Theology as a Life Saver

In one of Rumi’s writings, a scholar in grammar asks a boatman for a ride on his boat. Once settled aboard, he asks the boatman: “Do you know the science of grammar?” The boatman replies; “no, I don’t.” The grammarian announces, “You wasted half of your life.” An hour later, a tempest flips the boat over and the two passengers get thrown in the water. “Do you know the science of swimming?” The boatman asks his companion. The grammarian cries out: “No!” The boatman says, “Then you wasted your whole life.”

If the science of grammar is represented in all the religious knowledge we have acquired from learning and experience, then the science of swimming is the knowledge of theology. I have borrowed this analogy from John Renard who wrote Islam and Christianity: Theological Themes in Comparative Perspective. Without theology, one can risk losing life altogether.

As believers, each one of us is deeply rooted in our faith traditions, beliefs, dogmas, and practices. These pivots hold us firmly within our religious foundations. Sometimes we go beyond these foundations and reach out to others in what we call interfaith. We form faith book clubs, interfaith discussion groups, or interreligious dialog panels. At the end of the day, we go back to our bubbles and comfort zones, just like hermit crabs. But we feel good about what we accomplished outside our bubbles; we built bridges. Or don’t we?

In a pluralistic society like the one we live in, building bridges is no longer enough. It is not enough that I show up once every while at a synagogue, for example, and participate in interfaith dialog to cast out my Muslim voice. Honestly, after many years of interfaith participation, I feel at home when I visit a synagogue or a church as I see us all members of the one Abrahamic family. It’s a different story when I visit a Buddhist or Hindu temple. And this is the test of religious pluralism whose only chance of success is theology.

Theology is the study of religious faith, practice, experience; it is the study of God and God’s relation to the world; it is the study of how people understand God. We take things for granted in our own faith traditions: we get so acquainted with our belief systems that sometimes religious practices lose their symbolism and original purpose because they become automatically performed rituals. As a Muslim, I am constantly fighting my conscience during the ritual prayers to bring it back into focus; my mind wanders away from the holiness of the moment if I don’t pull it back in submission into the divine presence. I start thinking about the thesis I am writing, about my daughter’s college tour, and even about my cat that went out two months ago and never came back. But it’s the constant fighting of the self to bring it back into harmony with the holiness of the moment that truly achieves the objective of the prayer: keeping remembrance and connection with God.

Hence, our own rituals become automated at some point in our religious lives and we must keep ourselves in check. The same happens with our interfaith endeavors. After a while, interfaith dialog becomes stagnant and barren: nothing comes out of it as we don’t produce anything new. We say our goodbyes after our meetings and then when we watch the evening news we are shocked to find out that elsewhere on earth people are fighting over religion and are actually killing one another. “Why on earth would they kill,” we ask ourselves. Murder is a vicious crime, but it is as old as humanity. Why did the son of Adam kill his brother? Why do extremist fundamentalist Buddhists kill Burmese Muslims? Why do Muslim militant fundamentalists in Iraq and Syria kill other Muslims, not to mention non-Muslims? Why do Israelis kill Palestinians in Gaza and why do Hamas militants fire rockets to kill Israeli neighbors?

Whoever is involved in interfaith and watches the news nowadays is surely going through a lot of agony. Life doesn’t look as rosy as we have wanted it to be. But this is reality. So how does theology change that? It doesn’t change the fact that thousands of humans are killed every day because of their religious identities. As a matter of fact, it won’t stop the killing right away. But theology answers the “why” question and hopefully leads to a solution, the “now what”?

Interfaith dialog is not enough; I must repeat. We have to achieve social harmony now that we have built the bridges. This means we have to become the bridges in our community. We have to learn the scriptures of our interfaith interlocutors, learn how they relate to God, and learn their religious history. Even if this means that sensitive issues will come up in discussions, we still must do it. If those Islamic militant fundamentalists knew anything about the spirituality and theology of Christians they would have not kicked them out of their homes in Mosul, Iraq. The tragedy is that those extremists are so mind folded and theologically corrupted that they can’t tolerate other Muslims either. The same goes for Israelis, Palestinians, Buddhists, etc…

Theology is a life saver. When I look at non-Muslims, no matter how different their beliefs and practices may sound to me, I see their human souls that are searching for the divine, for salvation, for enlightenment, for truth, and for peace. And these things can never be enough of a reason for me to hate the other. On the contrary, these are the reasons why I love the other when I see the face of God through them.

