What I learned by teaching the Abrahamic Faiths

A few years back, we decided that we were going to teach the Abrahamic faiths to our children and youth at my church. There wasn’t a standard curriculum that presented the Jewish, Christian and Islamic beliefs together, so I had to be a bit creative in putting it together. It was quite an adventure, and I’m not sure I would be willing to take it on again, but I did manage to learn a lot about these faiths, and I like to think we managed to teach most of what we wanted the kids to learn. As is usually the case, I managed to learn a lot more than I taught.

What I wanted for the kids was that they would understand why countless generations of countless people have turned to these faiths for community, strength, solace and moral guidance. I wanted them to learn about the positive aspects of these faiths so that they could cultivate a sense of empathy for and connection with the followers of these religions. For all our differences from these faiths, we do spring from this source. Both Unitarianism and Universalism began as Christian faiths. And even if they didn’t, you can’t deny kinship with people who are gathering on a weekly basis for the nurturing of their souls.

In the modern news cycle, it’s almost impossible to get a balanced view of these faiths; it’s always the most extreme elements of belief that make for the best TV whether it be the zealots of ISIS or the Westboro Baptist Church. So I thought it was critical that we bring some balance to the currently accepted story. I wanted our kids to see these people as fully human, not a scary other. After all, it’s hard to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of someone you actively fear.

I also wanted to make sure that they understood about the diversity of beliefs within those faiths and the way that people have perverted these beliefs both now and in the past. So, we talked a lot about divisions within these faiths. We discussed the significant splits in the histories of these religions, the schism between the eastern and western Christian churches, the Protestant Reformation and the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims over the succession of the Prophet. And we talked about the differences between Orthodox, conservative and reformed Jewish faith traditions.

We also looked at sacred scriptures to see how difficult it would be to take them as literal, inerrant truth. We had the kids read the two different and contradictory accounts of creation in Genesis. We had them read the same passage in various translations of the Koran to see how two interpretations can be perfectly valid and yet present different meanings. We talked about parables and the use of stories to teach profound truths in all of the scriptures. We discussed why a story could be not true but still have truth in them.

But the most important thing I learned came up due to a last-minute monkey wrench in some of my plans. We ran into trouble fairly late in the game when someone made the point that we hadn’t considered the notion of cultural appropriation when we had set up the classes and that we should probably go back and review the material. Remember, we were stitching this curriculum together ourselves, and we had to go pretty far back into the available archive of classes to find enough material on the Abrahamic faiths. I wanted deeply for our kids to cultivate reverence and respect for these faiths. The last thing I wanted was for any of this to be an exercise in a sort of spiritual tourism.

So, I took a second look. Some of the classes I had initially felt were merely clunky and outdated seemed on the second read to be quite glib about divorcing a faith practice from its originating faith tradition or turning sacred objects into craft projects. And so we updated the class on Sufi mysticism to indicate that that practice stems from the Islamic faith. Because, why miss an opportunity to show how there are many different approaches to worship and ways of encountering the divine even within one religion. We also decided not to have the kids make their own prayer rugs (as a former Catholic, I asked myself if a make your own rosary craft would bother me and the answer was, yes. That was enough for me. If you’re unfamiliar, a rosary is a loop of beads spaced to help a worshiper stay on track of the standard order of Hail Mary and Our Father prayers while worshipping, or doing penance. Because they come in the form of a large loop, it can easily be mistaken for a necklace. Despite what you might have thought from seeing early Madonna videos, it is not a necklace. She wore those to be deliberately provocative, and I wouldn’t have wanted to send our kids out into the world to be accidentally provocative when they invariably decided to wear them around their necks.)

We made a few adjustments, and we moved on, but something continued to nag at me when I prepared these classes and activities. We showed the kids the different positions of the daily prayers in our discussion of the five pillars of Islam, and I remembered what I used to call Cath-aerobics, the kneel, stand, sit pattern of celebrating the litany every Sunday. We listened to the Islamic call to prayer and Jewish prayers sung in Hebrew, and I remembered chanting the service in the Greek Catholic church I attended as a child. I found myself looking up recordings and videos of Greek Catholic services and listening again, lulled by the familiar rhythms of the litany. The words and the melodies came back to me in snippets, and I found myself singing them in quiet moments.

And eventually, it hit me that there was not terribly familiar faith tradition in which I was far from a tourist. I was going to put together a class on Greek Catholic worship.

Here was something deeply personal I could share with the kids. I dove into the research online and got some wonderful books from the library and started to prepare.

So, I should probably take a little break here and bring you all up to speed on Greek Catholicism. Did you know that in 1054, the Christian Church split between the Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East? Did you know that later (around 1438), a group of eastern churches broke with the Orthodox Church and returned to the Catholic Church? Me neither!

