World religions and the LCC

I would rather have a Muslim family or two living in the neighborhood and practicing Sharia Law than be surrounded by neighbors active in the Lawn Care Cult (LCC).

In fact I would be delighted to live in a religiously diverse neighborhood, populated by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Daoists, Confucianists—even an eloquent atheist or two. I would want to organize a neighborhood book club in which we read about one another’s sacred traditions and discussed them respectfully—not as a debate, but as a genuine gathering to understand each other. But no matter how long I live, I will never understand the LCC.

A thought came to me while I was mowing this morning. My attitude toward lawn care resembles the attitude many people have toward Christianity: one hour a week is sufficient to meet my needs, and often other priorities cancel even that one hour of the week. I go through the proper motions to get through the hour as quickly as I can; and when I’m done, I’m done. God understands. Anyhow, I’ve never been too impressed with organized lawn care.

I started mowing after nine o’clock this morning. Mrs. Dim started mowing and trimming at seven. After all, you have to get to work early in the summer, before the day gets too hot. Churches ring their bells on Sunday mornings, so why shouldn’t members of the LCC be active early in the day? My daughters were grumpy about waking up to the noise, but I have taught them to be respectful about other people’s religious beliefs and practices.

I have said before that I wish I could be as zealous in my Christianity as Mrs. Dim is with her lawn care. Perhaps the problem is that the LCC has not found a way to make lawn care an uplifting experience. They have not experimented with ways to make lawn care more attractive to people new to the community, those who have not grown up nurtured in the LCC and its practices. They have not had meetings in which they ask each other what would make lawn care more attractive to those who are not part of their group. They do have pamphlets and flyers (from the Cooperative Extension Service and from Home Depot) and they have a weekly column in the local newspaper—in the very same section that contains the weekly religious column, the daily television listings, and the daily comics.

Noon is approaching, and Mrs. Dim is still finding tasks to keep her busy in her back yard. She calls it “piddling,” which sounds odd to me. I always thought “piddling” was what a puppy did on the kitchen floor if you didn’t get the puppy outside quickly enough. I have finished mowing, did a little trimming, and put my tools away long ago—I’ve had a shower and gotten some other tasks done, which is normal for a Saturday. In fact, since I started tying this paragraph, Mrs. Dim started blowing imaginary dirt off her deck, which has led to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” playing on my CD player. Oh, for some Sharia to discuss sometime! J.

 

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Who is correct about religion?

What are the origins of religion? Why are so many people so religious, while others are so hostile toward religion? Why are there so many religions in the world, and why are they so different from each other?

Traditional practitioners of religion generally believe that their religion is the true religion and that all other religions are distortions of the truth. Take the two largest religions: traditional Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Christians believe that the first people to live in the world knew Jesus and that Moses and the prophets foretold the birth and mission of Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying that Moses and the prophets wrote about him. Traditional Muslims believe that Allah is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Muslims believe that the first people to live in the world knew Allah and that Moses and the prophets (including Jesus) all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, the message that is written as the Quran. Traditional Muslims say firmly that Jews and Christians follow distorted messages from the prophets of Allah but that the Quran is the true and timeless message from Allah.

When I went to college, I learned about a different approach to the history of religion. This could be called the evolutionary approach. According to this approach, primitive humans did not understand the world and were in awe of its workings, from the violence of thunderstorms to the regular growing of crops. What they did not understand they attributed to spirits, and they came to believe that powerful but invisible spirits filled the world. Over time, they began to worship some of these spirits as gods. Heroes from earlier times were also remembered and worshiped as gods. Each culture had its own gods, although they often would borrow gods from one another. Over time, different cultures began to think that their god was better than all the other gods. They would consider success—in warfare, in agriculture, in business, or in any other sphere—as proof that they were honoring the strongest of the gods. After many generations, some cultures began to develop monotheism—the belief in one god. Monotheism appeared briefly in Egypt but was rejected. It appeared in Israel as monotheistic Judaism, and it appeared in Persia as monotheistic Zoroastrianism. Christianity and Islam then developed from these two monotheistic religions, gaining the power to share their beliefs with other civilizations and convert them. Finally, during the Baroque period of European history, thinkers in what they called the Enlightenment developed deism. Deists believe that a god created the world and established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living. However the god of the deists is not presently active in the world. This god has been compared to a watchmaker who assembles the watch, winds the spring, and leaves it to run on its own. Deists do not believe in miracles. They do not believe that worship or prayer have any value. Their focus is largely on learning and following the moral teachings established by god at the beginning of time. Today many atheists and agnostics consider themselves the heirs of deism, the final step in the evolution of religion which began with primitive people who do not understand the world but ends with scientific people who both understand and control their world.

