Faith & Creation: Pursuing Religion as an Inclusive Endeavor by Jeff Wills
A question: If it’s in our nature as human beings to make sense of things by differentiating between or dividing them, and a basic objective shared by most religions is to achieve some sense of unity, is the practice of religion in inherent opposition to our human nature?
And a follow-up: If so, is that a good or bad thing?
When we ask children what they believe, the answers are almost always affirmative. I believe in God. I believe in the U.S. of A. I believe in Santa Claus. It’s an interesting semantic, believing in. I’m not sure what it implies, but to me it connotes a sense of belonging, of being a part of something. Regardless of the semantics, children are for the most part acquiring beliefs – they’re new to this game, and the first objective is to absorb. Whether we’re talking about language, culture or nutrients, kids need input. They’re busy building, all the time.
My nephew went through a stage wherein his stock response to every question about his opinion was, “Yeah.” His intonation would really turn up at the end, as though he was always accepting some kind of suggestion.
Do you like blue?
Do you like yellow?
Is your favorite color blue or yellow?
Yeah – blue or yellow!
He outgrew it, of course, and now wrestles not only with having a baby sister with whom to share the stage, but his aunt’s impending daughter to boot. Favorites have become very important to him.
As we live on, this skill for indiscriminate acceptance becomes more and more difficult to access, and for good reason. Gradually we become responsible for ourselves, learning hard lessons about adversarial relationships (both intentional and non) and eventually most of us go on to become responsible for others. It’s important to be able to discriminate, whether it’s between the most minute concrete details or the most abstract and far-reaching concepts. It’s a survival skill – maybe the survival skill.
As such, it should come as small surprise that so many of us define ourselves by distinction and exclusion. It’s almost a self-explanatory notion – one reads the word “distinction,” and the definition begs a synonym of identification. Yet they aren’t the same thing. My favorite color is blue, because my favorite color is not yellow. Even logically, that sentence doesn’t compute. The distinction is not the reason, nor the causation.
Yet we hasten to describe and define our religion by what we don’t believe.
I’m a Jew; I don’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah. I’m a Christian; I don’t believe in any prophets past the Messiah. I’m Muslim; I don’t believe in Isa or Jesus as the be-all-end-all in Messianic potential. Few things create a more crystal-clear, individual identity than well-defined boundaries, and religions are good at dictating these boundaries for us. Good and bad are spelled out as best as anyone can manage, whether from authority on-high, or from the community as a whole. With life as difficult as it is and religion often serving the function of making life a little more bearable, it makes sense that we are drawn to simpler, dichotomous answers. Hell: To answers, at all.
It’s just that – darn it all – all that exclusivity destroys the opportunity for wonderful things it would be nice to include as a part of our religious experience.
There are a few concepts in improvisation – theatrical, musical and otherwise – of which kids like my nephew are masters. Concepts like: make the other person look good; simple and obvious is better than clever and funny; and accept, and build. This last is typically expressed with the phrase, “Yes, and….” It’s the beginning of every response to someone else, ensuring that you affirm their statement, and add something to it. Musically it might be equivalent to running with a theme, even if you’re changing the tempo. It’s difficult not to be reciprocal when thinking this way, but thinking this way takes practice. It’s difficult not only to have faith in others, but in the very process itself. It’s not that we’re inclined to say “no.” No, actually, it’s far more insidious than that. What most people end up saying at one time or another is, “Yes, but….”
Accept-and-build is a tactic for creating something with other people, and the idea of creating something is a terrific way to embody our concept of God (whether you believe in God as the creator of the universe or not). It’s not exactly brainstorming – it’s more intentional than that – and it doesn’t preclude disagreement. What boring music we would make without dissonance! Rather, this tactic keeps people of different minds and hearts on the same path for a little while, allowing them to be surprised, ideally even by themselves. In other words, it maintains the possibility of discovery – undeniably another crucial survival skill. We have a lot to learn from one another, and we have a lot to learn from ourselves.
Speaking of survival skills, it would not be a hard argument to make that I value inclusion solely because of my background. As a child of a Unitarian Universalist household, my primary tenets include such balmy psalms as “many paths, one destination” and “tolerance is not acceptance.” When I have to define my religion for someone, more often than not I have described it as a church of acceptance, where the specifics of one’s beliefs are less significant than their participation in the community and willingness to believe. When I was younger, I’d say, “You can believe what you want to believe.” In my latter years, however, I’ve discovered an important qualifier. In my church, you can believe what you want to believe – so long as it does no harm to others. It’s an important distinction.