At least not until I started doing research for this class. All I knew when I was a kid was that I was Greek Catholic unlike my cousin who was Roman Catholic and that everyone who attended my church was related to someone who had emigrated from somewhere in or around the Ukraine or Czechoslovakia.

My church was dark, it was smoky with incense, it was full of some of the spookiest pictures I had ever seen, and almost every single part of the service was sung as a chant. Barring a few changes for Christmas time or Easter time, the service was the same except for the reading and the sermon.

The sound of it was amazing; to have the priest singing out and the congregation singing back. This chanting was learned by doing, the entirety of the service was in our hymnal as words with no musical notation. We had a Cantor with a microphone who would try to keep the congregation to the same rhythm and tone, but basically, we were on our own. It wasn’t something I ever questioned as a child, this was how you worshipped God, and we worshipped God.

Even though I sometimes felt overwhelmed and even frightened, the experience imprinted itself on me. To this day, chanting has an effect on me that few other centering techniques can match.

So I did the research and found out the why’s of all of those things and I finally understood why it had such a lasting effect on me. The point of the Greek Catholic litany is to bring worshipers a glimpse of the holy order, an experience of the divine reality hidden behind our own, a peek into heaven, if you will.

So the church is dark to throw the brilliant blue and white vault of heaven and holy images pictured above the altar into greater relief. The sound of the worship is meant to be like the choirs of angels and the Icons; those spooky pictures are intended to be a window to the divine presence, to show the souls of those pictured; revealing sacred meanings to those who understand the visual language they encode.

Now up to this point, what I’ve spent a lot of time writing about is a religious experience almost the opposite of what we do as Unitarian Universalists. I made a conscious choice to move from the church of my youth. The doctrine didn’t speak to me, and I couldn’t reconcile the idea of a loving God with the notion of judgment and damnation. I left, and I don’t regret it. But I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t miss that visceral experience of the divine.

I think it’s one of the most challenging aspects of worship to replicate in a rationalistic faith community. We wouldn’t dream of telling someone how to feel about God or the divine or even require them to believe in God or any divine force greater than themselves. I doubt my daughter will ever have the experience of being a God drunk girl in a God-soaked world. But I do hope that I can share with her the profound sense of awe I feel when contemplating the divine, even today.

I don’t personally believe in a conscious God, but I do believe in connection. I do feel something when I meditate when I chant – there is something – a power a force; I don’t know, maybe the Force. I like Kahlil Gibran’s concept; he wrote, “When you love you should not say, ‘God is in my heart,’ but rather, ‘I am in the heart of God.’” That’s how I think of this world, that everything in it has the spark of creation.

Some days, that extends to believing in a metaphysical connection between all of creation; that we are meant to be helping each other, all living things and our planet. Some days, I merely believe that we all owe this universe something in return for our existence; that we should be helping each other, all living things and our planet. To me, it just doesn’t matter if there is some entity or just a string of the luckiest coincidences behind our current existence. It’s awe-inspiring either way.

I haven’t considered myself a Christian for a long time, but I have come to realize, in setting up this curriculum, that the moral underpinnings of Christian teaching are still a large part of my worldview. In a way, my understandings of the concept of monotheism have led me away from the Biblical or scriptural literalism that I see having taken such primacy in the Abrahamic faiths lately. I find it surprising that any follower of these faiths would see it differently.

Abraham was looking for the ultimate source of all, the God behind all gods. And if you perform the thought exercise of considering the existence of such a being, a couple of things jump out immediately.

First, we are probably never going to be able to understand the thoughts or motivations of this entity. It’s just too big and too far beyond our frame of reference.

Secondly, if this entity is a conscious God without equal who sees all and guides our path, then everything in this world is precisely the way that God intended it to be. That, to me, means that we are not given to know what happened before we got here, or after we die, or even what we’re supposed to be doing while we are here. If that God wanted us to know, we would.

Now, I see in all of the scriptures I’ve read, repeated warnings that judgment is God’s alone. Jesus told us to judge not lest we be judged, that only those of us without sin (in other words none of us) could be judges to others.

If I put these concepts together, what I come away with is that it is sinful to tell someone else that they are going to hell when they die. That to me is using God’s name in vain or putting yourself in God’s place. We can only have faith in what we believe comes next, but we must always mix that faith with the humility that we might have it wrong or not understand the fullness of God’s plan. We may not use our own belief to condemn others who don’t share that view.

I also can’t reconcile this concept of a God with the doctrines of scriptural literalism or zealotry. To assume that everything we need to know of God can fit between the covers of a book no matter whether it was inspired or even dictated by God strikes me as a form of idolatry. Also, the God of Abraham is the mightiest and only true God. Why would such a being need us to fight on its behalf? And anyway, if we believe in the God of Abraham, we believe in a God that has no peer and we exist within this God’s creation. So who exactly is the enemy? The only enemy this God gives us the right to engage with is the one within our own hearts, and I believe that is the true meaning of jihad as it has been explained to me.