Both views of religion are internally consistent, so which one is more likely to be true? Has religion evolved from primitive times to the present, or has religion de-evolved from a shared set of beliefs to many different forms of religion? Which position is best supported by the evidence that is available?

Many of the indigenous religions of Africa and the South Pacific islands have a core of monotheism with a twist: practitioners of these religions believe that a single powerful god made the world and all that exists. They also believe that this god is no longer involved in the world. Whether this god lost interest in the world or whether this god is angry that people have broken the moral laws, the god is no longer available to people of this world. Many other spiritual beings have arisen, though, to watch over people. They exist to hear and answer the prayers of people, to grant good things to people who worship them and who live moral lives but to bring trouble to those who do not worship the lesser gods and do not live by the moral code. Early Chinese texts also indicate that monotheism was believed by the earliest Chinese writers. The multitude of gods in Chinese thought developed largely from the belief that ancestors remained spiritually present after death to watch over the families, rewarding them for holding to the old ways and punishing them for developing new ways. Monotheism changed to polytheism as these glorified ancestors took the place of gods. Advantage: de-evolution.

The moral code of the world’s religions is remarkably similar wherever it appears. The basic rules about honoring the divine and being kind to other people are found in every religion. The Golden Rule—to treat others as you want to be treated—is expressed in every religion. Traditional believers see this as proof that the one true God put his Law in the hearts of people everywhere. Those who favor the evolution of religion search for details to prove diversity rather than a common set of teachings. They point to details—some religions permit and encourage the abandonment of unwanted babies and of the elderly while others condemn those acts as murder—but the former group views the death of the weak as a kindness to them and not as cruelty. Those who abandon their parents in such cultures hope that their own children will abandon them when they can no longer take care of themselves. The pursuit of kindness remains their motivation. Advantage: de-evolution.

Ever since the start of the so-called Enlightenment, self-labeled progressives have prepared the world for the end of religion. Science and education will end our silly superstitions, they say, and humanity will fulfill its destiny by forsaking primitive beliefs for modern and enlightened thoughts. Their announcement of the death of religion has been badly premature. Even in the atheist state of the Soviet Union, Christianity remained alive but largely hidden for seventy years. When the Soviet Union ended, the churches reopened. Humanity has not outgrown its need for a god; science and technology have brought world wars and polluted environments and the possibility of destruction of life on this planet, but religion brings hope that God remains in control of the world he made. The failure of religion to disappear—its continued importance in the lives of most humans—indicates that people are not evolving away from primitive superstitions that led to religion. Some may drift away, and their drifting may take them different directions, but religion continues to be meaningful and significant in the twenty-first century. Advantage: de-evolution.

Those who announce the evolution of religion and its eventual demise search through the holy books of religion—especially the Bible—seeking evidence that religion has developed over time. They point to scattered verses, taken out of context, to try to prove that ancient Israel changed from polytheism to henotheism (“My god is better than your god”) to monotheism. With their bits of evidence, they tell themselves that they have won the debate, just as other people are convinced they can prove that Paul McCartney died in 1965 or that Elvis Presley is still alive. This debate will not end in the foreseeable future, because both sides have a deeply held conviction—one might say, a religious faith—that they are right and the other side is wrong. Only in time will the final verdict be known. J.

 

First Friday Fiction: An Incomplete Stranger

I don’t know why Annabelle Valentine is taking the class on World Religions. What is more, I’m not even sure why Annabelle is taking any class at Tech.

