How stories of belief define our lives
If there's one thing we have in common when it comes to God, it's that we all have a story.
When I was 20 I was engaged to marry a soon-to-be-ordained Lutheran minister. While he was preparing to devote his life to being a spiritual leader in one church, I was in college and just beginning to study world religions, large and small. Learning about different traditions leads some people deeper into their own faith. Others find reason to convert, or to reject God or religion altogether. For me, delving into the ways people express their connection to the sacred, or map their understanding of the universe, made the world bigger and richer and more exciting than I could have imagined. It also changed my love life.
Testing the waters, I asked my fianc? how he would feel if I decided to become, say, a Buddhist.
'If it's right for you, I would respect that,' he replied. I was happily surprised and relieved by his response. But I was even more surprised at my reaction after he asked, 'The question is, will you still respect me if I remain a Christian?'
That was a humbling moment, one that proved to be a crossroads in my life. I found I couldn't immediately say yes, and I was mortified. I respected the faith of this person I loved. It was the faith of my family, of the community in which I was raised. It was my faith. But right at that moment, I realized I was capable of -- even prone to -- a potentially radical departure. Buddhism had been the easy religion to bring up. But I was also attracted to Islam, Paganism, and Hinduism. And I was intrigued by the agnostics, and even the atheists, I'd met who seemed to me richly spiritual. I suddenly realized I didn't know where I'd land, but it was certain that my fianc? and I were embarking on different spiritual paths. And so my life took a turn.
When the December tsunami devastated Asia, we at the Utne offices were researching this issue on the future of God. For weeks we had been reading religious books and magazines and finding story after story about war and conflict. Then after listening to the news coming from the Indian Ocean where so many lost their lives -- including an Utne staff member's relative who died in Sri Lanka -- I was looking for solace. I picked up Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi, which had been on my reading table for years. Skimming the introduction, I read the line I have a story that will make you believe in God. I knew I'd found the next story I needed to read.
The novel begins in a beach town in Tamil Nadu, one of the Indian states hit by the tsunami. Pi Patel, a young Hindu boy, decides he also wants to be a devoted Christian, as well as a Muslim. He wants to practice three religions at once. The adults in Pi's life are outraged. But they pause in their bickering when he, explaining to them that he just wants to love God, quotes Gandhi: 'All religions are true.'
I like Pi's approach. Years after my fianc? and I broke up, I joined that nebulous segment of the population that identifies itself as 'spiritual but not religious.' I'm still trying to figure out what that means. As we put together this issue, I've been thinking about people around the world who go to churches, temples, synagogues, and shrines to worship, celebrate, connect -- and belong. I've also been thinking about how our beliefs can create barriers in politics, in our own families, in our love lives -- and how religious wars are being fought around the world.
The belief structures in which we operate, no matter how well-defined or how open-ended, shape our lives. They determine what we gravitate toward and what we keep at a distance. I've come to appreciate what Pi says when his family and community harass him for his beliefs: 'It is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. . . . The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.'