I believe that the teachings of Abrahamic faiths can be boiled down into two essential tenets. Love God with all your heart and treat everyone as you would want to be treated (or as they would want to be treated). As the Talmud pronounces, these two are law, all of the rest is commentary.

So what did I learn in doing all of this research, in rediscovering a key piece of my own experience and trying to integrate this all with my spiritual path?

  • I love ritual worship and meditation brings me back to this divine presence, this sense of existing within the very heart of God.
  • The Divine Litany still moves me; I can consider myself within the communion of souls with my grandparents and all those I love. I don’t have to give that up just because I walked away from the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
  • I can choose to love those elements of these faith traditions that speak to me and show love and compassion while continuing to stand against those who would use these traditions to spread hate, judgment, and I don’t have to cede all of the beauty to those who claim ownership by pure faith. I can articulate why I don’t accept those doctrines that would exclude or abuse others as requirements to faith.

I also wanted to close on a hopeful note because I’ve been watching the news pretty regularly for hopeful signs that I am not alone in hoping for a more loving and compassionate expression of these faiths to take the lead. Here are some examples that I have found in researching these faiths:

  • During the Passover Seder, 10 drops of wine are spilled out to signify the 10 plagues. One reason given for this is that they represent tears for the suffering of the innocent Egyptians.
  • During the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Catholic Church, there is a section of petitions or prayers for the health and well-being of specific people and organizations. To this day, an appeal is still offered for the health and well-being of the Orthodox Church despite the schism.
  • I’ve seen any number of stories about interfaith actions, Christians in trouble zones gathering to protect Mosques, Muslims gathering to protect Christians. I’ve heard of Churches holding services in Mosques and even a Southern Baptist Church hosting a Muslim community’s Ramadan observances when their new Mosque wasn’t ready in time.
  • I’ve seen a group of Orthodox Jews and Muslims adopt a public school together and work together to make it a better place for all students.
  • I’ve seen an evangelical Christian start a movement to question the blind opposition to gun laws, using the word of the Bible to make his argument.
  • I’ve heard of people of all backgrounds volunteering to ride with Muslims who are afraid of persecution on public transportation.

I thought I’d leave you with the best quote I found. So, I’m doing all of this research into Greek Catholic services, and I see a great video, it’s the Byzantine Liturgy celebrated by Metropolitan William Skurla of Pittsburgh at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, 2014. The sound quality is the best of all the videos I’ve found. Now I loved watching this and listening to it, but I probably shouldn’t have read the comments.

Did you know that both the Schism in 1054 and the Reunion in 1458 are still causing acrimony today? I found comments from Orthodox Christians warning that Greek Catholicism was a sure path to hell and from Roman Catholics insisting that Greek Catholics were doing everything wrong and weren’t Catholics. Just as I was about to lose all hope for the concept of love and compassion in the Abrahamic faiths, I found this gem:

Terrible Taco Productions (edited)

This is just sad. I don’t see how the Byzantine rite is part of the Roman Catholic Church. They give out Holy Communion with a spoon instead of wafers that the Roman Catholic Church uses… Someone explain to me why is it give out on a spoon.   They make their sign of the cross different than the Roman Catholic why??

Julie Luckey

Hello Terrible Taco.  I think I can answer your questions. We get an idea from the Bible, especially the writings of St. Paul, how the various “Churches” developed in the area around the Mediterranean Sea.  Remember, at that time, they did not have the means of communication that exists today, so while all these churches were all part of the beautiful Catholic Church, which Our Lord founded, all having the same faith, many of the traditions developed a little differently.  You bring up a good example of this when you mention the Sign of the Cross.  The Christians in the East made the sign right to left, unlike our brothers and sisters in the West.  The prayers around the Mass (or Divine Liturgy as it is called in the East), also developed differently.  The prayers we use were written by St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom.  Within the Catholic Church are many rites.  The Roman Rite is just one of them.  A beloved priest friend of ours once explained that the Catholic Church does not offer to God a bouquet of only one color flower, but all the rites of the church are like offering to God a bouquet of many different flowers of different colors—all beautiful in God’s sight.  I hope one day you may get a chance to visit one of our Byzantine Catholic Churches and see for yourself how beautiful our traditions are.  God bless you.  Julie

I think that’s a great image to pursue. Let’s all of us bring the most beautiful flowers to God and let’s bring them to each other, as well. Let us all work to create a world of tolerance and care where everyone is free to cultivate their best flowers for the betterment of all of us.

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