Faith and Deconstructing the Exclusivity of Truth

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Enass Zayed gives her take on the concept of faith and truth in a world of varied ideologies and experiences.

Over the course of this last year I have been asked to reflect on my religious ideologies quite a bit. There have been questions that I have had welling up from my own traditions that I have had to find answers to and there have been aspects of other traditions that I have felt were so profound that I have tried to incorporate them into my own belief structure. One of the biggest things that I have had to work my mind around is the concept of faith and how it exists within the concept of exclusive truth. There are many people who hold the belief that their traditions are the only proper way to behave. This phenomenon is prevalent in all aspects of life; religious or secular. My biggest challenge has been trying to remove myself from the ranks of the exclusive.

On our very first meeting, Mat Charnay asked me to define faith. While the clear and obvious answer is full trust in something outside of your self, I felt as though that was not enough to encapsulate the idea. Faith is taking the leap and hoping something catches you. In my mind, the strongest faith comes from knowing that there is a possibility that things are not quite as you imagine them, but committing to your ideas anyway. Faith is built by making informed decisions and seeking knowledge in all its forms so that any ideas that are created are likely to stand the barrage of obstacles that life throws at us. I am a firm believer in the idea of individual truth as opposed to a general and exclusive truth. Not everyone’s idea of religion are going to be able to satisfy the needs of the rest of the world and that is okay. In fact, that is the most beautiful things about faith in general. When properly executed, faith allows many people to have beautiful, complicated, and extensive ideas about every part of their lives: ideas that are relevant to their relationship with their world and their religion.

While most of this idea is pretty elementary to most, the part that I believe is left out is the idea that we might be wrong. I know that there is slight possibility that everything I hold true could be proven wrong tomorrow, but this understanding is what keeps my concept of faith growing. My personal approach to religious belief is that (most) everything is fluid. Ever since I was a child, I have done my own research into the religious systems that have surrounded me. I was never content to let someone give me traditions without understanding why there were valid or relevant. I was never content in settling on one answer because that would have meant that my research into faith would have stopped. Once I reach a comfortable conclusion, there is no point in continuing my search for a self relevant truth. My faith is built on the idea that I have to build knowledge to minimize the possibility that I am wrong about everything.

So, is the exclusivity of truth even relevant in the discussion of faith? In my opinion it is. From personal experience I have found that many people are unwilling to question their concept of truth as it would apply to another person. There is also little thought put into the idea that we do not always have the answers to everything. The idea of an exclusive truth lends itself to the idea that one religion is more valid than any others. This concept is problematic because so many religions teach that religion is a shared experience even if we do not all carry out our beliefs in the same manner and traditions. While my understanding of truth may be valid today, it is valid only in my experiences and only until something to the contrary comes into my world view. Until then, I feel as though I owe it to my faith and my religious belief to continuously research and build a stronger foundation from which I can take my leap of faith.

Faith, Falling Down, and Vampires

downloadInterfaith Scholar Thano Prokos gives his insight on music, faith, and spirit. 

We recently opened our Scholar meeting by answering the question “What fills your spirit?” Being the indecisive and long-winded person that I am, I decided to present my fellow scholars with my own litany of spirit fillers which in includes (but is not limited to) church, writing, English Renaissance literature, going on walks, singing in large groups, drawing pictures of pink fluffy unicorns, and listening to music.

Given that June will soon spring upon us, like a Greek grandmother on a cup of communion, I’m about to fill my mouth, ears, and spirit with song because it’s…. wait for it… THE SUMMER CONCERT SEASON! And this year, I’ll be starting off my annual concert binge with Vampire Weekend in early June, followed by Jack White in July, and concluding with Chicago’s Riot Fest (with some other names in between).

But Thano, how can you—a practicing Orthodox Christian—submit yourself to the Devil’s melodies on one day and go to church in good conscience the next day? Well old crotchety 1950’s man, let me tell you a little somethin’-somethin.’

It’s definitely challenging to be Orthodox and a lover of modern music. I’ll be blunt: there’s a lot of stuff out there that I consider garbage—garbage I sometimes listen to—but garbage nonetheless. There’s art that’s uncreative, there’s art that doesn’t challenge you, there’s, there’s art that’s totally shallow, there’s art that purely seeks to antagonize certain audiences, and I really feel that a lot of that stuff doesn’t really do anything good for listeners.

