I was sitting in a class on JRR Tolkien at Drew University. A fellow student was giving a presentation. These student presentations were dangerously hit-or-miss. Some were terrific, while others were painful. Within the latter category, there were two important distinctions: those of epic length and pain, and those of the only briefest momentary pain. For example, one girl presented on The Hobbit by discussing it (incorrectly – badly incorrectly) for no more than two minutes, then awkwardly leaving the podium and walking out the door; meanwhile, another student managed to fit more myth and factual side note in his presentation on the Silmarillion than was present in Tolkien’s original text.
It was during this presentation that my mind wandered – past the Eru’s creation of the Ainur, to the land of pure random thought. And in walked a bizarre and unconnected idea: Why don’t I spend some time going to services of different Christian denomination? And why stop there? Why not any religious denomination? My inner daemon responded positively and quickly.
Why? I wasn’t exactly sure. I’m still not. One of the clearest reasons I can point to is pure, straight-up curiosity. As a practicing, believing Roman Catholic – one that has grown up as such from birth – I have not experienced many other religious services. As a dabbler in philosopher, and hence theology, I have approached other denominations and religious through the lens of theological debate and consideration; but I have not experienced these religious groups.
The Catholic faith cannot be boiled down to a set of principles, beliefs, and morals; instead, it is an experience with the living God – a personal, transformative encounter with the Creator of universe, who loves me with a private and revolutionary love. Catholic theological foundation is necessary and true, but as language it remains in the realm of the metaphor; this beautiful metaphor is simply the rational basis upon which the real experience of the living God can be laid.
I suppose this to be the case for many other Christian and religious sects. It is therefore not sufficient when comparing one religion or denomination to another to write out on a clear piece of notebook paper the theological differences between the two – and perhaps the similarities. No, one must experience the differences and similarities. And this is what I intend to do.
I look for it to be a means of knowledge too: to discover, though the experience, more of another denomination. I suppose some of the experiences will prompt me to the study of some theology; as such, I will be learning. I feel impelled to understand the various and different perspectives on spirituality, man’s encounter with God, and man’s encounter with meaning – not because I think they are equal or “the same,” but because there are people, equal in value to me, who put as much stock in them as I put in my faith.
There is no questioning of my faith in this enterprise; no sense of lacking in my own Catholicism spurred these thoughts. On the contrary, perhaps it is my own sense of fulfillment and peace in my religious beliefs and experiences that had compelled me to question why others don’t find the truth and serenity of Catholicism.
Even though this isn’t the main reason for this venture, I suppose I may encounter the differences between my faith and others – and more to the point, how we experience God differently. I don’t really expect to get to the heart of this, though. For one, I’ll mainly be observing a service, which is a communal encounter, as opposed to personal encounters such as individual prayer. Second, I’ll only be encountering one service at one particular place, and I can’t universalize a whole denomination or sect on these grounds.
I may market or introduce myself as a “freelance writer” looking to do a piece on inter-religious dialogue, if I feel I need ask about joining a service beforehand. For example, I want to witness or experience Islamic prayer, but I’m not willing to just “drop by” the mosque in Plainfield. Although this “writer” may be my persona, I don’t feel the pressure to have preset questions beforehand. This is more about pure experience.
I intend to report and reflect on each of these encounters via this blog.