This is an ongoing series of meditations on faith, in response to readings from the articles that preface The Oxford Study Bible.
I will trust the reader to dig up the context if the meaning is unclear.
I was stopped by this fragment of a sentence from page 6:
... both [the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament] relate the continuing story of God's involvement with the Jewish people and the surrounding Gentile world."
The continuing story of God's involvement with the Jewish people.
What does this have to do with me?
I'm not Jewish. And since the word "Gentile" only has meaning from a Jewish viewpoint, I'm not Gentile, either — so why am I reading this book right now? Why am I attempting to rebuild my faith from this starting point, of all starting points?
If it were just a matter of academic curiosity, that would be one thing. Every tradition is worth learning about for learning's sake. But my purpose is different: I'm looking for home, starting from the scriptures that my community gave me when I was a child, and now I find that the fact I was given them makes no sense. These scriptures were not meant for me. They were written by and for someone else; they belong to a different culture, built by people who just so happen to still exist.
I find myself standing here in clothes that aren't mine. And the person they belong to is, awkwardly, also here, in the same room. Does it make any sense to stay?
Do I have any right to love and pray and call these scriptures my own?
Form and Content
I suppose there are both form and content at play here, the cultural clothing of a religion and the truth it expresses. It so happened that the Hebrew and Jewish stories introduced me to the God I know. Their laws and poetry conveyed to me, an outsider, something of substance, a vision of a larger reality in whose arms we all exist.
That deeper substance, wherever it may be found, is our birthright as humans. You don't have to come from a certain place to see reality reflected in its stories. You have permission to love what you love, to be moved by what moves you, to recognize truth wherever it startles you. The truths inside the clothing can't be contained; they simply are. They don't belong to us. Instead, if we choose to, we belong to them.
I didn't ask my community to give me these scriptures, but it did, and as a result I saw God.
The clothing, though, is not universal, and here's where it gets painful. The cultural expression, the history and heritage — the right even to be in the room when certain stories are told — these do belong to one group or another. These treasures can be misappropriated, and have been, and are.
I can't just shrug off the idea that Christianity took someone's holy book, added a bunch of other stuff, then reintroduced it as its own.* It's not to say the faith is illegitimate: Christianity has a rich, complex identity, and two millennia prove it capable of playing a meaningful role alongside the world's other religions, but in my mind the fact that it commandeered another people's tradition, however long ago, makes it something of an impostor.
* I'm referring to that early era of formalized Christianity which was fiercely anti-semitic, despite the fact that it's founded on a semitic text. Cognitive dissonance, racism, cultural appropriation: that's not the whole story of Christianity, but it was an important step in its establishment.
So it's a tangle, isn't it. The stories I was raised with don't belong to me, but they gave me something to which I do belong, so they will always be there for me somewhere in the foundation. I accept that. I won't say I'm comfortable with it.
Deeper down, I'm grieving. I feel the emptiness of not having a faith tradition that's purely mine, particular to my community. Like every other descendent of empire, here I am in borrowed clothes, standing in spaces that my predecessors took from others and reconstructed. Who am I, anyway? Where do I come from? Everywhere and nowhere.
The tangle, though — the messy mix of stories and traditions that spill out from the past to give us the present — that, I think, is just part of being human. We all have a lineage, and no lineage is pure. The lines change over time, and new cultural identities emerge from blending ancestors who end up having little in common with their descendants. That happens to every person and every people.
These truths don't mix tidily, but they are inextricably mixed. My lineage draws much from things it stole or borrowed. But I do have a lineage. Though I am an orphan of empire, I am not without a history. It's not a straight line, but no one's is; every community's lineage is tangled, like a massive root wad with tendrils and tails drawing life from everything it ever touched.
Once, there was a Jew who revolutionized his faith. Gentiles too gathered around him, and his Jewish followers chose not to require these newcomers to convert to the formal tradition, so between them, a new formal tradition emerged.
Long before that, there was a Hebrew who had two sons, one who called God Jehovah and one, Allah.
Longer ago, there were people and myths and gods, and the stories they told formed and reformed the people that emerged during the telling, until Abraham was born and Genesis was taught. This happened in the cradle of what's called civilization. It happened in the land where some of the first humans were.
The stories that belong to the land in which I now live are important, and I'm learning them; yet I'm not native here and must admit a foreign lineage. I am a third-generation European transplant. My people were immigrants and Christians. Earlier, too far back for me to see clearly, they were pagans.
As for where to walk from here, all I know to do is go back to the root. Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the paganism they replaced, the Judaism that preceded them, Hebrew texts and the stories that came before. I will seek to reconcile the problems I find. I will seek a truth to which I can belong, one that has relevance to the land where I live, to myself and my own. Perhaps, in the end, I'll find that something new has again been invented.
This then is my intention. But before moving on, I must acknowledge the debt I owe the Hebrew Bible and its writers.
* * *
And yet, and still, if the Bible introduced me to God, it must also be said that the Bible has nothing to do with the God I know. Everything is intertwined; everything is unmixable. When I walk outside, I remember the importance of direct experience.