Unexpected Travel Lesson
“Never discuss politics, religion or the Great Pumpkin.” Sage advise which I heard every year from Linus Van Pelt, when the local television station would air It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. In my culture, we generally heed Linus’ advice. We especially avoid talking about religion. However, I’ve noticed that religion is more openly discussed in other parts of the world.
Traveling in the Middle East, “What religion are you?” was often the third question asked, right after your name and where you are from. I always had the sense that the people asking viewed it as a multiple choice question with three possible answers. Those answers did not include atheist, agnostic, secular-humanist or any label that I would comfortably attach to myself. When pushed and asked directly if I was a Christian, I would hesitate and say, “not really.” Then they would ask if I had been baptized. You’re going to stuff me into a category because someone squirted some water on me when I was nine months old? Indeed, they were.
Oddly enough, I now feel that there might actually be some validity to lumping me into a category based on the dominant religion of my culture. Here’s what happened:
I was raised to be skeptical, if not sarcastic, about religion. Growing up, we went to church once per year. It was quite an ordeal as the church was 35 miles away and most of the service was conducted in Greek, which I did not understand. My father said that we were going because if we didn’t show up once a year and take Communion, my grandmother would have a heart attack. My mothers said we were going because she knew we hated it and hating religion was good because it would make us less likely to run off and join the Moonies (the fringe cult of the time). They were both right. My grandmother lived to a ripe old age, and I grew up to be cynical about organized religion.
But living in Israel in my early twenties, I began to develop a vague awareness that many of the people around me had a different framework for considering questions of justice, ethics and morality. An oversimplified version of my way of viewing things and their way could be could be summarized accordingly:
- Two wrongs do not make a right.
- Justice means an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Both statements are completely logical and self-evident. Yet they are fundamentally incompatible. How had I come to believe so strongly that one is more “right” than the other? The first statement is a paraphrasing of the story of Jesus turning the other cheek and I had come to believe it because it was what was believed by the people around me.
Thus, with a jolt of shock, I realized that to a large extent, my values had been shaped by Christianity. The bigger realization was that I could easily have gone through my entire life without ever having known this. Would it have occurred to me if I had never left home? Perhaps only this particular corner of the world where the three great monotheistic religions collide, could elicit such an insight.
I am now certain that my values, perceptions, beliefs and understandings have all been shaped by the dominant culture around me. This means that “my” characteristics are not truly my own. Letting go of this attachment to my own worldview has lightened the load, made me more willing to question my assumptions, and even more able to see things that can be questioned. It is one of the great gifts received from traveling.