reading time: 9 minutes
When my mother decided to leave the church, having been raised in a family where men traditionally were either lawyers or protestant vicars, she incited a fierce debate, following on the heels of the scandal of my out-of-wedlock-birth 2 years earlier.
What drove the debate was not so the much the moral dimension of her decision. It was more that my mother’s life was already marked by one misstep, which was deciding to raise a child by herself at the expense of her academic ambitions and the professional career she had envisioned. Abandoning the church would add to the stigma of her daughter’s illegitimacy in a day and age when 98% of German children were either Catholics or Protestants. Even those family members with atheistic or agnostic tendencies were concerned that parting with a powerful institution like the church, which was associated with schools, childcare, hospitals and more, would make it even harder for the two of us maintain any kind of bourgeois respectability in über-conventional Wirtschaftswunder-Germany.
As it happened, the practical implications ranged from tedious to painful: every form to fill in was not only missing details about ‘Father of applicant’, but ‘Congregation’ offered no box for ‘none’. In those days, not being part of a religion needed to be officially explained: provide the certificate of your mother leaving the church.
It’s not Caroline’s fault family members often remarked, as I recently learned from my mother’s cousins, the last witnesses to my early childhood. But my young mother was stubborn to a fault. She would make for an incredibly empowering and authentic role model one day, but not for decades to come.
Despite my churchless status, in Kindergarden I had to attend the regular church service. At my conservative high school for girls I took the mandatory protestant studies course. I was not expected to actively participate, but was tolerated by the bemused teacher. I remember the teacher, Frau Huselmann, reading the story of Joseph from one of the five books of Moses: Jacob’s youngest and favorite son has six jealous brothers who try to drown him, unsuccessfully. Joseph is taken to Egypt, where he thrives, empowered by God, to fight the threat of hunger and misery. He later meet his six brothers again, who came to Egypt in desperate need for help and don’t recognize Joseph. Joseph makes himself known to his humbled brothers. They reunite in love and forgiveness. This very scene drove me to tears. But I felt like a thief, not entitled to be so moved by Josephs and his brothers’ transformation and their heartfelt reunion, because I was only a guest in the classroom.
Luckily I had two fellow students, Sorana, a Jewish girl who would later take me to her Jewish youth club (unsurprisingly, a rarity in Germany). There also was the humorous and smart Alexandra, a Greek-Orthodox student. The remaining 280 girls in the school’s grade group were Catholic or Protestant. Sorana and Alexandra reached out to me, untroubled by differences in background, but unlike them I felt I had nothing to offer up that would explain my own moral identity. I felt that I was looked at with either pity or puzzlement: no father, no religion, no guidance, and not much of an identity. Just a chaotic jumble of nonconformity.
I remembered at one point deciding to simply pray and find out who God is on my own, which was not too far from the tree of some liberal protestant teachings I had absorbed. There had to be someone for me up there too, I thought. God, as loving and merciful as he is, would not possibly make his care for me dependent on a club membership! But still, not having answers when kids at school asked me: Why are you not going to church? Where is your dad? was one of the most uncomfortable emotions I can remember. I later wondered whether religious education was meant to fill exactly that void: answers that kids can understand.
In the decades to come I learned that being part of the Catholic or Protestant denominations was not necessarily a sign that a person agreed with the literal teachings of the Bible. Instead, for many Germans the church, an institution that was in itself deeply damaged by Germany’s recent history, meant community – although to a lesser degree than in England and in the US. The church in 1970s Germany offered a place for people to reflect, to possibly repair their relationship with the origins of their culture, a legitimate need after the war, and to connect with their inner values. This last one even happened for me whenever I set foot in a church. Only few adults I met would ever take the teachings of the bible literally. This is not a trivial point. If the bible wasn’t to be taken literally, why read it? I think it carries a cultural narrative of stories, lessons and traditions that only come to life when read with the intention to understand the ideas that led to a particular narrative. Like every cultural and spiritual work, this interpretation can be done well or poorly.
At university I learned to methodically decode both historic source texts and the commentary that made those sources relevant for subsequent generations. I had to catch up on biblical references for my literary studies, and I had to take a further exam in Latin for my Linguistics degree. I recall my brilliant language professor enacting a drunken monk in his daily practice of transcribing ancient holy texts in his dimly lit chamber of an Italian monastery – losing his pen, accidentally tearing a roll of papyrus here, smudging over a few words there, not quite getting the meaning of some word or phrase and resorting to another goblet of wine which he would inevitably spill all over the parchment, and so on. The point being that the hapless monk represented part of a centuries long tradition of a flawed practice of re-scripting, translating, rephrasing, adding and omitting. My teacher’s act was meant to remind us that ancient sources and scriptures have a life of their own, are probably riddled with ambiguous spelling, lost meanings and dubious references. As such, all ancient literature requires a methodical interpretation, both as historical text as well as a process of reflection by the interpreting individual. If this is done consciously, a study of religious text, becomes – like literature – an education in our cultural history.
