Call me Ishmael. And you can call me Isaac.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)

Welcome to the desert. Hot, dry, barren, scorpions scuttling and shades of beige. It is seemingly not the most inspirational of landscapes. This is where the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are born. Many of us in “the West” seem to forget that our spiritual roots and patrimony come from the desert. Wait, what? You mean all of that Bible stuff didn’t happen in an Italian Renaissance painting? As if! Lush landscapes, plump people, and rich flowing garments are pretty appealing but it seems hard, thirsty, rocky environments propel men toward transformation. We see this in all three of the major monotheistic traditions. And now here is the quickest reverse chronology of a few men in the desert. Each one, both inspired and tormented by the harsh surroundings and his own inner struggle, reached out to the One, and was answered.

  • Islamic tradition says that somewhere around 610 A.D., Muhammad was in a cave near Mecca when he received the first revelations of the Koran from the messenger angel, Jibreel. By the way, Jibreel might sound familiar because he is also known as Gabriel, the messenger angel familiar to both Jews and Christians. Interesting, right? Muhammad would retreat to this cave regularly to pray, to meditate and to contemplate. He had a busy trading business, a wife who was no shrinking violet and a tent full of kids. What man wouldn’t need to get away? We haven’t even mentioned the social and civil unrest he was dealing with. Through Jibreel, Allah speaks to him and Muhammad comes home transformed.
  • Jesus was in the desert for forty days and forty nights after his baptism by John. He was tempted by the devil. Forty long days, and it’s doubtless that those were even longer nights. Scarce water, locusts for food, facing choices about power and worldly riches, struggling with his human and divine natures, battling evil. His mind, soul and heart are tried. He endures, he decides, he rejects what is laid at his feet and he accepts his path both willingly and knowingly. Whether literal or metaphorical in one’s reading of the Bible, there is no controversy that Jesus returns transformed.
  • Abraham was a man of the desert when he was called to leave his home, trust in the one God, have faith that he would have a son, and learn some serious lessons in hospitality and obedience that we still talk about today. He had already lived a long life by the time we meet him in the desert and it was only going to become more eventful. His wife, Sarah, like the landscape, is also barren. In the emptiness and desolation, promises are fulfilled and Abraham is transformed.

That all of this takes place in the dessert seems profound to me; it can’t just be a geographical coincidence. We find ourselves when we are stretched, tormented, stressed and pushed to our limits. Inner reserves are summoned and strength of character is revealed under the harshest of circumstances. But when deprivation of the body, mind and soul force man beyond those limits, when his reserves are depleted and character no longer suffices, in desperation one may reach out to the divine, to that which is greater than the “I”. He empties his self and stretches out to God and for some, God answers. Abraham was answered, and he listened, changing all of human history. That is a pretty bold statement, but I think we can really back it up.

Abraham’s situation, in a convenient short wrap-up where I am clearly taking liberties for the sake of brevity, is that he was childless. Sarah, his wife, had not yet delivered them a child. That is a heartbreak as anyone who wants a child and does not have one well knows. In an ancient society where one is valued for and whose very survival depends on their progeny, it is all important. I hesitate to paraphrase God, and do not mean to be flippant, but, the basics of the story are that God told Abraham that he should leave his home and in return, God would make of him a great nation. To be more precise, He will “make his descendants as numerous as the stars”. What a beautiful, poetic phrase. Here is where we back up the idea that Abraham is one of the most profound figures in human history. I mean, he is a REALLY BIG DEAL because God kept his promise and as mentioned in passing the last time we chatted, 55% of the world’s population today sees Abraham as their spiritual predecessor. Given all the people who have lived, loved and shone in between, that is indeed a starry, beautiful night. Mind = blown.

In order to keep that world altering promise, Abraham needed a son. Sarah, wife of Abraham, eventually delivered a son and that boy was named Isaac. The promise was fulfilled. Yay! In his long life Abraham also learned some pretty important lessons on obedience, hospitality and welcoming strangers as well as this lesson in faith and trust. These are all lessons valued in Judaism, Christianity and Islam to this very day — again, Abraham is a BIG DEAL. But, let’s back up a bit because for the moment, we are focusing on his progeny.

