Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sermon: "Universalism Today & Tomorrow: What I learned from the feminist Muslims" (Delivered 8-06-06)

Back when I was twenty-three, I worked at a hospital that served as a level-one trauma center and served the indigent population of Dallas. During my time there when I was a hospital chaplain I learned a helpful technique, known as a verbatim. Following a conversation that is provocative or difficult or unsatisfactory, you employ a verbatim to help you understand your role in the conversation better. What you do is simply sit down and transcribe the conversation as it happened, that is, literally, "verbatim."

The key to it is honesty: writing down what you actually said, not what you meant, not what you wish you had said, not the right thing to have said at the time (that you thought of only two hours after you had said what you actually said which now you realize was clearly not the right thing to say at the time.) No, you write down what you actually said.

Those of you who are psychologists, therapists, or social workers might have encountered the "verbatim" technique during your formal training, but any of us who are the type of people who replay conversations in our head could probably attempt this. You look at what is written on the page and think, “How could I have said that?”

All of this just a lead in to say that the sermon this morning is going to focus on one of these verbatim exchanges. It is a conversation I had about four years ago, that I still replay in my head not because I said something I regret but because of how fascinating and memorable it was.

It was my final year at Harvard Divinity School and I was taking a class on the Muslim experience in the United States. (I was also taking two counseling courses and a seminar on topics in ministry.) I didn't like the Islam class very much, but I did find my classmates stimulating. The class was about fifty percent Muslim with those students representing an astonishing diversity from black power, Nation of Islam, Malcolm X Muslims to Muslims from north Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, south Asia, and Indonesia.

During the class I sat next to a group of young Muslim women who kept hijab – that is, covered. I'm not talking full-body burqas here. The group of young women wore flowing, loose fitting garments and head coverings. One of them wore a veil. And they were there at Harvard Divinity School because of its world-renowned women's studies program. They were studying feminist theology and self-identified as feminists.

I should say that in the conversation that follows that those four women do not represent the final, authoritative voice of Islam or feminism. Feminist theory might dispute that any single person gets to be the final, authoritative voice. And at the time I certainly wasn't the final, authoritative voice of the Western world and modern liberalism, and between then and now that fact has certainly not changed.

To make it easier to follow, I've combined the voices of the four feminist Muslims, giving them a kind of the eerie mono-vocal quality, which didn't actually exist. Also, in the verbatim I come across as kind of aggressive, but please remember two things: First, I was out-numbered four to one. Second, more importantly, the educational context of my Divinity School (with five hundred students representing one hundred different religious groups and nearly one hundred countries) told us we would be tremendously stupid not to take advantage of this wonderful diversity of perspective, background, and experience around us. We were expected to talk to each other. Here goes:

Me: So, you are feminists and you keep hijab... some people would say there is a tension between those two things. Is it a tension for you?

Them: Not at all.

Me: Okay, but many Westerners have this image of Islamic countries as male-dominated where women are forced to cover themselves up.

Them: Well, the Koran instructs Muslims to dress modestly, both women and men. It is up to each individual to interpret what constitutes modesty. The burqa is a fundamentalist thing and we definitely don't support that. A lot of Muslim dress is based in regional culture, but the basic commandment is modesty... and the expectation is the same for a man as it is for a woman.

Me: So, let's talk modesty. What's wrong with the human body?

Them: Nothing is wrong with the human body. It is a good thing. Because it is good it means we shouldn't objectify it. Hijab is a way of refusing to objectify it.

Me: I’m not sure I buy that. If there’s nothing wrong with the human body, and it is a good thing, say it is positive. Hiding it leads to fear and shame.

Them: So, Western Culture treats the body positively, does it? Let's see: sexy billboards, eating disorders, plastic surgery. Maybe it would be more accurate to say the Western World treats the body immaturely, sensationally, or as a commodity. Would you describe objectification as positive?

Me: OK. So, objectification exists but I see that as a by-product of freedom. If people are allowed to dress as they want to, there will be people who exploit that freedom and don't make good choices within it. Its the price of letting people be who they are.

Them: So, you really believe women are free in Western Culture? The decision to wear painful shoes, or get your nose broken by a surgeon, or starve yourself is not a naturally occurring decision. Nobody chooses these things freely. And we don't see Western Culture valuing women or men for who they are, but for how they dress, how they look. And that divides self from body. How does a woman in the West know whether she is valued for her ideas or for her looks, or whether her physical appearance has prevented her from utilizing her skills? Women in our society know that their achievements are based on merit, not on points that get added or deducted based on hair-color, fashion, or body type.

Me: Oh, so your culture has it figured out then?

Them: No, but Indonesia has had a female president. How many of those have you had in the United States?

Me: But, you see, that worldview assumes the worst... that in a free society human nature will lead us to objectify, and judge, and mistreat each other. I don't buy that assumption. I find that it is degrading to humanity to assume the worst of human nature.

Them: That's hypothetical, though. Look around at what actually happens.