But at the same time, there are songs that are critical of certain religious beliefs that I really appreciate. Take, for example, a couple of my favorite tracks from the latest Vampire Weekend album: “Unbelievers and “Ya Hey.” Both of these songs depict their speaker’s inability to connect to the divine and the Judeo-Christian concept of God.

The chorus in “Unbelievers” goes like this:

 

I’m not excited [about God], but should I be?
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you,
and you love the sea,
but what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”

It refers to the lack of nourishment that the speaker receives from the religious culture that surrounds him.

Ya Hey” uses a few biblical allusions to describe an inability to connect with God, while background vocals continuously repeat the song’s title (a pun on Yeweh):

“Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name,
only “I am that I am.

But who could ever live that way?”

So, both of these songs depict a struggle with spirituality, and though I’m probably on the other side of this struggle than the band’s songwriter Ezra Koenig, I can definitely relate to the difficulties of experiencing faith that Ezra Koenig sings about. Do I ever feel like religion isn’t doing anything for me? Do I ever feel like God is distant? Of course I do! Going to shows like these is one of my favorite examples of inter-faith in action: People who believe different things, but still use music to confront similar struggles of belief.

So let’s get back to spirit-filling. How does acknowledging my struggles—and thereby confronting my own moments of spiritual emptiness—fill my spirit? Is it filled from watching some of my favorite musicians dancing and enjoying themselves on stage? Is it filled from the sound of a stadium full of people singing along to my favorite song? Is it filled by the misty sensation of a cup of Miller Light raining down over my head as it flies further up towards the stage? Not quite to any of these, but I actually do enjoy getting the occasional beer shower.

When I confront really challenging songs or poetry, the filling of my spirit comes from knowing that if I do “fall down” from maintaining my relationship with God, I have the opportunity to “get back up” and continue dealing with my struggles. Here’s a better articulation of that comforting thought from the Orthodox theologian Jim Forrest’s book Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness:

The story is called “A Fallen Monk Seeks Advice From St. Sisoes the Great”

A young monk said to Abba Sisoes: “Abba, what should I do? I fell.” The elder answered: “Get up!” The monk said: “I got up and I fell again!” The elder replied: “Get up again!” But the young monk asked: “For how long should I get up when I fall?” “Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes. “For a man heads to his judgment either fallen or getting back up again.”

And who knows, maybe one day there will be a Vampire Weekend song about that.

Ask Big Questions

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DePaul freshman Charlotte Mukahirn gives us her reflection following her experience with the university’s Ask Big Questions event on January 16th, 2014. Ask Big Questions is an initiative of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in partnership with the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust that aims to foster understanding through better conversation. 

     Upon entering the conference room, I had only expected to discuss one question with the attendees of ABQ: “What will you do differently this year?” I had thought about the question to some extent beforehand, but my answer was still up in the air. Soon enough, people began to file in through the door. I could spot a few familiar faces, but at least half were unknown to me. We were asked by the leaders of the group, Sam and Joel, to arrange the chairs into a large circle while they set up their presentation. At first, a slight panic struck me. I’m going to be speaking in front of so many people. In reality, the group consisted of perhaps fifteen to eighteen people. But, for someone with social anxiety (like me), the number was a bit daunting. Then, Joel and Sam began the discussion by walking us through the guidelines for the night’s meeting. The rules were simple: Be respectful, give each person their time to talk, and if someone happens to offend you, don’t be afraid to let them know how and why their words affected you. Afterward, a short icebreaker took place in which each person told the group their name, major, and a change that happened to them recently. An atmosphere had already begun to form in which we felt comfortable sharing the highlights of our break, or even the lowlights. Familiarity spread about the room like ripples in a pond until we were all ready to move on. Then, Joel pulled up a document on the screen.

