Friday, May 25, 2012

Acts of Faith, Part 2 of 4

I found Acts of Faith to be relevant to my own life. As I read through, I reflected on my past and thought about the positive experiences had (and continue to have) with my friends and associates of different religions. Each has been a blessing from God. How? Each helped me grow at listening, being empathetic, and constructing fruitful dialog. Each helped me better appreciate people for who they are regardless of competing theology. Each deepened my appreciation for America's First Amendment (freedom of religion). Most importantly, my Catholic faith was sharpened each time. How could it not? My conscience was being constantly challenged to re-answer pivotal questions: Why Jesus? Why is He divine? Why the Catholic Church? Obviously, I can answer these to my own satisfaction, but, interfaith dialogue also requires that I "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pet 3:15).

When I attended Catholic grade school, all my classmates were Catholic except for an Indian girl named Rita*. This difference was barely noticeable; Rita was like the rest in all things minus participating in the sacraments. If I remember correctly, she attended my school because her parents wanted to give her a good private education. I have nothing more to add -- we were friendly but rarely associated. Rita may not remember me today, but her presence was probably the start of my interfaith journey.

Near the time of middle school, I became really good friends with a boy, Raji*, who just moved into my neighborhood. He and his family were Muslims from Bangladesh. However, foreign religion and geography wasn't very comprehensible to me in my youth. No matter how often I heard they were from Bangladesh, I inevitably (and honestly) would fallback and refer to them as Indian. What was the difference? I knew no better. I was a culturally obtuse American kid!

I remember spending morning to night at Raji's house for the better part of several summers. We were aspiring computer nerds (programming Microsoft BASIC), video game diehards (playing anything Nintendo), and students of the same piano teacher. We had lots of fun. I also got lots of exposure to a different way of living compared to my Catholic surroundings. For example, they had no religious icons in their home. Not that my house was busting with religious imagery in comparison, but, with a keen eye, a small crucifix and some saint prayer cards might be found. I casually noted the difference then; today I can look back and understand the underlying reasons.

Islam proscribes images of their holy messengers lest idolatry occurs; abstract designs and intricate geometric patterns are preferred as a means to contemplate God's incomprehensibility. Here is how Titus Burckhardt, 20th century connoisseur of Islamic art, describes it: "By excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within the religious realm, Islamic art ... avoids everything that could be an 'idol', even in a relative and provisional manner. Nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God. Thus Islamic art creates a void; it eliminates in fact all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world, and in their stead creates an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace." (Wikipedia, Aniconism in Islam).

On the contrary, Christianity professes that someone stands between man and the invisible presence of God. He is the Son of God, called Jesus, who stands between the Father and us as Mediator (1 Tim 2:5; John 14:6). With the coming of Jesus, the incomprehensible became comprehensible and the invisible made visible: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). God made visible, not just in some phenomenological manifestation (like a dream or burning bush) but through flesh and blood (a real man), is the ultimate art -- the perfect anthropomorphic image -- whom our senses can behold and worship. Rather than abandoning the senses, the Christian directs the "passionate suggestions of the world" to Him who alone can subdue them and grant serenity and peace.