"Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!" --Ms. Frizzle

"Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!" --Ms. Frizzle

Sunday, September 5, 2010

On Tolerance

For this post, I will be deviating from the usual format of updates and family pictures. I should also mention that "the views and opinions expressed in this post are the author's alone and do not reflect the views of the entire family," or something like that. Oh yeah, and I'll be writing on a very personal and sensitive topic, and absolutely do not want to offend anyone. Basically, if you feel like skipping over this one, or leaving me a comment that disagrees 100% with what I have to say, I won't mind. I'm really just writing this for myself... I had some thoughts that were demanding to be let out.

I can't help but wonder how our world has managed to become so religiously intolerant. I do mean that in two ways: first, that many people are intolerant of differing religions, and second, that some seem to have made a religion out of intolerance, defining their faith in terms of who they are not like and who they do not agree with. They believe that only themselves and a relatively small group of others who think exactly as they do are in God's good graces, and that the rest of the rabble are misguided at best, evil-hearted at worst, and ultimately doomed in either event. Now, as an anthropologist I get it. I understand how cultures arrive at this point, but I struggle to understand why.

Every person in this world who has ever lived, or will ever someday live, has a path to walk from birth to death. There are no exceptions, and in this truth we are all united, every last human being. And yet with all these billions upon billions of eyes looking out at the world, no two pairs have seen the exact same thing. In this truth we are utterly unique. These are the forces that pull people together and drive them apart: that we are simultaneously identical and disparate. Talk about powerful stuff.

As individuals, we are all blessed with a mind that is entirely our own. No two people will envision divinity in exactly the same way, just as every thought a person conceives has the stamp of his or her own unique brain on it. This holds true whether the two people are absolute strangers living on different continents, or whether they have been married for decades and sit beside one another in church each week. And what does it matter, when the God each one of us sees when we close our eyes is really just a human construct? Here's what I mean: the words we say about that which is divine, the images we create, the voice we give it-- these things are not divinity itself. Divinity is something outside the possible experience of a single person, so to even discuss the concept we have to start framing the divine in our own mundane terms. Suddenly this abstraction, this beautiful gut feeling about life and the world we live in is assigned a name, a gender, a language, a form. This is not only understandable, but necessary. How else can we relate to something so all-encompassing as God itself? The problem arises when time passes and we forget that the framework of religion is only a tool for talking about something greater.

Many people, myself included, find some sort of meaning in the path of life. We see it all around us-- our fellow human beings struggling through life's ups and downs just as we do-- and we feel it deep within us. We seek to understand this sense of meaning, and we seek to share it with others, undaunted by the fact that, whatever idea of the divine we hold in our hearts, it is completely original. Out of this desire to share comes religion, an organized system in which a myriad of different perceptions of God can be blended, united, and called "one." But out of the desire to understand the meaning we feel comes faith, and that is personal. That is what we take with us on our solitary journey.

So the God in my thoughts looks different from the one in yours. Is that so frightening? Does degree of difference really matter when, as it turns out, we're all a little different anyway? Symmachus, a Roman senator from the Fourth Century, put it this way: It is reasonable to assume that whatever each of us worships can be considered one and the same. We look up at the same stars, the same sky is above us all, and the same universe encompasses us. What difference does it make which system each of us uses to find the truth? It is not by just one route that man can arrive at so great a mystery. I believe tolerance stems from the knowledge that no single person, no single religion, can fully understand divinity. It's simply too huge, too abstract. But we can gather our understanding in pieces, bit by bit, person by person. There is unity in that. Together, we are whole.

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