Since our last course is on religion I thought I would share a past reflection paper about just that.
After brushing my teeth with filtered water, shedding my dirty clothes, and slipping into my scrubs and t-shirt I always do one thing before going to bed, which is pray. Growing up in church I’ve always prayed before going to bed. Mostly for my friends, family, and sometimes myself depending on the day, but I always end it by praying that “God will shape me in his image, whatever that may be.”
For twenty years it has seemed like a simple enough concept, until the other day when David was discussing religion with us. We’d just finished discussing the 3 C’s, of religion which stand for Creed, Cult, & Culture. Creed, mainly being the doctrine that is interpreted in each religion. Cult is more about the ritual of the specific religion. Culture is actually putting the ritual into practice. All three are interconnected. One way to look at the cycle from the outside is to take the Muslim example of fasting (culture), why, because it is a ritual (cult), which is based on their specific doctrine (creed). The 3 C’s were very new to me, but an important thing to look at in order to understand religion, and of course the rest of David’s class. He then went on to discuss the up and coming St. Mary’s Festival, which was in honor of St. Mary’s birthday. He brought up how during St. Mary’s Festival they put a sari on a statue of Mary.
I immediately thought of going around Bangalore seeing the different statues of Mary, white, not Indian, dressed in a sari. Even in the Lingaraja slums we visited were statues of a white, very western looking Mary adorned in an Indian sari. It was this perfect example of how somewhere after the creed of Jesus, but between the cult and culture artists had decided to make him look like whatever they felt comfortable with (primarily white, and western). This is ironic to those who know that Jesus was not born in the west, he was actually born in Israel, and thus most likely looking nothing like the white skinned westerner that we so often see portrayed today.
Seeing all of those statues of Mary who is portrayed as a white woman in a sari threw me off a bit. Her being white was normal for me to see because that was what I was used to, but the sari added a hint of fascination. “Why did she wear a sari?” and “If she is wearing a sari, why wasn’t she also Indian looking?” were questions that quickly popped into my head. David explained that by having Mary wear a sari it was a way for the Indians to claim Mary as theirs, to make her image more like theirs. But who is to say what Mary looks like, what Jesus looks like, what God actually looks like?
David goes on to bring up a fascinating contradiction that so many of us are guilty of doing. He says, “Why is it that we feel we have to shape God in our image to feel comfortable, but at night pray that God shapes us in his image.” Immediately after hearing this I felt I had had an “Aha moment”, like it was so true what he said. How contradictory, that we literally pray for something we constantly feel the need to change in order to accept and feel comfortable with it. It is a great example of an idea we learned about earlier in the week, which was “vision vs. practice tension”. Our vision is to have God shape us into great people in his image, but the practice tension spurs from our need to control what his image looks like to us.
If we have shaped the way we see God, what else have we shaped for our own comfort, and understanding? Jesus says, “I am the way.” He says “I am the way”, not that he has any intention of making a religion called Christianity. He was living out this life as an example for others. This has been shaped since then into a religion with leaders, rules, doctrines, and other things that are structured, and familial to people. During the St. Mary’s Festival the church auctions off the sari that is worn by the Mary statue, and uses the funds for the poor. Do the ends justify the means? Religion profiting off of a market shaped by those who took Jesus’ way, and turned it into something of their own.
“We shape God’s image into our own to feel comfortable, but pray at night that God will shape us in his image.”
Such a concise sentence, which filled me with so much thought. Days later I am still thinking about it, how religious extremists shape God’s will to their own benefit to wage wars; how when I picture Jesus he is a white guy with a brown beard, and brown hair; how many other things we do or believe that were more so shaped by us than that of the one we claim to have had it shaped by. I really don’t have any answers right now to all of the questions that keep popping into my head, but I’m confident that as time goes on some of these mysteries will begin to be answered.