Every Tuesday and Thursday she strolls into the classroom and drops her backpack on the table with a weary sigh. When she speaks about the textbook or about the writing assignments—which isn’t often—she speaks in a tired and bored voice. “Can you believe how long that chapter was?” she asks in general, or, “Is there any chance we’ll get out early today?” She sits in her chair during class, curled with her feet underneath her as if she was in her living room rather than at school. While the instructor talks, she takes no notes. Instead, she twists the ends of her long black hair around her fingers or studies her brightly-painted nails.

Annabelle is not always bored. She talks with animation about recent books and movies. She can discuss Hunger Games at great length and with authority and conviction. She can match music groups to their latest tunes with unerring accuracy, and she can remember who is in tour and when they will be in the area. All these things she can do, but I don’t know why she is in college.

I know why I am in college, and I know why I am studying World Religions. For as long as I can remember, I have needed a good reason for everything I do. Before I signed up for this class, I reminded my parents that all sorts of people shop at the farmers’ market. It helps our sales if one of us knows at least a little about our customers and what they are thinking. If someone shopping at the market should happen to be Hindu or Buddhist, or—God help us!—Muslim, the information I’ve gained about their beliefs and practices can help me to connect with them. There may not be any more Hindus or Buddhists in this city than there are Mennonites, but surely there are some. A little knowledge about their religion, I told my parents, can do me no harm.

My parents and I are Mennonite. We live on a farm about fifteen miles east of the city, where we raise much of our own food and enough extra food to sell to others. Companies like Tyson have taken business away from small farms like ours, but interest in fresh and local food has never entirely disappeared. Lately, such interest has grown.

When I tell people that I am Mennonite, I always must add, “but not Amish.” My parents and I do not go to extremes. We wear clothes with buttons and zippers. We drive cars and trucks. We have electricity and running water. Anything that is useful, we can use. We strive, though, to avoid the empty and useless luxuries of the world. What we do not need, we do not have. We have no television. We have a radio, but we only turn it on when we might be in danger from the weather. The clothes we wear are simple and durable, with no bright or flashy colors. The food we eat is healthy, not laden with sugar or with factory chemicals. We do not dance or play cards or go to movies. My father brews his own beer, mead, and wine.

My parents taught me at home for as long as they felt that they could. Beginning in the seventh grade, I went to public school. I entered school at a difficult time. My fellow students had already made friends with one another. I was an outsider. They quickly noticed that all my clothing is the same. They laughed at me for missing their favorite TV programs and for knowing none of their favorite songs.

After two years, I finally persuaded my father that I need a computer to do my schoolwork. He bought me a desktop computer, but he had a man at the store remove all the games before he brought the computer home. Internet access was only added later after another long discussion and many promises about what I would not do online. Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”

In spite of his protests, Father usually allows me to do anything I can defend to him as a useful activity. I am their only child, so Father and Mother plan that I will take over the farm when they no longer can manage it. Meanwhile, they expect me to prepare myself to be diligent and productive. After another long discussion and a year of waiting, I convinced Father and Mother that a high school diploma is no longer enough in today’s world, even for a farmer. College classes are necessary now. Together the three of us look at the class listings and discuss which classes will be most useful for my education. Nothing frivolous is permitted. Whenever I enroll for a class, I already have found a reason for me to take that class. Whenever I walk into a classroom, I know exactly why I am there.

Perhaps Annabelle needs someone like Mother or Father to question her about why she is in college, forcing her to defend every class she chooses to take. On the first day of class, the instructor had each of us say a little bit about our religious background and to say why we are taking the class. Annabelle said, “My parents used to take me to a Baptist Church, so I guess I’m a Baptist. I guess I signed up for this class because I’m curious about what other people believe.” Father would never allow me to guess about anything, least of all about matters of faith. “Know what you believe,” he says, “or you don’t believe anything at all.”

We have read about and discussed Indigenous Religions, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, and Zoroastrians. Annabelle seems bored by all of them. Last Tuesday’s class was livelier than the earlier classes. We began discussing the chapter on Judaism. The instructor spent much of the hour summarizing Old Testament history. At least half the students in the class recognize names such as Abraham and Moses and David. Several of us took part in the discussion. The instructor promised that on Thursday we would cover Jewish history from Roman times until the present, as well as Jewish holidays and observances.