You see, things are never simple or easy. Your life is full of tests and has challenges, so why wouldn’t Sarah’s face the same things? Perhaps people who lived thousands of years ago have more in common with us than we would like to think. The human condition has not changed. In summary: Life. Is. Hard. Before Isaac comes on the scene, Sarah has a major crisis of faith and she doubts if she will ever have a child. She decides to take matters into her own hands and puts another woman into Abraham’s hands, or rather his bed. Sarah gives her Egyptian slave named Hagar to Abraham and tells him to, um, well, you know. So he does. This seems so very strange to us; women don’t usually ask their husbands to lie with another woman and, well, you know. However, it was a different time with very different mores. Hagar was a slave and that meant Hagar was Sarah’s property — lock, stock and womb. If Hagar has a child, that child could be claimed by Sarah.  Boom! Progeny problem solved.

As you may have figured out by now, two women, one man and a maybe a baby in a tent in the desert turned out to be less than idyllic. Predictably, Sarah and Hagar were locked in battle, Sarah complains that this is all Abraham’s fault (huh?) and Abraham says, “Do what you want because she is your slave.” It was probably pretty ugly. I know it would be if that were going on in my tent. I don’t even like another women in my kitchen nevermind doing you know what with my you know who. Hagar is expelled from the tent and she flees to the desert (we’re back in the desert again!). There she is met by an angel. The angel tells her to return home, her descendants will be many, and she will in fact bear Abraham a son. She should name the boy Ishmael. Oh, and by the way, he’s gonna be a handful. In fact, the angel tells her that Ishmael will “be a wild donkey of a man” and will “live in hostility toward all his brothers”. Uh oh – that is ominous. As promised, Ishmael is born. Sarah later conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Abraham’s desert desolation and obedience to God is rewarded with two sons, and their innumerable, starry descendants, which might even include you.

A lot of this is familiar to you if you are Jewish or Christian. Some of you may be able to quote vast passages from Genesis by heart (I can’t. I was raised Catholic, so, yeah.). Isaac and Ishmael are probably not new figures to you. But, here is where it gets kind of interesting. If you are Muslim, the story follows very similarly. Hagar is an even more sympathetic figure and Ishmael looms larger. According to Islamic tradition, Ishmael is the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and a prophet in his own right. Ishmael is a very real, actual and physical link in the familial chain of succession that extends from Abraham to Muhammad. If you believe that Islam descends from Ishmael and Judaism and Christianity follow a line from Isaac, that kind of makes the Judeo-Christian faiths and the Islamic faiths into step-brothers. Whoa. Let that sink in for a minute. And now extrapolate a bit…. that’s quite a family squabble we see in the news everyday.

Wait! There is more! If that weren’t enough food for thought about how very closely Judaism, Christianity and Islam may be related in the very hearts and minds of adherents, we need to talk about the sacrifice on the stone that was so brilliantly painted by Caravaggio up above. (Fun fact: It is not a certainty that Caravaggio painted “Sacrifice of Isaac”.  Art historians believe it may have been painted by one of his proteges. There are certainly a lot of mights, maybe and who knows in history, right?) Anyway, back to the boy on the stone. That’s Isaac, right? Sure it is! For some of us. But if you are Muslim, it could very well be Ishmael. And just to make this all murkier, not all Muslims would claim it to be Ishmael. The point here is that one of the most powerful lessons on obedience to God (complying with God’s request to slay your own child is extreme obedience in any one’s book, be it Bible or otherwise) that can be found in any religious tradition may have featured Isaac or Ishmael on the stone, depending on what you believe. This is a seminal story for all three traditions. Obedience is one of the first lessons of all three traditions. It does not get any more elemental than this. One of these boys is a central figure in this lesson, the potential sacrifice. Please note that I am not taking a stand here or stating a fact as to who was on the stone. That’s up to you — I won’t tell you what to believe. You can absolutely yell at the computer and say, “What the heck, girl? That is Isaac <alternatively insert Ishmael here>! What kind of malarkey and blasphemy are you spewing?” Go ahead and yell — I can’t hear you anyway. Ha! Again, my point is that one of the crucial stories about arguably one of the most important figures in human history is deeply meaningful and instructive yet still divisive amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslim. We all take away the lesson of obedience, but we argue about the central figures from whom we learned it. Like one big, not so happy, step family, we are still fighting over who nearly did what to whom and why and where and what it means today. Fortunately, we all agree that no son was slain on the stone and God was merciful to his faithful servant, Abraham. Now there is a nice glimmer of agreement and hope. I love finding that silver lining.

