It has been Interfaith week in Edinburgh, and I took the chance to experience some different religious traditions this weekend. Without judgment, without generalisation, without the need for words like “good” or “bad” for a change… simply an experiential immersion.
On Saturday there was a service jointly hosted by the Unitarians, the Liberal Jews, and a Buddhist group. I’ve never been to anything like this before, but it worked well, and I didn’t anticipate how distinct the personalities of these groups seem when brought together! Serene, reflective meditation, punctuated by softly deliberate bell-ringing, was contrasted with unaccompanied Hebrew singing led by the Rabbi’s booming (and wonderful) voice. I actually really enjoyed the latter especially.
On Sunday there was an open invitation to the Sikh temple. I went to the same event last year, but missed some of it and wanted to do it again. It was a normal worship service followed by a little talk and then joining in the langar (vegetarian meal). I found the atmosphere very very relaxed… exquisite singing, accompanied by tabla; the participation of people seated on the floor around me – quiet, reflective and freely personal. As I absorbed the translations projected onto the front wall, the feeling was so familiar: peace and a little excitement at the seductive idea of the absolute, the numinous, the ineffable, the perfect. I felt this way at a church in my youth… it was there at a Sufi gathering last year… and now here it was again, like an old friend. It surprises me how little it has to do with belief.
Last year’s visit happened only days before I arrived at my inevitable answers to the “truth” question. I was quite troubled and conflicted. This year, with that question long put to rest, I found I wanted just to sit in wide-eyed appreciation of the projected ideas thrown at me, watching them explode in my mind like pretty fireworks. Truth doesn’t have anything to do with that experience, and thinking that it does is where many of us go wrong.
I know that for regular religious participants it generally is about truth. And I know that being a humanist and enjoying a religious experience makes me pretty weird, although it is not much different to sitting in a movie theatre, having a moving and transcendent communal experience through what is acknowledged to be a piece of fiction. Religion, with its epic storyline of absolute and ultimate meaning, can touch the psyche in an even more powerful and profound way than that, for some people. I was always a little bit that way; I guess I still am. 😀