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Offerings Without an Altar

By       Message Elayne Clift     Permalink
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When my children were quite young, we took them to Europe. With each cathedral we visited in England, Italy, and France my daughter's eyes grew wider. She marveled at the beauty of stained glass windows and flowered altars. She lit more and more candles. Finally she asked, "Mom, if I decided to be Christian would you be mad?" Being both a good liberal and a decent Jew, I said she could choose whatever religion she wanted when she was older, but first she should study many faiths so that she could make a good choice.

I felt a bit guilty about that advice because I hadn't chosen my religion carefully: I was born Jewish and stayed that way. But it seemed appropriate for my kids to consider various options since they are the product of an interfaith marriage.

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Now that I am teaching a course in Comparative Religion, I've been doing a lot of reading about the world's religious beliefs and practices. So I decided to do an assignment I gave my students: Choose a religion other than your own and explain why it appeals to you.

A problem immediately arose: I couldn't choose just one. Since I essentially reject organized religion of any kind, believing much as Marx did that it is an "opiate for the masses" (and holding it accountable for much of the world's suffering), no single doctrine invites me. But I did find something from almost every belief system I read about that I could buy into.

Take, for example, indigenous religions that reveal an extraordinary sensitivity to the natural elements. Holistic cultures like those of Native Americans or Australian aborigines usually see human beings as part of a wider, natural universe in which everything is alive (a concept often called animism) and the life force is everywhere. There is a sense of holiness in everyday living. Creation myths abound and often they teach amazing life lessons. Ancestors are honored and the life cycle is celebrated.

There is much to be drawn from religions of the East. Hinduism, for instance, admonishes its followers to seek "moksha," or liberation from egotism. Buddhism, considered a philosophy rather than a religion per se, teaches moderation, acceptance, the inevitability of change, and self-trust. Jains, found in India, recognize the spiritual potential in each person and, like Sikhs, stress morality and good deeds. Sikhs also believe that God dwells within each individual and can be approached individually from within the human heart.

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Then there is Daoism and Confucianism, both founded in China. While I can't get excited about spirits or "tian" (Heaven), I like the notion of harmony and balance as expressed by Yin and Yang and patterns in nature. I also like the idea of the sacred text as guidebook rather than as doctrine, and I resonate to the belief that Dao (the origin of everything) is too mysterious to name, describe, or define.

Although it has been said that Confucius was patriarchal and anti-woman, I give him credit for his belief in education, "right relationship," and harmonious society. He believed that each human being is capable of being great, and that greatness calls for social interaction and responsibility. Excellence, he taught, comes from the cultivation of an individual's intellect and from demonstrating respect and care for others.

Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in their purest forms offer many gifts. The Jewish perspective, beginning with monotheism, has had a profound effect upon western civilization. As Huston Smith says in his definitive book, The World's Religions, "We feel its force in the names we give our children" Michelangelo felt it when he chiseled his 'David' and painted the Sistine Ceiling; Dante when he wrote the Divine Comedy and Milton, Paradise Lost." Jewish teaching and belief is complex but its essence is this: Morality, justice, meaning, and the hallowing of life.

From the faith of Islam and its Qu'ran, so sadly politicized and corrupted in our time, there is belief in fairness and caring for others, religious tolerance, respect for women and racial equality. (Trust me on this!) As one Islamic scholar has written, "There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations." Those who dispute this would do well to keep an open mind while undertaking a guided study of the Qu'ran and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.

Similarly, Christians (and others) might do well to study the teachings of Christ, leaving aside the machinations and politics of various churches. As the iconoclastic musician Lenny Bruce once noted, "Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God."

In the end, my daughter chose to be culturally Jewish; my son remains uncommitted. As for me, I am historically and ethnically a Jew through and through. But that doesn't mean I can't partake of the wisdom other faiths have to offer. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, I have no religion. I want no religion. The world is my religion. How could I go wrong with that temple of possibility?

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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)

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