     “Take a moment and read through this,” he said, “and then find someone near you to discuss which parts of this passage stick out to you.” Simple enough. The title and author of the passage escape me now, but it generally stated which actions people commit that are damaging to their happiness. Actions like hiding your talents from the world, working jobs that violate your values, and silencing yourself for fear of criticism were among many of the actions presented in the passage. Afterward, we broke off into either pairs or small groups to discuss what we had just read. Surprisingly, the conversations began to flow almost effortlessly. Everyone in the room could connect to some part of the passage and had experiences to share with the group. After a few minutes, we merged back into our circle and began to share. Each person had their own insights, a new perspective to bring to the table. The conversation shifted from only discussing the passage to divulging experiences from our own lives in which we had been frozen with fear and doubt. Nearly everyone could recall a time in which they had restrained their true selves for fear of being criticized or mocked. But then there were also those who had overcome their fears and realized that our reluctance stems from nothing more than internalizing our doubts. Eventually, we arrived at a conclusion: our assumption that the people around us will react negatively to our true selves holds us back from being happy. And, people generally are not that volatile when confronted with differing opinions. Miscommunication is at the root of our negativity, and having a dialogue is the cure. We finished our discussion with the question, “What will you do differently this year?” and then called it a night. As we left, everyone seemed to feel more at ease, confident, and even relieved.

Vincentian Moments

Part of our work with the Interfaith Scholars is to make moves to draw people closer together through our different faiths. Our purpose is to transcend differences and better understand one another and the role that our faith plays in our day to day lives. One of the ways that the scholars do this is by creating what we call Vincentian Moments. These moments take an aspect of each faith tradition and draw a comparison to an aspect of St. Vincent Depaul’s teachings. 

The first installment comes from Scholar Thano Prokos who decided to on his own background in the Greek Orthodox Faith.

St. Vincent says,

 “Our Lord humbles in order to raise up, and allows the suffering of interior and exterior afflictions in order to bring about peace. He often desires some things more than we do, but wants us to merit the grace of accomplishing them by several practices of virtue and to beg for this with many prayers.”

In “Taking the More Excellent Way,” Fr. Anthony Hughes talks about the story of St. Mary of Egypt and uses it to explain on how we make use of personal suffering. He argues that our trials and suffering are the things that make us grow and we become beautiful human beings.

St. Vincent stresses the same idea, that when we are humbled in our lives it’s our duty to rise back up.  What both men are saying, is that the hardships we face are not necessarily what we should focus on. We shouldn’t be consumed by our grief. Rather, it’s important to focus on what the next step is. How do we respond to tragedy? Both men encourage a detachment from the experience of grief and a focus on the divine through prayer.

Vincent asks us to say our own personal prayers to God with the hope that our prayer focuses our attention on what is good and how we can strive to be better. Fr. Anthony asks us to pray for others, particularly those who hurt us. The goal of this practice is less “divine intervention” but more to remind us that those who hurt us are every bit as human as we are. It changes our perception of them from the evil other into someone that we can be compassionate towards in the hopes that in the future, we can demonstrate our growth by meeting  hostility with love.

New Scholars. New Reflections.

Over the summer, a group of our interfaith scholars headed to New York City in order to experience each other’s faith in such a way that we could move past any preconceived notions and actually grasp what the others believed. For most college age students, a trip to New York is all about the kind of shenanigans that can be accomplished and summer is about losing all responsibility and just relaxing. This summer shifted our focus because we were not letting time idly pass by. We were pushed out of our comfort zones in an effort to bring all of us closer together. We had the rest of the summer to reflect and decide if that plan worked or not. 

Each scholar was asked to reflect on:

  • What experience was inspiring?
  • What was surprising?
  •  

    What challenges were confronted?

  • What made you care?

Interfaith Scholar extraordinaire Kamieshia Graves gave us her reflection:

“New York. (insert happy sigh here) The city of wonders and great opportunities. The place to be with all its magnificent city lights illuminating the picturesque skyline. All the snazzy people with ambitions and dreams that are out of this world. Forget Home, Dorothy! There’s no place like New York!!!!!!”

Yeah… definitely not how I felt initially. May I offer a bit of my reality?

I never had the burning desire to go to NY. In fact, I was so dedicated to being a Chicagoan that I was almost positive that I would never partake in the blasphemous act of going to New York. It sounds ridiculous because it was ridiculous– don’t judge me. I think NY simply terrified me causing the lack of motivation to visit; however, I agreed to go with Interfaith Scholars 2013-2014 (woot woot!) and the adventure began.

You see, the day of travel came and butterflies are too cute to describe how I felt. I hadn’t previously met any of my team members with whom I would be riding all the way to NY. I’m a pretty easygoing person, but the thought of not being accepted into the group worried me quite a bit and I must say that first day was quite a challenge for me. It was like transferring to a new high school during senior year—I know from experience. Everyone was already comfortable and easily initiated conversations and laughed. Meanwhile, I fought to find a cool way to just jump in, which I never figured out. Instead, I randomly would ask a question, like a dork, never realizing that the focus was on the Game of Thrones, which I knew nothing about. (PS. Thanks guys for inspiring me to watch it. It is good!) Needless to say, I slept most of that ride.

Fast-forward:

We arrived and had arrangements to stay in the Bronx! I loved the Bronx immediately because it gave me a sense of comfort when I needed it most. I felt more connected with the residents of that area more so than I did with the individuals I was to live with. I felt that if I walked into a random group of New Yorkers they would listen to me, but I did not feel that way with my own team. Then all of a sudden, a bright light broke through the sky and we had a “Haaaaaaallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelu-u-u-u-jahhhh” moment and one person from my group struck up a conversation with me and then another and we just clicked, which actually surprised me! Although I believe that the foundation of Christianity with regards to behavior towards others is to be Christ-like by loving everyone despite differences, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I, a nondenominational Christian, had so much in common, including some religious beliefs, with the two young women who are both Muslim. The shared commonalities even extended to the other faith practices represented in the group. Can you imagine the look on my face when I met the Greek Orthodox priest and learned that he is just as crazy hilarious as my own pastor?! I’m sorry, but when I first heard Greek Orthodox I let my preconceived notions nurture the idea of taking a nap before going to that church. I expected it to be boring, but I happily admitted my error after learning that the St Nick is Santa. I had to send silent prayers of forgiveness to each of the faith practices many times that trip; I wouldn’t have changed it though because I learned a great deal about others as well as myself.

Though some may disagree, I would be comfortable saying that we are all working toward the same goal, but simply using different paths. I love it!

During a free day, I got to explore this a bit more when the leaders of the group gave us the challenge of initiating a conversation with a native and, if not too strenuous, centering the conversation on religion. I, along with the same two young ladies, found it rather easy to achieve this at Union Square with a bunch of random men from different faith practices. We got into this really crazy discussion (borderline debate at times) about Christianity, Atheism, and Islam with a man who identified himself as atheist. More and more people joined, and we developed this cycle of discussing religion and being silly. In the midst of all this enjoyable chaos, there was an older Islamic woman whose mere presence was awe-inspiring. This woman was selling water to make a profit. A couple of the guys bought water, and one said that he had done it because he felt sorry for her. The crazy thing is this lady was joyous and goofy. At least for the moment, she had not let life steal her love of living. I remember that she had jokingly asked one of the men why he hadn’t made a pass at one of us ladies and she laughed with us. It seems so simple, but I found it inspirational because life has dealt some crazy cards to me and I had allowed it to start having an effect on my perspective, but her presence reminded me of what I do have- laughter. (I have this crazy obnoxious laugh but I love it because it makes others laugh too.) I let the hard stuff blur my positive and optimistic outlook, but her presence.

Jumping gears to a not so religious moment that I have to share because it touched me:

I cannot remember where we were or why we were there but we were at a very small park- it was literally a fountain with benches around it- and there was this little girl who was in her own little world. She danced and danced without a care in the world, and all of us just watched her, but not in a creepy way. She eventually realized she had an audience and she stopped and returned the favor. She just looked at me… and looked… and looked until she smiled a big cheerful smile provoking me to do the same. She waved at me giddily twice before her mother looked back to check on the fuss. Her daughter ran to her and pointed at me and waved again. Our group had turned to leave, but before leaving to proceed to our next destination I turned to see her awaiting a goodbye. We waved one last time and I walked away touched by the purity of that carefree child.

I could go on and on about the IFS trip to NY, but I think I have already talked waaaaay too much. What can I say? Because of the memories I was gifted, I had a lot to say about the remarkable city of New York. As of right now, there is no place like it.

 

Vincentian Service Day brings students closer to community – News – The DePaulia – The student newspaper of DePaul University

 

DePaul students and faculty participated in DePaul’s annual“Vincentian Service Day” May 4, where students

Courtesy of Taj Simmons: DePaul students garden outside of the Zakat Chicago Community Center dur- ing Vincentian Service Day May 4. This is the 13th year the community service event has been held.
Courtesy of Taj Simmons:
DePaul students garden outside of the Zakat Chicago Community Center dur- ing Vincentian Service Day May 4. This is the 13th year the community service event has been held.

volunteer at sites across Chicago in a super-charged day of service. DePaul volunteers cheerfully flocked to McGrath Arena at 8 a.m. on Saturday where they partook in some interfaith prayers and were sent off to their respective service sites. The cheerful demeanor of all those present was derived from the knowledge of the good they were doing in their community.

 

DePaul’s Jewish Life coordinator, Matthew Charnay, took a moment to describe the idea behind Vincentian Service Day.

 

“It is something that staff and students look forward to all year. The chance to get out into the community and do work with your fellow classmates is such a positive experience,” said Charnay. “The ability to stand in solidarity with not only peers, but fellowChicagoans, people of faith and standing together as a community, not just a school community but a world community, is a highlight for the entire university.”

 

It seems that Charnay voiced exactly how DePaul students feel about this day. “(Vincentian Service Day) is important because it teaches DePaul students to look beyond themselves,” said Taj Simmons, DePaul junior andVSD team leader. “Too often in college we become self-absorbed and block out what’s going on all around us, and Vincentian Service Day really gives us a chance to go beyond what we know.”

 

Simmons also noted how much it has expanded over the years.

 

“It’s grown so much since I was a freshman. My first year, all of the service groups started inside of the (St. Vincent de Paul church) before leaving for their work. Going from that to the quad last year to McGrath Arena this year is just an amazing leap forward. I never thought there would be so many people dedicated to taking action to keep Chicago as glorious as it is, but now that I know there are, I can’t help but feel elated.”

 

Charnay echoed Simmons’ sentiment in regards to the day’s steady growth over the years. “We keep expanding the number of service sites that we visit and this year we even had students and families come to DePaul for activities.  It will only continue to grow. When you have such a great program and everyone involved can see the wealth of positivity and justice that is the end product, it makes it very easy to keep growing that program. I can only see it getting bigger in years to come.”

 

The community members who benefited from this day had positive things to say as well. Laila Muhammad, director of Zakat Chicago Community Center gushed about DePaul students who planted a vegetable garden at the community center. “The students were very helpful. The garden really brightened up the area,” said Muhammad. “It’s something that will continue to benefit the community. Last year when we had the garden, a boy had never had red lettuce before, but now he asks for it like candy. It can change a person’s life and encourage more nutritious eating.” In this way, one day of service can have lasting effects on a community.

 

“I think (the service day) is great,” said Muhammad. “I think that it shows DePaul’s understanding of the holistic approach to education. You can’t just teach in the classroom, you have to go out and experience life.”

 

That appears to be precisely what DePaul’s Vincentians in Action are hoping to achieve. Indeed, Charnay said “It is one thing to talk the talk, but when we give students the outlet to walk the walk of service, they have a chance to experience firsthand the mission that drives this university to new heights.  To take something theoretical (and) intellectual such as the ‘dignity of every human life’ and make it tangible, the lesson is better received, and it gives students time to reflect on their work.”

Vincentian Service Day brings students closer to community – News – The DePaulia – The student newspaper of DePaul University.

By Anne Malina

Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013

Updated: Sunday, May 12, 2013 20:05

 

Digital Story: Realities of El Salvador

So 5 months ago I went to El Salvador for a Service Immersion Trip. And once I returned, I wrote a small blog about my experience, “Realities of El Salvador.”

This quarter, I took a digital story class and we were asked to talk about something impactful. A digital story is a short film filled with photographs and audio. It is simple, easiy and to the point. With this assignment, of course my trip to El Salvador stuck out at me. It has definitely been a couple of months, but that experience is still with me. I hope you enjoy my work, and here is my digital story:

Digital Story: Laura Mena

Peace,

Laura E. Mena ’14

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