Some of us call it “The December Dilemma”—because so many of us feel torn each holiday season about how to properly honor our diverse religious traditions without trampling anyone in the process.
It’s easy to leap enthusiastically from celebrating religious diversity—to a kind of wholesale consumption. That kind of eclectic approach to spirituality can quickly erode the authenticity of any one tradition.
To which we quickly add with Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” Come back tomorrow and you’ll read what we think is a wonderfully thoughtful essay by a writer who—like millions of Americans right now—is indeed mixing and matching her religious inspirations.
That’s why we call December a “dilemma.” What’s a writer to do? How do we weave our way through Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays, not to mention Kwanzaa and traditions in other religions that tend to vanish in an American landscape that’s pushing “all Christmas all the time.”
Well, if you want a glimpse at the pure light of Hanukkah, click here to read Debra Darvick’s story about her family. (And, readers, thanks for your emails to us praising Debra’s story!)
TODAY, we’re introducing an important new voice on the national scene, speaking out about these thorny challenges.
Samir Selmanovic was born into a secular-Muslim family in eastern Europe, then converted to Christianity thanks to a friend he met while serving in the army. Later, he immigrated to the U.S., became the pastor of a small congregation in New York City and eventually founded Faith House Manhattan to explore interreligious relationships. Finally, he began writing about his many adventures.
Samir takes a distinctive approach to religious diversity that we think is helpful in sorting out dilemmas like December in America. In his quest to clarify these issues, Samir uses terms like “urban laboratory,” “interdependence” and “strangeness.”
In a nutshell: Samir argues that we should not try to homogenize the “strangeness”—or uniqueness—of our distinctive religious backgrounds. Samir agrees with ReadTheSpirit that strong, healthy communities depend, today, on celebrating our diversity. But, Samir also insists that we avoid trying to blend, or even soften the edges, of our unique perspectives on faith—including atheism as one perspective. The key to recognizing our interdependence, he argues, comes from learning the value of defending our neighbor’s religious perspective.
On his Faith House Web site, Samir writes: “In times past, strong cities were walled. Our religions developed in similar contexts of defensiveness, isolation and conflict. The times have changed. Today, bridges, airports, roads, cell phones and the internet help cities survive and thrive on a connected planet. Religion, one of the most potent forces to mobilize human hearts and communities, has yet to catch up in our newly interdependent world.
The world is hurt not only by the actions of religious extremist minorities but by the religious ignorance and indifference of the majority. Tolerance and appreciation between religions is simply not enough. We all must dig further into our texts, traditions, and practices to help us experience, understand and actually learn to need one another.”
CONVERSATION WITH SAMIR SELMANOVIC
ON “IT’S REALLY ALL ABOUT GOD”
DAVID: Since we’re talking here about preserving the distinctiveness of our religious traditions, I have to note for our readers that you’re the first Seventh-day Adventist I can recall featuring in one of our Wednesday author interviews. Your denomination has a long and proud tradition in American life, including the fact that the Kellogg brothers were Adventists and changed the way we eat breakfast.
But, considering your background in a Muslim community in Croatia in the former Yugoslavia, I was surprised when I first learned that you are an Adventist minister. Seems remarkable, considering your family background and homeland.
SAMIR: Well, that is the door through which I entered the Christian faith. The counter-cultural aspect of Adventism and its emphasis on holistic living attracted me. I also appreciate that some of our practices connect with Eastern traditions. I appreciate that our Sabbath on Saturday is rooted in Judaism.
I also was fairly isolated in the army, the time in my life at which I felt drawn to faith, and I found this particular biblically based and Christ-centered church—and I felt drawn to what I had found. I did have a grandmother who became an Adventist toward the end of her life. But, when I made this decision, my exposure to the Adventist church really was through this one small congregation I began attending.
It was only after I came to the United States that I saw Adventism in all its complexity from left to right, from liberal to more conservative. My church is very diverse throughout the world and continues to go through struggles for its identity like many churches.
I think of myself as a part of a new generation in my church.
DAVID: Your church has a lot going for it in terms of its timely cultural attractiveness to people looking around for a fresh approach to faith. Your health requirements are right on target, for example.
SAMIR: They are. Adventism is uniquely positioned because our food practices are not as strict as kosher rules, but they are specific. We do not eat pork. We do recognize that there are clean and unclean foods. We do not drink. There is a strong teaching about unity of body and soul.
DAVID: So, you’re Christian yourself, which is the affiliation of the vast majority of Americans—but your own denomination is a distinctive minority within Christianity.
Within your own life, you bridge a number of religious chasms. You’ve been Muslim. You’ve lived in a virtually atheist culture. You’re a convert. You’re an immigrant.
You’ve had a lot of unusual religious experiences in your life that you write about in your new book.
Then, you chose Manhattan as your base of operations. Why Manhattan? In your book you write that there are “those who use the city—and those who are used by it.”
SAMIR: There are those who compare New York City to a bad girlfriend or a bad boyfriend. It’s beautiful and abusive all at the same time.