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

6 thoughts on “Theology as a Life Saver

  1. Lovely article, and indeed it is likewise painful for those of us in the dharma traditions to see our world ravished by cultures where there is no concept of future life in this world. Would there be a drought in California, if the culture and its billionaire plutocrats thought they would be reborn right back in this very world, so happy to bomb and pollute for a quick petro-dollar? Still, I am happy for my close friends in the other faith traditions.

    However, I do think your article proposes a false sense of security to think of theology as an insulated safe haven, in seeking to claim refuge in the English word “theology” as universalized for use by the Abrahamic religions only.

    Here I will cite an excerpt from my recent paper, Prospects for Buddhist Practical Theology, published at International Journal of Practical Theology, where I review Buddhist scholars remarks:

    “In Buddhist Theology: Its Historical Context, Roger Jackson reviews early
    Greek and historical Christian conceptions of theologia, and cites David Tracy,
    who says, “to speak of theology is a […] useful way to indicate the more strictly
    intellectual interpretations of any religious tradition, whether that tradition is
    theistic or not [and] to use theo logia in the literal sense of ‘talk or reflection on
    God or the gods’ suggests that even nontheistic traditions (such as some Hindu,
    Confucian, Taoist, or archaic traditions) may be described as having theologies.”
    Jackson argues that Buddhists “theorizing about the sacred” can adopt Tracy’s
    broader usage of “theology” as “intellectual reflection within a religious tradi-
    tion”, which implies the corollary that “right from its inception, Buddhism has
    been deeply involved in ‘theological’ activity.” Jackson, anticipating Buddhist
    objections to the insufficiently narrow scope of “intellectual reflection”, offers
    “the term ‘theology’ to describe conceptual activity within and about a particular
    religious tradition, without thereby implying that such activity is itself an avenue
    to the ultimate; it is just as true, after all, that the God of Christian theology is
    ineffable as it is that nirvana or buddhahood transcends the range of thought.”

    1. Even though Muslims and other Abrahamic traditions believe that there is afterlife in another world, that doesn’t promote in our religion a lack of responsibility toward this world and Earth. Indeed, Islam considers Earth as a gift given to humans but with the responsibility of preserving it and developing it. This is the idea of human vicegerance on Earth in Islam.

      Muslims may differ with Buddhists about several things but you will be surprised about the many things they have in common. Like I mentioned, the human responsibility for the environment is crucial in Islamic ethics just as it is in Buddhism. Other ethics that Buddhists respect (like sexual decency, refrain from violence, murder, theft, false talk, drinking alcohol etc..) are similarily respected by Muslims and other people of faith.

      I like what you shared about Buddhist theology. I am not an expert on Buddhism as I only have had a few conversations with devout Buddhists. I understand that even though Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, Buddhists believe in a higher Truth or Mind that enlightens seekers. We, Abrahamic people, like to call that higher truth God. I don’t think that Buddhists should be offended by this language, as it is only an expression of thinking. The principle is one in reality.

      Indeed, the whole idea behind my writing this article is that if each one of us respect and try to understand what the other believes of God, or the higher reality, then we would live in peace. Namaste.

  2. I am struck by your insight into religion as a life saver. Although you are in the overwhelming main-stream majority of liberal, progressive, America, unfortunately many throughout the world, as you noted, do not agree.

    How do we use your mantra of “religion as a life saver” to counter the radical fundamentalism of so many faiths which threaten to attack observant moderates throughout the world? How do we turn religion from a death sentence into religion as a life saver for the masses? I suspect, and I am fascinated to hear your take, that there are endless social-economic, educational, and cultural obstacles in the way, but where does one begin? How do we reach that moment of Zen when we are not only at peace with inter-faith issues but also with intra-faith issues surrounding our own, sectarian fundamentalism? Needless to say your article has offered me a few answers but has also created far more questions, which is a good interfaith exercise in understanding the ancient Jewish practice of answering a question with a question. Thank you for doing so.

    1. Thank you David for your comment. I share your concern about religious fundamentalism in any religion, and I understand your shock at the killing of “mainstream” religious practitioners at the hands of their radical co-religionists. I think the present world situation is puzzling and alarming now more than ever.

