Interfaith dialogue runs aground
LAST MONTH, an Australian couple I know threw a Christmas party, since Northern Hemisphere summers remind them of Christmas back home.
My family doesn't celebrate Christmas. We Hindus use the occasion to get together with our cousins, and sometimes we exchanged gifts, generally unwrapped. Even 20 years ago I wanted a "real American Christmas." My mother gave in and bought a plastic fir tree that rose a magnificent 12 inches above our coffee table. I draped some scrounged tinsel on it. On Christmas morning, I raced downstairs to find exactly zero presents. I must have wanted to believe in Santa Claus, to expect the presents in the first place. But my parents just got us gifts spontaneously or for our birthdays. Christmas wasn't our ritual.
I only started feeling festive about Christmas when I started visiting boyfriends' families for the holidays. My boyfriend's mother gave me a green shirt with a gingerbread man on it a few Christmases ago, and I dutifully wore it to my Australian friends' party.
At the party we didn't sing any carols or read any stories of Bethlehem. We ate a very good brunch (a roast turkey was provided), exploded Christmas "cracker" toys, watched toddlers play, and talked.
I loved hearing the mothers' hilarious anecdotes of breastfeeding mishaps. I mentioned that I like to read blogs (online diaries) by mothers and Christians — people who lead lives that differ from mine.
A generally amiable Australian guy I'll call "Edward" couldn't believe his ears. Edward had been a Christian and had studied apologetics (the philosophical defense of Christian beliefs) at school. Now Edward has left the church and couldn't understand why I wanted anything to do with it.
The more we talked the less we understood each other. How could he sit with me, a block from the Mission District in San Francisco, eating Christmas pie, and not understand that my conscious citizenship in Western civilization demands that I get a handle on Christianity?
As I tried to explain my Hindu childhood, long on Sanskrit chants but short on doctrine, I suppose he couldn't conceive of a religious experience that had so little belief in it. I believed in God and in being kind, basically. If I'd said an equivalent of the Nicene Creed, I didn't know it.
There was very little theory in my experience of Hinduism. A vague pantheism, maybe. A Hindu doesn't ordinarily study the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas or other Hindu scriptures, quite unlike the way post-Reformation Christians have a personal relationship with the Bible.
I didn't read a text that I then chose to believe as God's truth. So mine has been a flexible faith, rooted more in practice than belief. It's like Christmas every day.
Edward had grown up learning about this edifice, his Christianity, which used faith in certain premises as the foundation and built doctrines on top. I believe that when Edward lost his faith in the underpinnings, he then walked away from the whole thing. Like the Bible verse says: What good is a house built on sand?
Just as my beliefs weren't so elaborate, my religion didn't seem so fragile. My parents practice astrology and I don't. I see definitions telling me I'm not a Hindu if I don't believe in reincarnation and the authority of the Vedas, but those are not the foundations of my life. My moral code comes from my parents, my culture, my power of reason, and my faith that it matters, supernaturally, whether I do good or evil.
Edward has no doubt assembled his own ethics since he left his faith. He must think that someone poking around his old ruined house would have to be crazy to find any value there. He must think that I need to get some things straight, that my world's turned upside down, that I may as well celebrate Christmas in June.
A final note: In last week's column I implied that I was donating blood every month. Not true! I TRY every month to donate and have failed because of my low iron count. People can donate once every 56 days to safely allow blood levels to regenerate.
You can e-mail Sumana Harihareswara at firstname.lastname@example.org.