If any of this interests you further, Bruce Feiler wrote a fantastic book titled Abraham. Feiler travels throughout the Holy Land and investigates the life of Abraham. He interviews archaeologists, theologians, priests, rabbis and imams. He talks to scholars and believers alike. He undertook his journalistic investigation (he is a journalist by trade) after September 11. He wanted to find our common roots, though the branches have long grown apart.  In it, he summarizes the life of Abraham thus:

“He has no mother. He has no past. He has no personality. The man who will redefine the world appears suddenly, almost as an afterthought, with no trumpet fanfare, no fluttering doves… [Abram]…goes on to abandon his father at age seventy-five, leave his homeland, move to Canaan, travel to Egypt, father two sons change his name, cut off part of his penis, do the same for his teenager and newborn, exile his first son, attempt to kill his second, fight a world war, buy some land, bury his wife, father another family, and die at one hundred-seventy-five.”

Quite an eventful life by anyone’s measure. I wonder what Abraham thinks of his children, we who are as numerous as the stars, our Jewish, Christian and Muslim step siblings. Be kind to your brothers and sisters. Peace, my friends.

 

In the Beginning. (On second thought, that’s a bit much to live up to.)

In embarking on this exercise to explore the world’s religious practices from behind a keyboard, we’ll have to start with some disclaimers.  “All stock recommendations and comments are the opinion of the writer. Investors should be cautious about any and all stock recommendations and should consider the source of any advice…” Wait, that’s not quite the one we need here, except for the “consider the source” part. Maybe “Side effects are uncommon but may include headache, nausea, vomiting, death, sleepiness, dizziness…” No, that’s not exactly right either. The real disclaimer is that I am NOT an expert and you have been warned to consider the source. I have a measly little B.A. in Religious Studies and that was earned about 3,065,975 years ago from a mediocre university.  But, what I lack in credentials is maybe made up for in enthusiasm. I read books about religion for fun. (Party on, Wayne!) Five years of teaching high schoolers forced me to read, read, read and digest information and then regurgitate it (ew, gross) in a way that was relevant to their lives and occasionally amusing. Except for the quizzes. Those sucked. You won’t have any quizzes. You’re welcome. So, to recap, I WILL make mistakes. Please comment, react and correct me. Let’s not make this a one-way street, aight?

One more comment on the disclaimer… it is entirely possible that you, dear reader, will become sleepy. Sorry about that. The good news is I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t die from reading this stuff unless you are simultaneously driving your car and reading, and then all bets are off. It’s between you and God. Or Buddha. Or G-d. Or Allah. Krishna, perhaps. You choose. That is our most important ground rule here — I’m not going to tell you who is right, or who is wrong. Believe what you believe, comment as you please, and be respectful. The point here is not to convince, convert, coerce or cajole. Disagree with me on facts and show me where I am incorrect. But, please do not tell me that the so-and-so’s are wrong about this-or-that because the Book of Pooh to which you ascribe says so. Here, we are simply taking a trip together and talking about how folks around the world experience the divine — their books, their beliefs, their customs, their holidays and their own internal divisions. We are not here to judge because ultimately we answer to a higher authority (Hebrew National hot dogs commercial, anyone? Here it is, in case you forgot about it.)

Hebrew National Hot Dogs, circa 1975

Necessary legal paperwork now out of the way, let’s begin…

In the beginning, man decided he was not alone. He depended on the Earth, the Sky, the Water, the Air for his life. He thanked the unknown forces of the Universe, he thanked Mother Earth, he turned to all four directions in praise. Primitive religions are a fascinating topic. Indeed, ancient faiths like Hinduism and Judaism still very much feature and maintain close connections to the Earth and our dependence on the elements for survival. But, the major faiths in practice today (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) are the ones that are having great geo-political impact. Whether you favor Fake News, Fox News, CNN, NPR, BBC, or Twitter for your world perspective (and for the love of Pete, please don’t rely on Facebook for your news), you cannot avoid these religions. A grounding in where they came from can perhaps help us understand where we are all collectively going.

Where does one jump in to this, or make that leap of faith, so to speak? There are different approaches to classifying faiths. We can look at things from a monotheistic (one God/deity) vs polytheistic (many Gods/deities) perspective. Or we can try to compare and contrast Eastern vs Western religions. These breakdowns don’t really work so well. For example, it is tempting to label Hinduism as a polytheistic religion.  On the face of it, it certainly looks that way. But digging deeper we find an underlying philosophy of one-ness. So, yeah, that’s not really going to work.

elephanta
Hey guys! Check this out! Is it the Many Faced God from Game of Thrones? No, it’s the Trimurti Shiva from the Elephanta caves in Bombay harbor. These faces represent the creative, protective and destructive/recreative powers of the Hindu god Shiva. That’s some heady stuff. (Get it? Three heads? Okay, okay.)