Me: But because objectification and oppression happen doesn't mean they have to happen. You might say that a history of repression and inequality means that we need to learn how to be wise in our freedom. Freedom misused doesn't mean freedom is bad. It means we need to learn how to use it better, which we'll only figure out if we are actually free to use it.

Them: I don’t find any consolation in that. Especially not when the system I know seems to work. And, Western Culture has treated the body out of proportion. Look at all the money you spend on fashion, on vanity, on expensive elective medical procedures, on makeup, on the salon. That is a sign of a culture that has completely lost the ability to discern what is important and what is good. You see the wrap I'm wearing: not tight, not restrictive. Shoes: comfortable. Hair? Didn't spend time worrying about it. That's freedom, in my opinion.

End of Verbatim...

So, last week I debuted this sermon series, "Universalism Today & Tomorrow" and I said that I would be examining three major stages of Universalist theology, and looking at what they mean for us today. I described how the earliest articulation of Universalist theology - Universal Salvation – insisted that all people would be saved. Last week I talked about how the doctrine of Universal Salvation, the belief that all people would be saved, led Universalists to approach other religions not with suspicion or contempt or condescension but with open-minded curiosity and big-hearted appreciation.

I used to belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church that displayed a poster which contained versions of the Golden Rule as it appears in their respective scriptures. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." "Do not do to others what you would not have done to you." And so on. The implicit message in the poster was that all religions in the world, in their truest instantiations, wanted the same thing.

In the 1950's a quite famous minister, Rev. Ken Patton, was the minister of the Universalist Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. Behind the chancel, he painted a wall size portrait of a galaxy - a swirl of stars. He decorated the sanctuary with the symbols of the world religions. (Our church imitated this thirty years later, displaying symbols of the world's religions around the entrance to the barn chapel, in the 1970’s.)

Ken Patton's term for what he was attempting here was, "the religion for one world.”. A poetic stanza of Patton’s sums it up nicely: "Ours be the poems of all tongues / All things of loveliness and worth. / All arts, all ages, and all songs / one life, one beauty on the earth." The message here was implicit: all religions point to a larger, more universal reality.

Some UUs even went so far as to make ourselves central, saying all religions are a part of us, or that we are bigger than any particular religion. A big ego trip, that is. We're bigger than Christianity - no we're not. We're bigger than Hinduism - no, we approach Hinduism with respect, appreciation and open-minded curiosity. Not bigger than – respectful of, accepting of, not against.

I've never cared for this "bigger than" talk. That I've never cared for it has, I think, something to do with my conversation with the feminist Muslims. Whether I lost or won the conversation is not the point. Perhaps it is a conversation that is not “winnable.”

What was interesting about it, what was so striking to me was the way it seemed to destabilize this Universalist notion of our relationship to world religions. This wasn't like that Golden Rule poster. We didn't say the same thing with different words. This wasn't like that portrait of the galaxy. Our distinct symbols didn't point to the same “universal.”

We are used to saying, "Hey, we're different than some religions, like fundamentalist religion. We're different than hateful religion. We're different than totalitarian religion. We're different than bigoted religion... but those are not true religions. They are the hijacking of true religion." And if you take the form of the faith that isn't hijacked, we can put it on a poster or put it up in our sanctuary.

But, in the conversation with the feminist Muslims, I was confronted with a religion that wasn't hateful, fundamentalist or totalitarian. In fact, it was thoughtful. It was profoundly intelligent. It valued human dignity. It encouraged equality and wanted justice. And it answered questions about life in society very, very differently than I answered those questions. In fact, their answers challenged my answers. They weren't trying to force me to take their answers, just as I was not forcing them to accept mine, but their answers challenged my answers.

So, what is the right way? The Western way? The non-Western way? A different way? A pluralistic mix of both? Like I said, answering this question is not the point this morning. It may not even be fully answerable.

But it does lead me to wonder: What else that I take for granted does not necessarily need to be so? What else can be called into question? There's a parable in which two fish are swimming along when an older, wiser fish swims by and asks, "How's the water, boys?" The two fish swim on for a while until one turns to the other and asks, "What's water?" If anything, the life of someone like Jesus or Buddha exemplified calling things into question that we don't usually call into question. Jesus told his followers to renounce father and mother and sell everything they owned. Buddha taught that this world is an illusion. Like David Foster Wallace’s fish parable, they remind us that we live in water though we are not always aware of it.

All of this so far today has probably seemed kind of abstract, kind of “heady” stuff. It might seem a little bit distanced from day to day stuff. (The third part of this series will be much more heart than abstract philosophy.) But, if you feel like this has been somehow distanced from day to day stuff, that is because we’re trying today to open up a wider view, a wider view that causes us to think differently about the day to day life stuff we find ourselves in.

I want to leave you with a passage from the Upanishads: “You could have golden treasure buried beneath your feet, and walk over it again and again, yet never find it because you don’t realize it is there. Just so, all being live every moment in the city of the Divine, but never find the Divine because it is hidden by the well of illusion.”