear that women who DO wear hijab are better Muslims than she is. I've had similar conversations with others about prayer five times a day; even if not everyone does it, everyone at least seems to agree that they ought to. It's not that they have some alternative explanation of the Qur'an by which it's OK for women not to cover or for Muslims not to pray five times a day; they just don't live up to the conservative interpretation, which they still accept as valid.

As a liberal Christian, I absolutely do NOT believe that Christians with more strict interpretations of Christianity are better Christians than I am. It's somewhat confusing to me to imagine accepting a more conservative interpretation of Christianity as valid but believing that I am failing to live up to it.
qatarperegrine: (jesus)
When I wrote my article "Five Cool Things about the Qur'an," I intended to write a companion piece about the parts of my own religious tradition I began to appreciate more as a result of my increased exposure to other religions. As with any aspect of culture, there are things you don't realize about your own religious worldview until you've had a few encounters with a different tradition. Thus living here in the Muslim world has given me an opportunity not only to learn about Islam but also to reflect on Christianity in a broader context.

I had difficulty conceptualizing how to write that article, though, without it appearing to be something along the lines of "Five Things that Make the Bible Cooler than the Qur'an." I hope you all know me well enough to know that isn't my intention, but just in case I still have to convince you: I do not believe that a renewed appreciation for Christianity has to come at the expense of respect for the other wisdom traditions of the world.

So you've heard me say the things that impressed me about the Qur'an: its beauty, its consistency, and so on. Now, here's the thing that impresses me about the Bible.

It's messy. )
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
The phrase "All roads lead to the same place" came up in conversation yesterday, and I've been thinking more about it.

I don't, in fact, believe that all roads lead to the same place. The analogy is usually, I think, that the religions of the world are all paths leading up the same mountain, which is to say that they all converge on the same end goal. But is the goal the same in every religion? I don't think even the major religions share a vision of what it means to attain spiritual fulfillment -- becoming a boddhisatva is not quite the same as becoming a saint, or a tirthankara, or a Muslim prophet. I suppose one could say (to use Christian language) that the goal they converge upon is God, but I don't find God-as-object-of-quest to be a satisfying metaphor for religion. And this is ignoring the even further question of whether all religious beliefs and practices even lead towards and not away from what I consider to be holy.

I really don't think you have to believe that all religions are interchangable in order to have a profound respect for other religious traditions. I'm not sure you even have to see them as equal, to use the contested word of the week.

My central image of the relationships of the religions is more like a story I heard from Rev. Ben Silva-Netto at a training for Methodist lay speakers in California. He asked us to imagine a room full of art students circled around a model in the middle of the room. Because they all see the model from a unique perspective, and because they come to the assignment with their own personal background and skills, each of them portrays the model differently. One paints a portrait, one draws a silhouette in charcoal, one sketches the model's hands. At the end of the assignment, when the model has left the room and they start looking at each other's work, they are sure to find areas of disagreement in their portrayals. People sitting in very differerent places are likely not even to be able to recognize that each other's pictures are of the same model. (This was certainly true when I took an art class in college!)

Rev. Silva-Netto used this as an analogy for the theological task. When we start trying to explain how we understand "Truth with a capital T" we are likely to disagree with each other. And if I see my own painting rather than the model itself as the Truth, I am likely to see my neighbors' portrayal of the Truth as wrongheaded. But this is only because my own perspective is limited, and I am failing to recognize that the model itself exists in one more dimension than my version of it. So I see my version and my neighbor's as mutually exclusive, not realizing that our disagreements and contradictions don't have to be resolved, that our observations may both be valid even when they conflict. And, in fact, if I were to try to make the draw-er of the silhouette buy into my vision of the model's hands, I would be asking that person to go against the Truth that was disclosed to her.

Anyway, this metaphor is not entirely a satisfying metaphor for religion either, because I think God/The Truth/The Tao/Whatever is a lot more than a passive model. But for me it IS a more helpful metaphor for the intellectual, theological aspect of faith, because it explains how we can acknowledge and even learn from other people's visions of the Truth even when they disagree with ours, whereas (in my mind, at least) the paths-up-a-mountain metaphor requires that we ignore the very real differences between the religions.

So I hear a question like "Is Jesus divine?" and I wonder if yes/no is the right approach. I think there is truth in the Christian assertion that God is ultimately revealed through the life and death of Jesus. I think there is also truth in the Muslim assertion that the whole Trinity idea is a little weird. And I don't think it's violating the Christian tradition to see the perspective that might be gained from both sides of an issue; the Bible is, after all, full of different and contradictory perspectives. Was Abraham saved by faith or by works? The Bible includes (at least) two contradictory statements on the matter. I think things like that are an acknowledgement that different intellectualizations of an experience can be useful even when they completely contradict one another.

In Buddhist logic, a and not-a are not the only logical alternatives. Both a and not-a and neither a nor not-a are also logical perspectives. I see value in a both a and not-a approach to Truth: Jesus is God, Jesus is not God, there are spiritual insights we can gain from both positions. Or to be more apophatic, the divine mystery cannot be reduced to either "Jesus is God" or "Jesus is not God." Neti, neti, the Hindus would say: Ultimate Reality is neither simply this nor simply that, but always transcends any formulations we use to describe it. The Tao that can be described in words is not the real Tao.

I wanted to talk more about Christian particularism and the question of whether "Jesus is God" even is the central truth claim of Christianity. (Not to mention whether truth claims are the heart of religion in the first place.) But I think I'll have to leave that for another day....
qatarperegrine: (shiva)
Shortly after I returned from India, I started writing a reflection on our trip there and the thoughts it brought up for me about suffering and theodicy. I've worked on it off & on since then, and I've never quite been happy with it. I'm still not, but I think it's time to let go of my inner perfectionist.

As always: I am no expert in the religions I discuss below and welcome critiques.

The Four Sights & The Problem of Pain )
qatarperegrine: (quran)
At long last! I have finished (more or less) my essay on my experience reading the Qur'an. I mostly wrote this to aid my own processing of the Qur'an, but I hope it's interesting to other people too.

Five cool things about the Qur'an )

Friends/family, if you'd prefer to read this in a doc/pdf, let me know and I'll e-mail it to you.

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