As we were packing our books, Annabelle turned around and said to me, “I guess you know your Bible pretty well.”

I was startled. She had never spoken to me before. “I should. I’ve been taught from the Bible all my life,” I stammered.

“You said on the first day that you’re a Mennonite,” she said. I nodded. “I want to learn more about Mennonites,” she commented. “My boyfriend’s a Mennonite.” Then, without even taking a breath, she corrected herself. “He’s not my boyfriend, though—he’s the one that I love.”

Her words rang in my ears as we walked out the doorway. I am sure that I know all the Mennonites for miles around. Could she mean Caleb? Surely not! Caleb has been married for almost a year. Could she mean Frank? Frank would never be interested in someone as worldly as Annabelle, and I find it hard to imagine that she would see anything attractive about him. Every other Mennonite man I can remember is either too old or too young to be her boyfriend, or the one that she loves. She must know some other Mennonite family that I have never met.

We were walking together down the hall, so I asked her, “What do you mean by that expression, ‘not my boyfriend, but the one that you love’?”

“He doesn’t know that I love him,” she answered, and she smiled at me with glowing eyes.

“I see,” I said, although I didn’t understand her at all. I wasn’t sure what question to ask to find out what I wanted to know. I saw that we were near the restrooms. “Excuse me,” I said, and I darted into the men’s room.

“See you on Thursday,” she called after me.

We did not see each other on Thursday. Wednesday night the instructor sent out an email saying that she had fallen ill and would have to cancel Thursday’s class. She told us to keep up our reading and work on our essays, and she would catch up on the lectures when she had regained her health.

The instructor addressed her one email to all the students in the class. I don’t know why, but I skimmed through the addresses to see if I could guess which is Annabelle’s. Undoubtedly hers was the last on the list: ABHeart, then a number, and then @aol.com . My address is even more prosaic: the letter d, then my last name, followed by my zip code, and then @gmail.com .

The week passed slowly. Annabelle’s name came into my head again and again, even though I tried to drive it away. I kept on seeing her face, her eyes, her smile. I did not dream about her, but I woke in the morning thinking about her, just as if she had been in my dreams.

Thursday night I did something I had never done before. I typed the name Annabelle Valentine into Google. Thousands of listings appeared in fifteen hundredths of a second. I added the name of our city to the search. The Annabelle who sits in front of me in World Religions rose to the top of the search. She won awards in high school as a cheerleader. Her grandfather died a year and a half ago. She has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

I could feel my heart pounding. If Mother or Father should see what I was doing, trouble would follow, as surely as an east wind brings rain. They would not punish me, of course, but they would disapprove, and their disapproval would be worse than any punishment.

Annabelle’s Facebook page does not allow me to see anything about her unless I create an account on Facebook first, which of course is something I must not do. Her Twitter account is just the opposite. I skimmed through the last six weeks of her tweets, merely curious to see what she was saying about her life. Scattered among comments about a wide range of subjects were three tweets that made my heart race. The first read, “A cute boy in religion class. Need 2 find a way 2 talk 2 him.” Two weeks later, she wrote, “Does he know how he stares? A little creepy but strangely instead I’m flattered.” Then, on Tuesday night, “All but told him today I love him. His turn now.”

My head swam. Of course I had thought that she might mean me when she spoke of someone she loves who doesn’t know it. How many Mennonites can she have met? I persuaded myself that I was being vain and worldly to think such a thought. Now that I knew what she meant, I had no idea what to do about that knowledge. If it was my turn now, I had better find out first what sort of game she is playing.

Friday night I was online again, researching for my paper. An incoming email box appeared in the corner of the screen. “Danny, R U there?” I read. The message was from ABHeart.

My mouth was so dry I could not swallow. I thought about ignoring the message, but my parents had taught me never to be rude. “I’m here,” I wrote.

“What R U doing?”