We live in a combination of Babylon and Jerusalem here. You find beauty and glory that lift you up here—and this city wears you down every day, as well.
I grew up on asphalt in Croatia. All my youth was in big cities. So, New York feels familiar to me.
DAVID: Even more than that, as Alistair Cooke once said, “New York is the biggest collection of villages in the world.” There aren’t many better spots in the world to work on cross-cultural relationships.
SAMIR: Yes, that’s true. So many thoughts, feelings and opinions are communicated here very rapidly all the time. Some say this city is blunt. I think of it as an experience of immediacy. In other parts of the country, people develop relationships over many years and then they may still say: Well, we’ll see how this friendship develops. In New York, relationships form over weeks, not years.
Here socio-economic groups are all mixed up. Every day, you bump into people who are big-time “haves” and people who are struggling “have nots.”
DAVID: Where does your congregation meet?
SAMIR: We gather in a Quaker center close to Union Square. We’re friendly with Quakers and learn a lot from them.
DAVID: And tell us a bit, as well, about your nonprofit group Faith House Manhattan. On the Faith House Web site, you write:
“Instead of believing in the self-sufficiency of our religions, we serve the city and the world with fresh ideas and expressions of interdependence, exploring possibilities for passionate belief in a pluralist world, insisting that new practices can be discovered, discussed, developed, and spread.”
SAMIR: We call ourselves a community of communities. Our tag line is: Experience your neighbor’s faith. We think that’s where the growing edge is in interfaith connections.
We all started out in this area, saying: First, let’s stop fighting. Let’s stop debating whose God is bigger.
Then, we’ve come to learn that, if we respect other religious groups, we will not presume to tell their stories in our terms. We will not try to appropriate other people’s stories as if they are our own. But we can still learn from each other. I can learn from a rabbi. I can find Zen stories that open up new realities in my life.
We’ve learned that we can serve together. We can find projects through which we can make a difference in the world and that’s wonderful.
But I think we can go much further than that. We can discover the need for the other in the center of our own religious experience.
DAVID: Now you’re touching upon some of the fresh, provocative arguments you make about interfaith relations that I think are very important for us to hear.
Talk to us about the importance of strangers in our lives.
SAMIR: We all know that we’re supposed to help strangers in need. We’ve all been taught about hospitality in our various religions.
But I’m talking about something larger than that. I’m saying: We need strangers because they see things we cannot see. Strangers raise questions we do not raise. The Bible is full of examples where people of faith survived because of the help of a stranger who was sent to them.
And at Christmas, as Christians retell the Christmas story, it is important to us that three strangers came from the East to recognize Jesus’ birth. There was something important about these people being strangers.
DAVID: You argue that there’s a vital distinction here. You say that we need to appreciate strangers—and different religious traditions—as essential parts of a strong community. But, at the same time, you argue that we should not try to domesticate our neighbors’ very different perspectives on faith. We shouldn’t try to force an agreement on everything.
Am I expressing that right?
SAMIR: I say it this way: The strangeness of the stranger needs to be preserved.
There is a dignity in the difference. When the stranger stops being a stranger, then that stranger stops being a heavenly consultant.
Another way to say it is: Our mysteries need one another. You cannot have one isolated mystery on its own. We need all of our mysteries.
There are so many examples of the otherness of God even in our own Christian scriptures. Why did we need to read in the gospel stories that these strangers came to recognize the Son of Man? They had a unique perspective.
The bridge we build with the Divine depends upon our horizontal relationships with human strangers. The people we meet in this world who we perceive as “not in our own image,” because they are so different, nevertheless are a part of the image of God. That realization alone should challenge us to learn more.
I think the strangeness of the stranger is sacred. This idea bothers us. We always want to talk about how much we have in common and it’s nice to focus on the similarities. In fact, most Christians are afraid of the strangeness of strangers.
But it is in the strangeness that we grow further in our understanding of God.
DAVID: You even extend this idea to atheists. You argue that, as we build relationships of interdependence in our communities, we should reach beyond faith groups to secular groups and also atheists.
If I understand your book correctly, you argue that some of this wisdom comes from your own background growing up in a secular culture under Communism. There was a certain wisdom in that approach to the public square.
At one point in your book, you argue that your own family’s basic philosophy in life was: “Thou shalt enjoy life. Thou shalt not be a jerk.”
Now, I laughed when I read those lines. But, frankly, if I had to choose between neighbors who were angry zealots for some particular religious faith—and neighbors like your parents—why, heck, it’s an easy choice: I’d rather live near those people who enjoy life and understand how to treat other people in a gracious way.
You’ve got a chapter in your book titled, “The Blessing of Atheism.” This is very provocative, forward-looking writing and it appears toward the end of your book. Let me give our readers, here, a little taste of what they’ll find. Here’s just a tiny quote from that chapter—you write:
“We are at a point in history when a new view of God is needed again, and many of the emerging believers might be rejected by their fellow believers as atheists. Yet this state of affairs, this betrayal of religion, can be a source of hope. Perhaps we will, as Meister Eckhart suggested, forsake God for the sake of God. And perhaps many of us will be able to exit our religious boxes and meet atheists who have exited theirs. And find ourselves in a new open space.”