When I read about the controversies currently surrounding Islam, the refugee crisis in Europe and the bizarre suggestion to restrict Muslims’ entry into the US, I cannot help but think it is a cultural debate rather than a religious one for exactly those reasons. We celebrate Christmas. But does that mean we take the story of Jesus literally in every detail? It is tempting to look at the differences between Islam and Christianity and conclude that it is the actual teaching of the Koran that encourages Islamic extremism. But this makes as little sense as saying the Bible produces a Christian extremist. By extremism I mean abusing any spiritual text to judge, exclude or discriminate against people based on their different faith or practice. Even though I have discussed this topic with a Muslim friend for this article, I believe that we don’t have to be Islamic scholars to know that no extremist interpretation relying on the literal truth and infallibility of any spiritual scripture can make sense. The same is true for Hindu texts. The Sanskrit narration of the Baghavad Gita, often referred to as The Song of God, offers a range of ideas on one’s duties, on devotion and overcoming obstacles, is well worth reflecting on and can be a source of spiritual education for anybody today. I had to study the text as part of my yoga teacher training and I am still grateful for the time I spent in the presence of Arjuna and Krishna. An un-dogmatic teacher could choose Bible passages as the bases for similar reflections. Each and every time it is the personal engagement with the source that gives validation to the text, not the idea that the content is literally true.
Here is what I mean: A few years ago I had to write an essay about the yamas the ethical rules in yoga teaching. One stands out for what seems simple: asteya, ‘non-stealing’. My first thought was: how obvious – what is there to think about? All religions, all civilizations have this rule. Most of us don’t shoplift or find ourselves in situations that force us to do so – with the exception of ‘Mundraub’, the for once wonderfully short German word for theft of food for personal survival, which is legal.
But thinking more about this, I wondered if there really is nothing we take that is not ours? In an interconnected world like the one we live in, taking privileges all too easily can be addressed by asteya: seeing your doctor for a trivial ailment whilst someone else might need that doctor’s attention more, but could not afford it: could that be theft? Does our excessive use of car and air travel qualify, even though its consequences are not immediately felt? What about the fossil-fuel-intense products we use? We may be able to able to pay for them, but their price does not reflect the actual price that our environment and therefore less fortunate people or future generations are paying. Only because we don’t know see or know the person that is affected by our action does not mean we are off the hook. Stealing today is a sophisticated – and global – process. The fact that a particular action is not illegal does not mean every acquisition in our industrial and financial worlds is well and just.
The plentiful environmental dilemmas we live with may not literally be covered in ancient religious teachings either – please correct me if I am wrong, because it would be wonderful if there was a passage that said: thou shalt not ruineth the planet for your own convenience – but in its moral implication, we can look at plenty of ways in which we treat the resources of this world as personal property, even though they should merely serve as a baton that we pass on in a generational relay. Treating water and air as personal property is an example of this. You don’t have to be a HK chauffeur who is taking a half hour nap in the parked car whilst the engine is running. Just any wasteful consumption can fall under that category.
Agreed, one does not need the Bible or any other ancient model to arrive at this conclusion – especially because not stealing is an easy one to take literally. But our moral coding and the foundations of philosophy are connected to the faith-based origins of the ancient scriptures. And why shouldn’t they be? We look at temples, mosques and cathedrals, so why not at the intellectual architecture that shapes our discourse? What ancient scriptures tell us in Hebrew, Arabic or Sanskrit is not, perhaps, what we should literally learn. We have to learn what potential those narratives offer us in the context of our own lives. Personal reflection is a recycling process that forms an understanding of our own spiritual culture. And if we skip the interpretation of the narrative and its critical reflection, we may do an injustice to those texts.
I expect from any spiritual education that it helps me to accept the complexity of life, however privileged that life may be at the time, and that it helps me living the uncomfortable questions that come with its perks. Religious fundamentalism, whichever direction and belief is at its base, invites simplification and separation of people into different, often opposing groups. In an increasingly global civilization this is a step backwards. That is why I fear Christian fundamentalism as much as its Islamic equivalent, I would not wish to live in a world where gay people are excluded from certain privileges such as marriage, be this dogma based on Christian or Islamic world-views. I would not want to live in a community where birth control is morally discouraged and creationism is passed on as true. And these are just a few examples.
I thoroughly believe that the debates we will have to hold will have to include the origins of our beliefs, because they are our cultural coding. But like true compassion can only come when we can forgive ourselves, true understanding of other spiritual cultures can only come when we understand our own spiritual origins. It takes trust and respect for personal and private reflection. We live in the day and age of access to diverse, educated and inspired sources through exquisite journalism and literature, teachers, writers, film and our own observations. I cannot help but feel optimistic about that future.
Coming back to my mother: she created difficulties for me by not remaining a member of the church. But that was not her intention. She wanted to stay true to herself and at her 26 year old life, and the church as an institution had failed her by not staying relevant to her. But she did create a good climate for debate within the family. And, ironically, she was a Christian in action. I could also say that she was a religious person, a person with a strong sense of duty towards others, a deep belief in people’s integrity and someone who was capable of selfless service – all attributes that are associated with a spiritually educated person. In her lifetime, she became a mentor for many because she tolerated and accepted people for who they were, and she never judged.
I believe her secret and what makes me come back to her life again and again was her unbroken interest in other people, their languages and their ways of life. I recognize this as another expression of universal love and a benevolent spirit. It is also deeply un-fundamentalist behaviour. Christmas is a great opportunity to get curious again. Start with the story of Jesus. We are not members of a church, but I will dig out the story and read it to my kids this year again.