Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Recollected Mitzvah of Mindful Jihadi Dharma

During our undergraduate years at the University of Virginia a friend of mine took a course on church history in the Religious Studies Department. My friend grew up the son of a Baptist minister in the Tidewater area of Virginia. His professor came of Irish-Catholic stock and the rigorous training accorded ordained Jesuit priests. Since the course began with the Reformation, they amounted to a train wreck waiting to happen.

Happen it did. The professor began a lecture early in the term by positing a classroom at the University of Paris in the sixteenth century in which sat two--here comes the crucial part--very similar young men poised to have enormous influence on the history of the Church: Jean Calvin and Ignacio de Loyola. This stunning parallelism, not of their later influence but of their essential similarity, required more tolerance and perhaps humility than my friend possessed. As I recall, he dropped the class that afternoon.

Suggesting similarities across confessional lines within disparate strands of the same faith carries considerable risks. Expand the process to a consideration of spiritually cognate practices across faiths and the trains wreck while carrying hundreds of tankers of jet fuel each. Think World Trade Center; in fact, do think World Trade Center. It makes a good if more than just literally explosive place to begin.

After a brief digression. A friend--my boss--posted an article by Mark Galli in Christianity Today on her Facebook page the other day. The author argued that many people place too much emphasis on transformation in spirituality, which usually involves arriving at a state that feels better than our current one, and thus involves using God as a kind of Good Humor man of the skies. He argues instead for the importance of crisis as the moment in which grace can enter our lives. This same notion occurs in the Greek kairos, a favorite among monastics. Kairos, unlike the hyperactivity of willed transformation, involves waiting, a lot of waiting, something about which monks know a great deal. When the grace-filled moment comes, one acts, but under the aegis of inspirational grace, not one's own self-interested initiative.

Which brings us back to the World Trade Center. My own reading on Islamic countries and their traditions, among them spiritual, has not progressed to a point that makes me any kind of expert. It has become apparent to me, however, that the nineteen young men who kidnapped four planes on September 11, 2001, and succeeded in crashing three of them into their intended or at least secondary--i.e., the Pentagon--targets, believed in a notion of jihad that has two implications for us here. First, most Moslems subscribe to an understanding of jihad that concerns internal struggle, a purifying process, emphasis on process. In Galli's terms, the jihadist who blows himself and a few thousand innocent bystanders into incinerated ash in order to attain martyrdom and a place in Paradise belongs to the camp that ascribes to the transformational fallacy. A jumbo jet or an AK-47 or semtec explosive has replaced the Good Humor man, but the motivation remains the same: self.

Jihad as internal struggle to find Allah within; recollection, the monastic practice of self-reckoning to see where one has strayed from and where one has approached godliness in one's daily life; the Jewish notion of mitzvah, or service, that the Good Samaritan understood better than the priest and the Levite; mindfulness, the Buddhist practice of constant awareness that brings us back from our wanderings into distraction; and dharma, the Hindu notion of calling, or life's purpose, something like what we would call vocation. None of these notions exactly replicates the other, though to perform a mitzvah a state of recollected mindful jihad in one whose dharma called her to service would certainly help--if one could get past all the labels.

Theologians, spare me your quibbles about the (mis-)use of complicated terminology herein. We all struggle, many of us about more or less the same things. We all misunderstand each other. We think that in every Moslem household lurks a Qur'an and an AK-47; the Israelis suspect them all of Judeophobia; the Moslems suspect us--why, one can hardly imagine--of unimpeded hedonism; Buddhists think they alone have preserved monastic traditions; and Hindus are probably more tolerant of others' religious beliefs than the whole lot of us.

And yet we all have language suggesting our interest in the path to God/Yahweh/Allah/ nirvana/atman. We all acknowledge our frailties--just not to each other. So much in recent literature on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, and in my own experience, suggests how easily human contact can bridge the chasms of misunderstanding. A Hazara cook for an American NGO in Lashkargah, Afghanistan; a group of Sufi dervishes welcoming an English traveler in Herat near the Iranian border; an Israeli poet with whom I used to amicably if intensely argue about Ariel Sharon; the Pakistani student who begged us at our small college on 9/11 not to blame all Moslems.

All these meetings are moments of kairos, moments when through recollection, through a spirit of mitzvah, of doing service, of sincere jihad, of mindfulness, and of attention to our true dharma, we can experience within ourselves more than ourselves. More indeed than each other, and certainly more and other than our preconceptions of each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment