New Year: a partial retrospective

This post is late.  Again.  My excuse is that it has taken much longer to write than I first thought.  Below is the labour of several days, beginning on the 1st January. Please do forgive me.

If you are here looking for insight about the relevance of the 1st January to any faiths, you are going to be disappointed. There isn’t any. As far as I know, there is no religion that attaches any importance to this day. Each religion starts their year at a different time, Sikhism and Hinduism in April, Judaism in September, Christianity in December. No one cares about the most secular of all festivals, the clock ticking forward into a new administrative year. Even the UK tax year doesn’t start or end now, and I will therefore not waste anymore time with it.

The significance of today is that I from now I can go back to being a happy atheist: the project has ended. No more worrying which festivals clash, what competing meanings are and whether I have time to cook the traditional food. My time is my own again.

So this is the time to go back and see what I have learned. This post is a partial retrospective because a) I have not yet finished with all the festival write-ups and b) I want to do a further post with links to all the “highlights” for easy access.

So what can I say about festivals of religions and what they tell me about religions? I might start with the banal and work towards the profound.

How important are festivals to a faith?

Some religions put an awful lot of mojo into their festivals, and tend to have a lot of them. For some the festivals make very little difference to the way in which the religion is practiced and it feels as though marking of things is by the bye.  Buddhism, I felt, cared little about the festivals, nor about the particular rituals.  As I have been saying most of the year, Buddhists are pleased with whatever works for you, regardless of if it is old or new, rigid or flexible.  Christianity is a bit like that as well, in that there seems to be a strong thread of anti-establishment that runs under all the establishment.  Jesus boiled down some 600 rules into two, so there is quite a lot of wiggle room.  There are ways in which many people observe a festival, but nothing is compulsory and there are few consequences for opting to do something different.  Hinduisim gives you a “menu” of ways you can mark a festival while Judaism is strict.  In general, there did not seem to be a pattern in how important festivals were.  Some simply like to mark things, others do not.

The outsider perspective and what it does

Being an outsider allowed me to ask stupid questions that insiders very rarely get to ask.  It allowed me to wander up to people with impunity and simply talk to them.  On the other hand, I  many times felt that I couldn’t get to the bottom of things really and was only scratching the surface.

In addition to this, I had the problem that, for much of the year, I was asking the wrong questions.  Over time, I worked out why, and it was obvious from the start.  When I am suffering from a lack of any other information, I will try to fill in the gaps with things that I know and things that make sense to me.  Predominantly, those things will be Judeo-Christian and European.  It turns out that I was listening in RS lessons and can tell you quite a lot about schisms, reformations and religious history.  But only really on one or two faiths.  They live at the top of my mind and so, every time i come across a new concept, I will try to link it into something I know.  That thing about the Third Way, that’s a bit like the Oracle at Delphi.  While that may be true, the Buddha likely knew nothing about the ancient Greeks and certainly did not base his faith on theirs.

I also suffered quite a lot from the general feeling that everything was connected in some way.  I think that this comes from being in the digital age, when information is all at our fingertips.  Could there have been a connection between Christian and Hindu thought?  Maybe, but only insofar as people from one culture met people of another, and travel was much less frequent in those days.  Well into the renaissance, people of one faith simply could not afford to travel to meet people of others.  So, if similarities exist, they are either accidental, or, more intriguingly, part of a religious zeitgeist, a basic template of religion which all religions share.  I am loathe to endorse this idea, though, given that I spent most of the year asking the wrong questions because I assumed there was some underlying common ground.  For the moment, I have to stick with coincidental similarity until I can prove otherwise.

Religions vary in letting you in

The largest barrier that I faced when trying to learn and understand was how welcoming each religion was to an outsider.  It is important to state that whenever I started a conversation with someone, they were overwhelmingly kind and patient.  No one turned me away and no one told me I could not join in.  The differences were in how much I felt a part of what was happening.

The biggest problem was the language barrier.  I am currently thinking that the smartest thing that the Christian Church ever did (off the top of my head it was Martin Luther) was to realise that liturgy needed to be in whatever language the people of that place spoke.  When I was in Tenerife, I could have easily done Christmas mass in three different languages, as was convenient for me.  In Israel, churches worship in Hebrew.  In Egypt, they worship in Arabic.  In a mosque, they worship in Arabic regardless of the language spoken by the congregation.  In Orthodox Judaism, if I didn’t speak Hebrew, I would not have had a clue what was going on for two and a half hours.  Hinduism was interesting in that, while many of the Mandirs that I visited had information in English for visitors, all the worship still took place in Sanskrit (and possibly Gujurati?)  It was as if there was a silent rule that outsiders would be allowed to visit but only to watch, never to be a part of the ritual.  The Gurdwaras had the same, when there was even someone I could talk to at all.  The door was open, and, of course, the kitchen was, but I found it difficult to understand anything beyond this.  If it were not for my guide, I would have been completely lost.

The worst culprits of this were the Jews, although I would not say that it was entirely their fault.  At Yom Kippur, I had booked a seat in the synagogue, as I knew it sometimes gets busy.  Nevertheless, as I approached the gate, I was stopped and questioned by the Shomer (civilian guard) and a member of the congregation.  Why had they never seen me here before?  Did I know anyone at the synagogue?  Why not?  If I had been a curious Christian, it would have been difficult, and heaven help me had I been a curious Muslim.

I can’t say for certain what effect my skin colour had on my ability to access things, but I suspect it made it easier in 2 religions, more difficult in 3 and made no difference at all in 1.  I will let you work out which is which.

Faith leads to practice or practice leads to Faith?

Way back in January, I had a question that came from Guru Har Rai Ji .  When asked if blessings should be said even if people do not understand them, he replied, in essence, that faith arises from continued practice, even if it is not initially there.  I have heard this from people before.  And it is interesting that there is no consensus among the religions about this question and even more interesting that some religions really don’t care at all.  Near the beginning of the year, a nice Muslim bloke told me that without a full understanding of the tenets of Islam, I must not even think of reading the Koran or learning to pray (by the way, I found a mosque that teaches prayer, but it was too late by then).  It was confirmed to me quite early on that Islam is all about Intention.  If you have the correct intention, it almost does not matter about the practice at all.  You could therefore argue that none of the rituals are especially important in Islam, so long as the intention behind them is pure.  You could get away with doing nothing at all.  Judaism, Buddhism and Sikhism would consider this anathema, but for different reasons.  In Buddhism, there is very little other than practice.  You are your actions and beliefs are only important insofar as they inform your actions.  Sikhs we have talked about.  In Judaism, you do the actions because they are required of you, because the covenant was made with G-d millenia ago and this is what G-d wants.  Observances are not necessarily created with the intention of establishing or expressing faith.  They are rules that need following.  If following them leads to greater faith, it is by accident.

In short, I still don’t have an answer to this.  From my observation, many of the rituals have a deeply spiritual dimension to them and the people who are partaking in them are deeply spiritual people.  But that still doesn’t tell me if they were spiritual from the outset or whether their faith came through the hymns and and chants and the meditations.

Marking points of the year

I have never been as aware of the year passing as I was this year.  I knew exactly when every sunrise was, when every full moon was due and when the seasons were changing.  This is the kind of thing that you don’t really get from any single religion.  Sikhism tends to celebrate at full moons,  while fasts depend on when the day begins and ends.  Very few faiths are as interested in harvests as Judaism.  Put them together and you get a really profound sense of the year passing.  Usually, the days and weeks all merge into each other and, if I don’t have an event or holiday planned, I won’t notice them at all.  This year, every week had significance, not just because of the festival itself, but because of the moment that it was marking.  I am a big fan of moments “even now and then a bad one.  But if life were only moments, then you’d never know you had one”(Sondheim).  Festivals tumbling one on top of the other was exhausting and did not allow me to fully appreciate what was being observed.  But it was still a privilege to appreciate every moment as it came.

Concepts vs stories

Holy Days tend to commemorate one of two things:  ideas or events.  Raksha Bandhan, for instance, is very much a concept festival – the festival of brotherhood.  Eid al Adha, on the other hand, commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on the altar for Allah (swt).  Obviously, both ultimately deal with aspects of the faith, about how we want to live our lives.  Some religions simply prefer to tell stories to illustrate the belief system rather than just go for the jugular and say, “Today we are celebrating the concept x.  Be grateful and pious”.  I listened to a number of programmes in the run up to Christmas that all tried to look at the history of Christmas from a different angle.  A historian on one of the programs points out that one of the reasons that modern Christmas is such a melange of religious traditions, is that ultimately, the story of the birth of Christ ceased to be powerful for the communities it was trying to reach.  So Christianity adapted.  It added St Nicholas and green trees and Lords of Misrule in order to try to spice it up a bit.

As a storyteller, I appreciate a good story, so in this case, I think the Christians got it right.  Personally, I found it easier to connect to festivals that had a story behind them, a metaphor to unpick.  This applies equally to faiths that I am more familiar with.  I never quite “got” Tu Bishvat, because there is no story there.  If you give me some mythology about magic trees, I will think about it.

So What?

So, have I been touched by the divine to the extent that I am going to go and sign up in the nearest temple?  Sadly not.  I am still as Godless as I was at the start, although maybe more aware of the spiritual lives of those around me.

There were a number of times when I thought that a ritual was so magical that I wanted to be a part of it for longer.  I spent time with people of my own religious culture and history and that felt nice and homely in ways that I don’t often feel.  I have been invited by a number of liberal and reform synagogues to come along to their stuff.  And I am tempted, I really am.  But then I remember the truth:  my faith position remains one in which, in my heart of hearts, I do not believe that there is a divinity that shapes our ends, or even one that does not.  I am ambivalent about this, as I like communities and I think religious ones can be a force for good in the world, if they are given half a chance.  Maybe I am simply tired of being the outsider and look for places where I don’t need to explain myself or defend myself.  I don’t see religious spaces as providing this by definition, but I am guessing that every once in a while, a person of faith looks around the table and can think “Yes.  This is home.”

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