Friday, August 17, 2012

Central or peripheral

       In the days following the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin, numerous interviews were aired on radio about the basic tenets of the Sikh religion.  Questions seemed to focus mostly on turbans and beards--both visible markers of observant Sikh men.  The reason for that focus seems to be the confusion/identification between Sikhs and Muslims in the years after 9/11.  I was reminded of another problem associated with the tenets of the Sikh faith--especially in post-9/11 America:  the wearing of the kirpan, or ceremonial dagger.  To many in law enforcement, it was seen as a weapon, and not to be allowed on airplanes or in schools or prisons.  To be forced not to wear the kirpan became very problematic to faithful Sikh men.
       Listening to those interviews gave me occasion to reflect on the external "pieces" of our religious traditions.  The question that has kept nagging at me is:  "What features of a religious tradition are so central, that to lose--or be forced to forego--(some of) them would cause a crisis of faith?"  For many traditions over the centuries, this has been a reality, but for most of us, we've not been forced to make a choice.
      The Jewish people, for example, have experienced the loss of their cultic center, the Jerusalem Temple, as well as their homeland, more than once.  A crisis of faith, to be sure!  Psalm 137 reflects the anguish of exile:  "How can we sing the Lord's song in an alien land?"  Yet, most were able to understand their faithfulness to Torah in a way that was not so site-specific.  In other situations, however, given a choice between being forced to violate Torah or die, many chose death.  What is central?
     The earliest Christians were Jewish.  Yet, as the movement expanded beyond its Middle Eastern roots and began including non-Jews, the question arose as to how much of the Jewish legal code had to be observed by non-Jewish converts.  Again, the question of centrality forced soul-searching and choices.  And the process wasn't nice and neat.
      Irish Roman Catholics (as well as non-Anglican Protestants), in the 16th and 17th centuries, had their religious practices severely curtailed by the British.  They could not hold public office.  They could not worship publicly -- or give public evidence of their faith.  For many, who found praying the Rosary a central part of their practice, this was very problematic.  The clever among them designed, what came to be known as, the "Irish Penal Rosary", which could be worn hidden and prayed without worry of detection.  An "external" practice had become so central that rather than forsake it, they chose to remake it. 
      Around the world today there are still plenty of places where such choices are being forced upon the faithful of many traditions.  The impetus for conformity in societies is strong (including our own).  Not really being subject to such coercion, however, I still have to wonder what I could forego without losing the core of my faith.  What part of worship, or music, or (as an Anglican) the Book of Common Prayer, is so central?  Language, for many, is critical.  I wonder, if I were Muslim, what would be the impact of the loss of the Kaaba in Mecca.  There are many other similar features in almost all religions.
      So, central, or peripheral?    The questions remain to be answered by us all.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, August 3, 2012

For purely symbolic reasons . . .

       As I was riding into work this morning, I was listening to an interview with Imam Faisal Rauf, the leading figure behind the Park 51 mosque (or "Ground Zero Mosque") in New York City.  The conversation, and being reminded of the "heat" that lay behind the controversy with placing a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center, fit into something that I've been musing on all week:  the power, use, and misuse of "symbols".
       A definition I like of "symbols" is that they are "words or things that open out onto a plurality of possible meanings, and still have a superplus [sic] of meaning left over."*  Thinking just about Ground Zero -- how many different meanings can we apply?  Or, using a different event, how many meanings can be applied to "Hiroshima" -- which will, no doubt, come up in the news this coming Monday, as we recall the nuclear bombing of that city in 1945?  In either case are the meanings exhausted by the protagonists/antagonists/witnesses?  There is a memorial that has sprung up near the site of the Aurora shootings of two weeks ago.  It symbolizes something different for different people, e.g., a remembrance of those lost, a critique of gun laws, a pledge to make things different.
       At the University of Denver, we've been engaging in a long process of discerning our "brand" -- what does the University mean to various constituencies, and how best can we depict that visually.  The "logo" is meant to symbolize the University, but no one person--faculty, student, alum, donor, potential employer--will understand the logo the same.  Nor should they! (Note:  the new logo is at the bottom of this newsletter.)
       A few weeks ago, I heard a radio call-in contest that asked the question "Which symbol most represents the USA?"  I don't remember the "winning" answer, but you can imagine the answers:  the American flag, Statue of Liberty, dollar bill, bald eagle, the White House, etc.  And, how important are they!  Wow, if politicians don't sport a Flag Lapel Pin, their patriotism is suspect.  The flag, as symbol, means something.  But to some, it means "America, love it or leave it", while, to others, it can mean "In this free land, I can protest injustice and be a proud American."  To others, perhaps non-Americans, it represents a colonial power; to yet others, an aspirational dream.
       What spawned all of this reflection on symbols was hearing a reporter comment on some political action or vote:  "It was done for purely symbolic reasons."  Cheapening a rich word, I thought.  Clearly NOT done for symbolic reasons, but to make a pointed, political, one-dimensional statement.  If we're going to cheapen the word "symbol" (as we have done with the word "myth"), we're not far from cheapening the power of symbols (as we have done with myths).
       As a religious person, and a scholar of religions, I'm aware of the rich symbolic tradition we all hold.  The symbols we claim, we use, we cherish are NOT one-dimensional.  What, in our various traditions, are symbolized by different foods?  Bread:  leavened or un-leavened?  Butter?  Wine?  Rice?  What about water?  Cleansing from impurity.  Entry into a new community.  Symbol of creation.   What about fire?  The symbols depicted above are all rich with meaning, layers upon layers.
        So, in my reading of sacred texts over the last week, I've been hyper-aware of the symbols present in those writings.  I've been hyper-aware, to of the symbols I've seen in the Olympic events, in the commercials, in the language used by commentators.  It has enriched my week, and opened my eyes, my mind and heart.  Purely symbolic!


Chaplain Gary
*Bean, Wendell C., and William G. Doty.  Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader. (Harper Colophon, 1976), 342.