This is the kind of daring, transformative message we’re hearing these days from cutting-edge voices like Rob Bell, Barbara Brown Taylor and Harvey Cox. My own assessment of this is that you’re uniquely poised to make this observation, coming from a much different part of the world.
SAMIR: It was shocking to me to move to the U.S. and see how culture here is so religious. I grew up in the Balkans. I was in Serbia a lot. I served in the army in Macedonia. We lived under Socialism and life was very secular. At that time, if you were religious, people regarded you as someone who needed a crutch to get by in life.
But there also was a certain wisdom in this. There was a mistrust of claiming that you are too sure about things. There was a feeling that taking religion too seriously could be deadly. Taking this too far can be a problem, but there’s also something healthy, I think, in agreeing that people should not assume they can usurp the public square simply by calling upon the name of God.
In the U.S., we like to say “In God We Trust,” so it’s much easier for people to bring religion into the public square when they don’t have anything else worth saying. When we cannot sort out your differences, one human talking to another human, then we may start resorting to religious language to force our viewpoint on others.
DAVID: You’re a big believer in doubt.
That’s an affirmation close to my own heart. The longer I live and the more of the world I see, my faith becomes deeper than ever and my doubts go deeper as well.
SAMIR: I tell people—If, every two weeks you are not an atheist, then you are theologically comatose. How can you possibly watch the news and not fall apart? God is falling apart over what’s happening! We are going to fall apart, too, if we are truly people of faith.
We live in a world where doubt is an engagement of faith. Religion is not about certainty. It’s about uncertainty. Religion is about forging a relationship to a mystery.
The most religious answer I can give is: I do not know.
DAVID: You actually say to religious people: Stop beating up on atheists! Now, in my experience, a lot of prominent atheist voices enjoy a good, scrappy debate. But you warn people of faith against uniting into a kind of coalition that beats up on atheists.
SAMIR: It’s too easy to beat up on atheists. It’s as if we need somebody to blame and somebody we all can unite against. Well, whatever your faith may be, most of us believe in God. So we start thinking we should join forces against those who don’t.
Why do we think that? Do we envision God sitting somewhere with a bruised ego? Do we think it’s the most important thing to God that we recite certain words and hold certain concepts in our head about God? I don’t think so.
So, why do atheists threaten us? Atheists are struggling with faith—and so are we.
Atheists raise questions that are precious to us as well.
Atheists are a precious part of our community. In my book, I point out five people who changed my life and three of those five people didn’t believe in God.
My own Mom and Dad did not believe in God and yet they were the first witnesses of love to me. When I first experienced the love of Christ, I could recognize that love because I first knew love from my Mom and Dad.
If we do not appreciate the full diversity in our communities, then we are simply locking ourselves in echo chambers, shouting at ourselves.
DAVID: You argue that this is more than just a matter of virtue—of good deeds. You argue that you need Jews and Muslims and atheists and people of other faiths, as well, in order to be a good Christian yourself.
SAMIR: Being a Christian is being in the world together with other people. To live in this world, we can no longer live in separate countries as if we each could build a sacred little house high up on a hill and then wouldn’t need anyone else in life.
Churches aren’t seeing the bigger challenge here. If your church has only gotten as far as telling you to tolerate other people—then you’re not really helping people live in today’s world. Today, you need to teach me not just to tolerate other people, but why we actually need other people.
DAVID: Finally, if readers are following your arguments this far—then, they may be saying: Well, it sounds interesting, but it’s not my cup of tea.
Or they may say: It’s not my calling to leap out into such a bold encounter with other religious perspectives. Let Samir or perhaps let ReadTheSpirit do it. This idea won’t play in my community.
To that final argument, you say: Then you’re losing future generations and you’re losing any larger engagement with the world itself.
SAMIR: That’s the problem—churches keep denying the reality of the world’s diversity. We cannot live on isolated hilltops anymore.
The main claim made by too many religious institutions is: “We are in charge of God. We don’t need anyone else, unless they follow what we tell them.”
We need to move to a place where the other person’s faith is not a threat to me. We need to see ourselves as sojourners, companions, counselors with each other. We need to recognize the goodness and beauty and sacredness in each other.
Some people tell me they fear a loss of Christian identity and to that I say: No, humility is a dogma in Christianity. It’s among the most sacred parts of our faith. Foot washing is not simply a nice idea. Christianity is about humility.
My greatest fear is that we’re losing young adults because of our failures in these areas. They may come to us, but they look around at what we are doing and then they say: “I’m sorry. I can’t come to your church anymore because it shrinks my world. My workplace is diverse. My neighborhood is diverse. My friends are diverse. Even my own family now is more diverse than your church. I can’t be a part of your church because it shrinks my world.”
Instead, we need to be asking questions like: How can I live for the common good?
How are we called to live for everybody?
How are we to act in this new and far more diverse world?
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)