      There are several factors that lead to religious radicalism and fanaticism. Theologians alone can’t offer a solution, yet they certainly can pave the way. Other scholars like sociologists of religion can help us understand the social realities of religion and make sense of how religious fundamentalism develops out of an identity crisis. Religious fanaticism is an ideology that is born not out of the spiritual realm of religion but out of a corrupted social order in a religious community.

      Even though we have seen throughout history examples of religious fundamentalism like the Crusaders who killed Muslims and Jews in the name of religion, I will focus on today’s current issue, that of Islamic radicalism. Radicalism in the Muslim world is a child of modern times, probably the direct result of Western colonialism. Muslims were living their faith tradition without any radicalization until their lands were invaded by outside powers. This has led to some rebellious ideology that turned to religion for an answer. Oppression breads hatred, and hatred nurtures prejudice. Top it off with a general religious “illetracy” that swamped the Muslim world since modern times (with modernity religion became lame, so no one was getting any religious education for a long time in those countries. This is why when unauthorized preachers introduced new ideas no one doubted that they were misrepresenting religion).

      So how can theology save lives in a conflict like this while it is used at the same time to kill lives in some areas in the Muslim world? I think the solution is not limited to the locality of the problem. I think we need to have a global cultural revolution where we fight prejudice (we start in the West) and make an effort to learn about the beliefs and religious realities of others. When we do that, we will not sympathize with ISIS for example, rather we will be able to understand and process what drives them to do what they do. Perhaps we can then shift gear and starve ideologies like ISIS’s. Where do ISIS militants come from? They are recruited locally and internationally: if the local people were religiously literate (i.e. in their own laws, in intra-faith and in interfaith realities) they wouldn’t be joining these lunatics. On the contrary, they would fight them and extinguish them before they even sprouted. What about the Westerners including Americans who are joing these militant groups? We are talking about folks whose names are a “John Smith” and they are as western as they can get. Why would they join such a crazy ideology? Because they are discontent with their realities and identities here at home and they think that if they are going to die a miserable death they would rather earn the prestige of a “religious fighter” while doing it! Most of these recruits by the way don’t even read the Qur’an or understand anything about what it means to be a Muslim.

      Still haven’t answered your questions, right? Theology cannot solve the problem after it has erupted. But it can prevent similar problems to rise somewhere else, even here at home. Let’s teach the next generation about a world theology where there is an effort in understanding what each religion represents to its followers. Such understanding needs to be situated with the appropriate cultural context. Intra-faith is the first stage of reaching such a theology. If we hate people like us, how can we accept people who are different from us?

      And by the way, people over there – in the Muslim world- don’t hate us, Americans. The majority of Muslims are not prejudiced. Talk to anyone there in the streets, to lay people, and ask them how they feel about other religions and they will say something like, “we are all the creation of one God,” that “religions unite and bring harmony…” As for those who see things otherwise, don’t be surprised to find out that they are not religious at all, rather they are ideologists who found a power opportunity in religion and a big market for it.

      Keep the conversation rolling!

  3. I really like this article and your call for those practicing interfaith to go beyond building bridges and to bring ourselves and others into a deeper more theologically rich understanding of the other. Are you aware of any current or future attempts to do this with congratulations and practitioners of different faiths either in the US or abroad?

  4. There are several interfaith initiatives around the country and it is hard to name them all. But I suggest that you check out for the Connecticut Council of Interreligious understanding for an example of what kind of events can take place. Habitat for Humanity is an international organization that has several chapters in the USA, it started as a Christian initiative but I am aware of many Muslim mosques in the Dallas, Texas area who participate. I think that it has become an interreligious activity. Interfaith Youth Core is one for the youth and it is extremely productive.

    Other organizations have done less community and charity works as an interfaith activity but focused on educating their community about interfaith and religious diversity, through faith groups, panel discussions, presentations, etc… An example is the MultiCultural Alliance in Fort Worth, Texas, They have a yearly seminarian retreat as well as an annual youth diversity camp.

    Among Muslim founded interfaith organization, the Cordoba Initiative would have had a big impact if it wasn’t weakened by the Ground Zero mosque controversy.

    I hope these examples help start you all on brainstorming for ideas of action!

Comments are closed.