“I’m doing research for school.” I wrote. “And you?”

“Just sitting in my little apartment thinking about U.”

I wasn’t sure what to write next. What are the rules to this game? “I’m not sure Mother and Father would approve,” I typed. As soon as I pressed “send” I grimaced. I could tell that I should have written something else instead.

“Approve of what?”

“A young lady starting a conversation with a complete stranger. That was never done in their day.”

“So do U need Ur parents approval? Haven’t U grown up yet?”

I had made a mistake mentioning Mother and Father. I did not know if I could recover. “I figured you wouldn’t understand. Approval means a lot in my family. ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’ doesn’t come with an expiration date. Not in our way of seeing things.”

“Whatever. I just wanted to schedule an interview with U 4 my paper. I want 2 write about Mennonites.”

“Maybe before or after class on Tuesday.”

“R U busy all weekend?”

“This is short notice for tomorrow. Sunday’s out of the question.”

“OK. Fine. Tues then. BTW, nobody’s perfect.”

“I never said that I was perfect.”

“U did 2. U called Urself a perfect stranger. lol.”

I scrolled through our conversation to check my memory. I remembered correctly.

“Wrong. I said a complete stranger, not a perfect stranger.”

There was a delay, probably while she scrolled too.”

“U win. But make sure U R complete. No pieces missing.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Never forget U told me that. Good night. C U Tues”

“Good night.”

I closed the email before Mother or Father might walk in and see it. I wondered what they would think of Annabelle. I know they would be aghast that she contacted me via the computer. As I told her, in their time young women were not so forward. Perhaps Mother and Father would see Annabelle as another Eve, already tainted by the serpent of the world, now tempting me with its forbidden fruit of idle pursuits and empty pleasures. But I am no Adam. I do not live in a perfect Garden, and there is no one woman created only for me. I am more of an Isaac, surrounded by worldly unbelievers. My Rebekah will have to be found among our own people, no matter how far away she lives. My parents and I have never discussed my future marriage openly. Still, I know their thinking. First I must prove myself on the farm, showing that I am ready to support a family. Then a Rebekah will be found for me.

All weekend I pondered Annabelle and her messages. I thought of her as I fed the chickens, as I gathered the eggs, as I helped Father check the newly-planted crops, as I pulled weeds from Mother’s herb garden, and as I milked our one dairy cow. I confessed to myself that I could not picture Annabelle at my side helping with any of these chores. Nor could I imagine her taking Mother’s place baking bread in the kitchen, sewing and mending our clothes, or leading a group of eight Mennonite women in Bible study and prayer.

As I thought of Annabelle, though, I realized that I could not see myself as an Isaac, waiting for Rebekah to be brought to me. I would rather be like Moses, a “stranger in a strange land,” who found his own bride and married her.

This morning I opened my email and saw that Annabelle had left me a message on Sunday. “Tues after class works for me if it works for U,” she wrote. Then she added, “U do realize that I was messing with you about being in love with a Mennonite, don’t U?”

My answer was deliberately short. “After class is fine. See you tomorrow.” I wanted to write more, but I didn’t dare. I wanted to ask if she was messing with me on Twitter too, or if her tweets were sincere. I wanted to ask if she had changed her mind about me—and if so I wanted to know why. I wanted to tell her that I had been thinking of nothing but her for days. All these things I left unasked and unsaid.

Instead, I am preparing myself mentally for tomorrow’s interview. I want to show Annabelle that I am not incomplete without all her worldly distractions and vanities. I want her to see the strength and dignity of our ways. I have no wish to convert her, for I am convinced she is happier as she is. But I want to open her eyes to another way of living so she can know who I really am.

When the final exam has been given and the World Religions class is over, Annabelle Valentine and I will go our separate ways. She will have learned, I hope, a few things about people whose lives are different from her life. In the future, for her, perhaps strangers like me will not seem so strange. Meanwhile, I have learned something too. Even though it was not in the instructor’s plan and schedule for the class, and it was not among the reasons I gave Mother and Father for me to take the class, I have discovered what I need to make my life complete. The time has come for me to begin talking to strangers.