There are a lot of things I don’t like about Los Angeles–too spread out, too hard to make friends here–but one of the things I DO like is being among so-called "secular Jews" once again. I lived with these people in New York City and I find them delightful: They don’t try to "convert" you, they are interested in the arts and support them enthusiastically, and they love intellectual ideas. They’re A BIT tribal (you’ll always do better with them if you’re Jewish too), but not too much.
When people ask me what my religion is, I sometimes reply that I’m a "lapsed Wiccan," but I’ve decided that what I actually am in a Cultural Christian. I compare this to being a Secular Jew: Christianity brought the basic Western values we treasure to Europe and eventually to the US. When we shudder at some of the things that are done (especially to women) in Islamic countries such as Pakistan, it helps us to value Cultural Christianity even more.
I realized I was a CC after I almost died from a brain aneurysm 8 years ago. For about a year afterwards, Biblical scenarios kept unfolding in my life: I met an angel in a Kinko’s copy shop. I had a "loaves and fishes" Christmas dinner.
One of the things we Westerners find the most disturbing about the Middle East is the way the two basic factions of Muslims keep trying to kill each other off. There seems to be no ecumenical movement in these countries at all and hatred between Sunnis and Shias goes back many generations.
To us, this would be like Methodists and Baptists trying to destroy one another.
In Islam, the division between Shia and Sunni dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. He had no male heirs–thus the question of who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation was left open. Sunni Muslims thought that the new leader should be elected, and the Prophet Muhammad’s close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation.
But some Muslims thought that leadership should stay within the Prophet’s family, so they decided to follow Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The word "Shia" is shortened from "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali."
Sunni Muslims make up 85% of Muslims worldwide. Shias are the majority in Iran and Iraq. Most of the tension in the Middle East comes from nations where the minority (usually Shia) rule the majority, who are Sunnis. In Iraq, it has been the opposite: a Sunni minority ruled a Shia majority through the brutality of an oppressive dictatorship.
When we learn about yet another bomb attack in a Middle Eastern city on the TV news, we feel despair: How can two sides of the SAME religion be so hateful to each other? It seem completely contrary to what a religion SHOULD be. Our prophet, Jesus, told us to love one another (since he was a Jew when he was alive, he actually got this idea from Rabbi Hillel).
Christians have done some mighty ugly things in the past (remember the Inquisition–and during the Renaissance, the popes threw the best orgies). But Christianity has had a reformation and Islam is overdue for one.
One of the problems is the way our religious books are interpreted. Christians are taught that the Bible was INSPIRED by God, while Muslims believe that the Koran (or Qur’an) was what we would call "Channeled" to Muhammad, thus it cannot be revised. For us, this would be like everyone still had to follow Leviticus as the letter-of-the-law (which would mean nobody could wear wash-and-wear clothes, since it bans "mixed fabrics").
But Jesus said he had come to break the laws, which gives us the opportunity to think for ourselves and become Cultural Christians.
The awful truth about the Middle East is that there will never be peace there until Sunnis and Shias find a way to reconcile, the way Protestants sects have here. Despite the fact that Protestantism started with a monk (Martin Luther) nailing his protests to a church door, Catholics and Protestants have pretty much reconciled as well–this is the Western way. It needs to become the human way. We need to face the fact that differences are at the core of our experience of one another.
After 9/11, most of us realized that we didn’t know enough about Islam and tried to learn more about it, since it’s one of the largest religions in the world. But sometimes I think we bend over too far backwards to be "PC" about it. We need to stand to stand up for and be proud of the Western values that stem from Christianity–they have made the world a better, more enlightened place.
No matter what our particular beliefs are (or aren’t), we need to become Cultural Christians. (By the way, I think that Secular Jews are ALREADY CCs, because of their respect for fairness, education and the arts. And this makes sense, because Christianity stems from Judaism).
UPDATE: I forgot to mention "joy." The Visitors told Whitley to "have joy." We were listening to a new version of Bach’s "Magnificat," and Whitley said, "There’s something wrong with it, it’s not joyful enough." We listened to another version and, sure enough, he was right. Is there any religion other than Christianity that puts such a premium on joy?