Having finished my last two papers of the semester, one on evangelism and one on theological anthropology, I'm about to embark on writing the longest paper I've ever written while in seminary. More than being the longest, it will be the most critical, in-depth analysis of a ministry event in my life. The topic: identity.
When I left my church and denomination two months ago, I did so with the full intent of taking a short break and then moving to another denomination for the purpose of ordination. Very quickly I realized that I'm not ready for such a drastic shift, not only because starting over is indescribably difficult for someone like me who is inherently a nester, but also because I don't really know if ordination of any kind is meant to be part of my journey. Put differently, at the present moment, I don't really know who I am.
Sure, I can name some of my character traits and flaws. Loving. Caring. Compassionate. Intelligent. Empathic. Giving. Selfish. Needy. Codependent. Manipulative. Passive-aggressive. Hostile. This is just a surface list. A better way of putting it might be to say, "I'm broken. I'm whole."
I've had a difficult time identifying myself as a Christian lately, not because I don't believe in Jesus, not because I disbelieve in the inspiration of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but because calling myself a Christian could possibly isolate me from other belief systems I feel might be able to positively influence my life. Jesus will always be important to me. I might even say the same about other authors and writers of the Judeo-Christian traditions. But I also believe that God, being as big as many of us profess God to be, is able and often does reveal Godself in many ways, shapes, texts, and forms. As a human, I am small, finite. I have a beginning and an end (at least as a human). God, the Divine, has neither.
So often I hear Christians talk about how their faith is incompatible with any other belief system. If one is true, then the other must be false. If one is right, then the other is wrong. This is modernist thinking at its best, and for most of my life, I believed it. However, as a friend pointed out, when we say that our God (Yahweh) is mightier, stronger, more powerful, or better than any other deity, we are actually acknowledging the presence and existence of those deities and the faith systems that represent them. According to Michael Coogan, when we look at the Ten Commandments (the decalogue), we read, "I am the Lord your God... you shall have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:2-3, emphasis mine).
Yahweh does not tell the Hebrew people that he is the only God in existence. He simply tells them that he is to be their God. He's claiming them. They are a lost people with no home. They've suffered horrible injustice at the hands of the Egyptians. They're tired and broken, and Yahweh rescues them and more importantly, Yahweh claims them as his Beloved, his children, his people.
Yahweh doesn't say, "You shall have no other gods." The words "before me" are Yahweh's way of claiming primacy in the lives of the Hebrew people. He's not telling them that the deities of the Egyptians are fake or imagined. He's saying that they are not to be their primary object of worship or relationship.
In my own life, I've been thinking about the words, "before me." As a reminder, I'm a questioner. I'm a thinker. It's engrained in me. The question that has been coursing through my mind as of late is this: is it both possible and acceptable to create a holistic spirituality that believes in the existence and validity of many gods and derives inspiration from the multiple faith traditions that represent them?
Sounds like heresy, doesn't it?
But it's an honest question, and I know many who have asked before me. Many would say that Christianity and Buddhism are incompatible, mostly because the Christians have been led to believe that the Buddha is a god, an idol. I've been reading Heart of the Buddha's Teachings as of late and if there is one thing I've learned, the Buddha is not divine. He is enlightened. He is inspired. To put it in psychological terms, he is self-actualized. Buddhists don't have statues of the Buddha in their homes and spaces of worship because the Buddha is their deity. Those statues are there because he is their role model, someone to look up to, someone to go on the journey of life with.
I will probably going back to church sometime soon. I'm not sure when, and I'm not sure where. But I also know that I'm in the middle of something bigger than a faith crisis. I'm in the middle of an identity crisis. I'm growing and changing. I'm learning who I am, how I think, and what I believe. I'm asking questions, and I'm not always getting answers. In addition to going back to church, I will probably also walk across the alley, knock on the door of the house where some Buddhist monks live, and ask if I can speak with them. I'll probably stop by a mosque, a temple, or a synagogue and seek out conversations with imams, pandits, or rabbis. I have questions, and I'd rather have some company while I try to find the answers.
I'm weary right now, but I'm also hopeful. Hopeful that I will find myself, and hopeful that I will again find my faith.
Until then, I'm simply seeking...