East/West comparisons also kind of fail because religion travels across all borders. We fly all over the place at the drop of a hat — for personal pleasure, for better opportunities, to satisfy wanderlust, to escape persecution, to escape war. Look around and you’ll find that there are plenty of Christians in the East (over 67 million in China) and a boatload of Buddhists in America (about 3-4 million; it’s a big boat). Islam has spread across the globe and is the fastest growing religion worldwide. According to Pew Research Center, it could very well eclipse the number of Christians worldwide by the middle of the 21st Century. Religion and man really know no borders. Rudyard Kipling seemed to be hinting at this when he wrote,

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

So how do we start to tackle all of this? We start with Abraham. In my ever so humble opinion, Father Abraham (🎵 …had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham! Enjoy the flashback to camp.) is one of the most important figures in human history. This guy changed it all. Approximately 55% of the current world’s population (give or take a percent; numbers ain’t my thang) sees Abraham as their spiritual father. That is one heck of a family tree. We’re going to begin with his story and see where he takes us. Next time, I’ll meet you in the desert.

Around the world in 150 pages?

sikh plane

I have started and stopped so many blog posts. The problem with my writing is that it only seems to come from intensely personal places. The loss of my father started my fingers flying and then weight loss prompted me to expose my self in more than one way. (By the way, that has been holding steady, for those interested. I’m working on those pesky body dysmorphia issues at the moment. Who is that in the mirror? A horse of a different color, surely.) Short stories have been started and stopped. A novel idea has bounced around in the back of my brain and sprinkled a few pages. But, since the novel was not really very novel, those soggy pages are abandoned. I have even gone so far as to take a Creative Writing course at the local community college. I do love the course and have met interesting folks. A few of them have unique voices that jump off the page. I want them to write more, I want to hear them speak to me, and I find my own voice muted in comparison. It all just falls flat at the moment. But, perhaps, perchance, might and maybe and it could possibly just be, in its inexplicable way, divine inspiration has struck. (That’s going to turn out to be a pun, by the way.)

What has always moved and fascinated me was the multitude of ways that humans try to connect with each other, with “the other”, with the divine, and with their inner selves. These efforts broadly fall under the heading of “religion”. If you’ve known me for five minutes or met me on an airplane, if you sat next to me at Starbucks or sat across from me at a table for eight in a ballroom, you know I taught World Religions for five years. I know, I belabor it. You are all pretty sick of hearing about “When I was teaching….” or “One of my old students just…” But, those years were the most rewarding years of my life in terms of touching and interacting with humanity. So much was shared, learned and gained — by me. I hope my students got something along the way, too, but I was the greatest benefactor.

So, where is this all going? I am struggling as someone who wants to write. I am despairing in our current divisive political climate. My voice has been silenced in many ways but still seeks a way out. And I am left with no inspiration and have started to hate the pronoun “I”. And then I (there it is again) saw an article yesterday about a Sikh man who was unknowingly photographed and snapchatted (or Instagrammed, who the heck can keep up?) on a flight and the man who was taking his photos was captioning that he was afraid of the terrorist when the turbaned gentleman got up to use the bathroom, was relieved when this terrifying figure fell asleep, that he was “still alive!”, etc. Lightning from the blue! A blog about religions of the world. For laymen. You know, normal people like you and me. Something not intimidating, not full of esoteric and highly metaphysical and philosophical tangents, perhaps with personal anecdotes, approachable, factual and as judgment free as humanly possible. A Huston Smith for the commoners; a guidebook for our globalized world. My old course, in blog form, and without the constraints of Catholic doctrine and adolescent students.

So, that’s the idea. If I can stop one Sikh from being mistaken for a terrorist, stop one more Muslim from being persecuted for the beliefs and actions of a subset of his faith, stop one more woman outside a Charlotte Indian grocer from having a gun pointed at her while she is nursing her baby, explain what the heck karma really is, shine a little light in a darkening world, then that is a reason to write, and it is very personal indeed. Oh, and it is super fun to write about all of the Hindu gods and goddesses and the music of Matisyahu. Bal Shem Tov, anyone?