Painting Merciful (Ar-Rahim)

Painting Merciful (Ar-Rahim)

99 Names Project Introduction (Part 5)

The concerns about diluting faith identity, however, are real, strong, and deep.  Many people feel threatened when introduced to ideas which seem to challenge the beliefs they cherish.  We define ourselves by these beliefs, and sometimes when new realms of faith are shown to us, the desperate question comes into our minds, “Then what if my beliefs are wrong?”  And that becomes an immediate danger to the very core of our identity.

But there is a different way to look at this, and coming across something outside of our beliefs does not have to feel like a challenge.

I was teaching a Sunday School class for an Episcopal congregation.  “Why,” one of the class members asked, “do evangelicals always want to tell me about Jesus?  I’m already Christian, and it’s annoying.”  Clarifying that I could not represent evangelicals, or really anyone beyond myself, I said I thought I could understand their rationale.  I have had a number of surgeries, I explained, an experience shared by many people in the room.  With the gratitude I have felt for procedures well done, I could imagine how much stronger that gratitude would be for the work of a heart surgeon who saved my life.  “Wouldn’t you want to share with your friends the name of the doctor who saved your life?”  I asked.  “I imagine it’s very similar.  People who feel their souls have been saved, hopefully everyone in the room (this drew a laugh), have the right and desire to share the Name of their savior to everyone they can.”

Since all of us are unique, of “different nations and tribes” as the Qur’an states, our understanding, views, and words for a Higher Power are bound to be different.  It would be astounding if they weren’t.  Just as everyone with a Divine experience has a right to share it, everyone has the right to different experiences–each of us is unique.  And each unique view, rather than challenging what we have, can add to it.

There is an ancient story, told pretty much everywhere there are elephants, about several blind magis and their first experience with an elephant.  Each came to the elephant at a different spot–one to the elephant’s trunk, one to the tail, one to a leg, one to the elephant’s expansive side.  The magi feeling the trunk said, “An elephant is like a snake!”  The one feeling the tail said, “It is like a rope!”  The magi feeling the leg said, “It’s like a tree!”  And the one feeling the side said, “An elephant is a great leathery cliff!”  Each was right in his or her perception, and each would have a greater appreciation for what the elephant really is by learning from the perception of the others.

If the Creator is truly an Infinite Being, no human can comprehend Him fully, and all of us need the perceptions of our neighbors to help broaden our own understanding of the Divine.  Rather than having our innermost beliefs threatened by the beliefs of others, we can let down our defenses enough to listen without feeling challenged (or having to challenge), behave agreeably about things on which we disagree, and cherish fair parallels and similarities.

Rather than converting to Islam, I find the process of learning about Islam helps me better appreciate my Muslim neighbors, and in turn makes me a better Christian.  Having read the Qur’an, I can see many parallels to the Bible; I can also begin to see how deeply the Qur’an influences the lives of those covenanted to follow its principles.  The points of divergence between Christianity and Islam have become less points of contention, and more opportunities for discussion.  Muslims are “Children of the Book,” along with Jews and Christians, tracing their spiritual lineage to Abraham through his son Ishmael.  Although points of doctrine are different, as are traditions and even holidays, underneath it all I remember we are in a very real sense brothers and sisters, and of course, all of us are children of Adam.

Turkey has had a difficult history.  With the extreme secularism of the Ataturk government, many people have been terrified to openly observe their faith.  A friend, Ozkur Yildiz of Pacifica Institute, shared how this has changed in just the last couple years.  “My home town has a central square bordered by a Synagogue, a Mosque, and a beautiful Christian chapel, which have all been disused and neglected for years.  Finally, we can observe our religious beliefs openly, and this has lead to something wonderful.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims joined in cleaning out and repairing each others’ holy buildings; all of us celebrate the festivities of our respective faiths; all of us are happy to support each other in our different beliefs.  The doors of our meeting places open towards each other in my home town’s central square, and our hearts have done the same.”

There have been difficulties in moving the 99 Names Project forward.  In researching and learning about other belief systems, sometimes it is difficult to tell when the voices of truth are shadowed by inaccuracy, poor information, and outright lies; returning to the source materials and pleading for guidance from the Spirit regularly helps in finding the truth behind those shadows.  There are still those who find the Project thoughtless, disrespectful, and at worse dangerous, but those voices are eclipsed with the many who find, like me, that a door into a brighter world is being opened.  “I am so grateful you are doing this,” one Muslim visitor told me, “it is wonderful to have someone showing respect for the things I treasure.”

As I learn more about Islam, I am also learning more about what it means to be a Christian.  Neighbors of whom I was afraid have become friends, and an expanding understanding of Muslim spiritual culture has helped deepen and grow my own Christian beliefs.  I hope the prayer of my friend Dr. Bachman proves to be true–as we support each other in our efforts to live our faiths, all of us may rise together.