This is the first entry in PV’s new series, “Foundations in Faith,” where contributors are invited to offer reflections on religious experience and thoughts on faith. This can take the form of a memory, a moment, a journey, a time of turning away from or turning to. Because ‘Religion’ is a topic that can be overwhelmingly extensive and existentially daunting, one thing Practicing Vicariously seeks to do is locate manifestations of religion–however small–as it is lived by and through people. Personal narrative is a powerful form of expression and a wonderful opportunity to engage faith in a way that’s both accessible and thought-provoking. I love getting small glimpses into the ways that faith influences minds and bodies in day-to-day life. I hope that this series is one way of doing so and offers you new perspectives and approaches.
PV’s first Foundations in Faith contributor is Nabil Khan, a graduate student of religious studies at Harvard Divinity School who grew up in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan and New York, and is interested in issues of health and ethics. Enjoy!
Looking, Seeking, Already There, Seeking, Looking
As a participant in an organized religion (Islam), it is interesting to follow the data on the purportedly growing number of “unaffiliates,” a newly created identity that seems to create a distinct territory apart from those of “believers” in the landscape of 21st century religion. The rank of “seekers” swells and swells, while congregations reorient themselves towards survival strategies and critics wonder at the inability of current generations to just stick to something rather than keep wandering. At the same time, I am often asked to reflect on how people from across faith-based divides can connect when it can seem our frames of reference are so individual, or at least so varied. I think ultimately this can happen best through meeting over the heart of religious experience. This heart takes many names and permutations; as I write this I want to call it desire – often seen as distinct from pure love that makes the world go around, but fundamentally sprung from love as well. It is desire that keeps people searching, myself included, and it is desire that wraps me under the mantle of Tawhid (Divine Unity in Islamic terms).
I circle around something and return to the same place in my life. I was raised a casual Muslim who liked Islam, I then became a casual Muslim who was afraid of it, and then I came back: a flawed, brittle believer, but a stronger believer. And this happens again and again. I don’t know if Buddhists and Hindus are right about the soul’s journey itself being like a circle, but I know that regardless, a single discrete life is also more periodic than rectilinear. “People don’t change,” it is said, and I certainly don’t. Sometimes my missteps are subtle, sometimes they are embarrassingly cloddish. Yet I am a slow learner. I find peace for a moment in a particular relationship with the Divine, and while I know nothing lasts, I hasten such moments’ demise often just to make sure. I want to transgress for the pleasure of it, but then I want a feeling of home, where there is nothing to transgress. And it is not about a lazy comfort; being true to what I feel makes me submit to a greater reality is not like going back for another whiff of an intoxicating scent or another round of compulsive Facebook and email-checking. It is about finding newness in the familiar, forgetting it, re-calling it in unexpected also novel circumstances, and being changed in small ways over and over. These changes sometimes tear me away from tradition, and sometimes pull me in. The shape of my religion is twisted and circular, and not like the shortest line between two points suspended in space. While my desires are fulfilled by my religion, they would have me forget the simple but twisted nature of life. I believe this is not my tension alone.
God is love, I hear said in movies and from the lips of some God-lovers. I don’t understand this fully. If God is indeed everything, God is also harsh and threatening. Roses are doled out to us along with punches to the gut. Sometimes after feeling a violent shaking of my world, I want to find something solid in the objects and the people that bring me pleasure. Then again, sometimes after a sniff of the roses I want to turn away and to explore other pastures. Either way I am never still long enough to just bathe in love. I keep moving. Perhaps it is simply stupid, perhaps it is a game I have created that I don’t want to say goodbye to. An obsessive dance with destiny. But when I see that so many people play similar games in their lives, with their lives, I am humbled that I am not alone. Somewhere behind all of our habits, all of our motions, is a vision of the world, even if unconscious. This vision both is shaped by and shapes our desire to be, to exist, as fully as possible. I begin to get people when I connect with this wanting, searching core of themselves. For me it changes over time; age and experience refine my long protrusions of desire and soften them, firm them. But they persist, as I submit. At various times, I forget to remember, and I remember I have forgotten.
My capacity to desire is not subject to the vagaries of my memory. It is the scaffolding on which I am built up, pushed towards new heights.