Monday, 4 July 2011

Muslim for a Month?

People usually think of religion in terms of a lifetime of commitment, but could you learn anything from trying one out for a month? The call to prayer sounds from Eyup Mosque in Istanbul and local Muslims gather on the marble square outside for prayer. Men on one side, women the other, they crowd on mats for the Friday ritual.

Participants pray, fast, have lectures from Muslim scholars and spend time with local Turkish families. Most are here for their first taste of Islam, but some for a deeper understanding of the Sufi culture of Turkey.  Masud Taj is an architect from Canada, brought up Muslim in India. There were a number of questions about why he needed to become "Muslim for a Month". "My first response was that I was bemused, frankly," he says. "I was bemused that something that we take as sacred as religion could become like a shopping mall - try this out for a month. "It really seemed a very post-modern phenomenon, but, once here it really envelops you with its own world view so I think it's fascinating."(1)

This sounds extremely odd, as if what goes on in your head, and what you actually do can be totally disconnected. The old criticism of Christianity was that Churchgoers just "went through the motion", i.e. attended services, sang hymns, and that was completely divorced from the rest of their life. I can understand how people can do meditation courses. But Islam? Muslim for a month?

But the BBC had a programme called "The Retreat", which had people participating in Muslim practices in Spain for a month, following a similar program about a monastery and another one with an order of nuns. What these didn't do, however, is was to market themselves in such a strange way. They didn't say "be a Muslim for a month" but instead asked for volunteers who might or might not be Muslims to participate in the rituals of Islam and learn something about what Muslims believe. It was more a case of participating alongside practicing Muslims for a month, which is quite a different way of presenting what you are about. It appears that the course itself, which may not be a month but in fact could be one week or two or three as well, it is saying one thing to attract participants whereas in fact, it is of course very much like the BBC programme "The Retreat". Their website says:

We are launching Muslim for a Month by offering two versions of the program; the 9 day short course and the more comprehensive 21 day program. The short course consists of a broad introduction to Islam, Sufism, Rumi, and Turkish culture while the longer version offers a deeper exploration of Sufi mysticism and a more thorough immersion into the life and works of Rumi.

and along side this is also

the Monk for a Month temple stay program in northern Thailand's Fang Valley, offering guests an immersion experience into Buddhism and Thai culture as well as a unique opportunity for personal spiritual progression

I find it very interesting that we have here in the marketing evidence of what Paul Heelas has described as a subjective turn in modern spirituality -- the idea that one can cast on and then off a particular identity, and the notion of " personal spiritual progression". That is not to say that those are not good things, they are a swing away from the more formalist and sterile practice of the past (so expertly dissected by Anthony Trollope).

Prewar belief in Britain for example could turn into little more than an observance of the basic forms with no deeper understanding or real commitment to Christianity. Most notably this can be seen in the First World War where the churches colluded with the political authorities in supporting and promoting the enterprise of war.

The notions of the Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah or Isaiah who told their own Jewish government that they would be seriously mistaken if they assumed they could co-opt God for their own wars and their own agenda would have been alien to many churches in Britain, with the honourable exception of the Quakers.

I don't deny that there is much to be gained from opportunities like "Muslim for a Month", but I am concerned that this seems to be operating under this split between the secular and the spiritual, where all the secular matters are put aside when concentrating on "personal spiritual progression", and the spiritual are almost completely separated when looking at the secular world.

Jeffrey Haynes has noted how much at home modern spirituality is with the consumer mentality

While, for many charismatics, religion and politics should be kept separate, they are not alone in eschewing political involvement. Various manifestations of new religious and spiritual phenomena, such as sundry kinds of New Age spirituality, sects, including the Scientologists,  'exotic' Eastern religions like the Hare Krishna cult, 'televangelism', renewed interest in astrology, and so on, may not be particularly relevant for the social and political sciences and the self-understanding of modernity insofar as they do not present major problems of interpretation.

The point is that such religious manifestations are normal phenomena, examples of private religion which do not challenge-nor do they wish to-dominant political and social structures. Because such religious phenomena are, typically, rather apolitical, all they really show is that many people are interested in spiritual issues at the present time.(2)

and Vishvapani, speaking of Buddhism notes that:

The New Age seeks to consume traditions such as Buddhism as resources for personal experience. In these respects it embodies a reductio ad absurdum of contemporary liberalism in the realm of religious belief and practice. A New Age Buddhism would be a reductio ad absurdum of Buddhist tradition; it would be a Buddhism constructed from Western fantasies of the East and post-Christian yearnings for salvation.(3)

Likewise, Judith Simmer Brown notes that:

As Western Buddhists, we must recognize the threats of consumerism within our practice, and within our embryonic communities and institutions... This is particularly perilous for the Western Buddhist. In these times, Buddhism has become popular, a commodity which is used by corporations and the media...Our consumer society is turning Buddhism into a commodity like everything else. The seductions for the Western Buddhist are clear. We are being seduced to use Buddhism to promote our own egos, communities, and agendas in the marketplace. (4)

I was speaking to a Christian only the other day from one of the more evangelical churches in Jersey, one that I believe has had pastors interviewed by "Voice for Children", and he told me that thank goodness his beliefs didn't have anything to do with Jersey politics; that was a quiet different matter. The Christian gospel, as he understood it, did not have anything to do with social justice. I was personally quite taken aback, and rather shocked to see such a direct confirmation of the privatisation of religion.

I think this attitude is quite widespread, and politicians "don't do God", as Alistair Campbell notoriously told Tony Blair. And yet outsiders, even atheists, are bemused by this - look at Hansard, or the blogs, and see how often an argument is "how can X,  as a Christian, do this....". They expect Christians to act better, and to consider the poor, those on the margins. They don't understand how religion has become, since the enlightenment, very much a private domain, and how even when it has returned in popularity, in growing evangelical churches, it has remained so, because it is a personal commodity, not a public call to arms.

But of course, against this, the texts are all there:

Zechariah 7:9-10 ESV: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart."

Jeremiah 22:3 ESV: "Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place."

Isaiah 1:17 ESV: "Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause."

Proverbs 31:9 ESV: "Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy"

Amos 5:11-15 ESV: "Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins- you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph."

Proverbs 31:8-9 ESV: "Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy."

Leviticus 23:22 ESV: "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God."

and for those who think that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is all about sexual perversion, perhaps they might note this:

Ezekiel 16:49-50 ESV: "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it."

So while the "Muslim for a Month" might be good, and modern meditation courses can be helpful, I wish they mentioned more about social justice and showed how much it was a foundation stone in religious belief, not as an "optional" addition.

Our meditation practice can be used to retreat from the ambiguity and intensity of daily encounters; our compassion practices can be used to manipulate the sheer agony of things falling apart. (Judith Simmer Brown, Buddhist)

"Attractive as the dancing goddesses are, as much as we need them in order to reflect once again a Christian dancing God, for me they are somewhat flat compared with Auschwitz, Guatemala and Vietnam." (Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Christian theologian)

(2)  Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations, Linda Woodhead - editor, 2002


Jennifer Bridge said...

Just a very quick observation on "going through the motions". Sometimes when I am feeling non-theist I find the "going through the motions" of going to church keeps me moving forward until I can reconnect again.

TonyTheProf said...

I think that's quite different.

That's a matter of realising that feelings are not all that matters, that there is an element of will (as CS Lewis put it) - which is very contrary to the kind of "personal spiritual progression" as one can get; indeed, that would say, don't go, if you are not getting anything out of it.

Most religions traditions speak of "dry places" in spiritual experience, or even "the dark night of the soul", periods of experiential drought.

That needs to be taken into the heart of religious experience as well, not discarded in favour of the next spiritual "high".

"Come Be My Light", the letters of Mother Teresa, show how this struggle was part of her belief, rather than it being an easy, simple matter.

voiceforchildren said...