Analytic Theology

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Participating in a Different Kind of Religious Experience

July 16th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER:

Assignment

… Each student shall engage in an ethnic or cultural experience where the student will be in the minority or be exposed to items unfamiliar to his/her every day life. … After attending, write up a summary as to what you expected before you went; what surprised you; what did not; did anything make you feel uncomfortable; etc. The key is to look at the experience as a social psychology experiment with you as the subject and have some fun exposing yourself to something you might not if not for this assignment.

Attendance at the Al-Tawheed Mosque

A. Background

As far as religious beliefs go it is my view people should adopt the religion of their place of origin. It is absurd to think that Zulus should worship Buddha or that people from Asian culture should be Christians. My people originated in Friesenland, which is an area on the Holland-German border by the North Sea. The god of the Friesens was Forseti, which is old Norse for “the presiding one.” Forseti lived on a small island off the coast of Friesenland called Heyligeland (or “holy land”), where the Friesens conducted primitive rites. Friesens were the only Germanic tribe named by the Roman historian Tacitus, which is why we still know they existed. Beowulf also mentions Friesia. Tacitus stated: “The Germans [by which he meant predominantly the Friesens], however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to the abstraction which they see only in spiritual worship.” This makes them sound like latter-day pantheists. Not much else is known today about pre-Christian Friesen theology, other than it also probably included the popular pastimes of sacking, plundering and pillaging.

St. Willibrord, a Northumbrian missionary (also known as the “Apostle to the Frisians”) introduced the Friesens to Christianity around 695 CE. His efforts seemingly were in vain as in 716 CE the pagan Radbod, king of the Friesens, retook possession of Friesia, burning churches and killing Christian missionaries. Etymologically my last name (“Kronemyer”) derives from “Kronemeijer,” which is old Dutch for “assistant to the King,” so it is likely this is the capacity in which we served. In 782 CE Charlemagne ordered the beheading of 4,500 Saxon leaders by the river Aller for continuing to practice their indigenous paganism, which pretty much eviscerated the local political infrastructure.

Whatever the Friesen’s beliefs were, they expired many years ago. It is not clear they even would be intelligible in contemporary terms. [Although interesting of all the ancient European languages Friesen bears the most orthographic resemblance to English, which hypothetically could have been a facilitator of cross-cultural comprehension.] The world of the ancient Greeks, for example, was defined by heroes and commoners. By the time of Dante this template had changed to saints and sinners. The Homeric concept of hero would be incomprehensible to Dante, just like Dante’s concept of sinner would be incomprehensible to Homer. Christianity initially was an amalgamation of the mature religion of the archaic Israelites and Platonic concepts derived from the ancient Greeks. Beginning most likely with the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE there came a time when it became the dominant theology of Europe, supplanting its predecessors. The Judeo-Christian tradition, which is the hallmark of Western culture, stems from these events.

Rome fell in 476 CE from barbarian invasions. The Christian tradition remained active in outlying areas and due primarily to political considerations consolidated around 800 CE into what became the Holy Roman Empire. In the meanwhile a separate Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition remained active in Constantinople. Ironically one of the most significant events for Christendom was the birth of the prophet Muhammed in 570 CE. In a short while Islam became the dominant religion of the near east and over time it became consolidated into the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453 CE. It almost conquered Vienna in 1529 CE. Had the Ottoman Empire conquered Vienna it is likely Islam would have become the dominant religion of Western Europe. [Though Islam now accretes in Western Europe achieving gains it never would have been able to achieve by head-on confrontation; for example 10% of the population of France now is Muslim.] The conflict between the Habsburg Monarchy (essentially the successor to the Holy Roman Empire) and the Ottoman Empire was not resolved until WWI.

B. My Personal Religious Beliefs

I attend Catholic church. I am not a practicing Catholic and do not participate in most of its rituals, e.g., profession of faith or communion. I believe in the existence of Jesus as an historical personage; that he was the leader of a rebellious Israelite religious sect; that he most likely was crucified, as was the custom of the day when dealing with insurrectionists; and that he had humanitarian views that were distinctly different from those of his contemporary culture. I cannot however accept the truth of any the miracles attributed to him; nor do I believe he was born of a virgin; nor do I believe he was resurrected from the dead. I definitely believe there is a God understood as a transcendent deity.

Having asserted these propositions, and despite my views on adopting the religion of one’s place of origin, I also believe it is most appropriate from an historico-theological standpoint for one to be religious according to the dominant theology of one’s time (in my case, particularly given the absence of any active Friesenland religious traditions). Like Dostoyevsky (and Thomas Jefferson) I believe in the Western religious tradition mainly because it is the religion of the people and the times, and further that it is appropriate to believe in it if only for this reason.

C. Islam and Orientalism

Curiously despite my interest in these matters I never have attended a religious service at an Islamic mosque. In addition to Judaism and Christianity Islam is one of the three great Abrahamic religions. [Before he had Isaac with Sara, Abraham had Ishmael with Hagar. According to the Bible Ishmael was expelled and went on to become the founding patriarch of the northern Arab people where Islam first took root.] Muslim culture is topical given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism; as expressed by Reza Aslan in his 2006 book No god but God, the similarities and dissonances between the monotheistic religious traditions is the main cause of the cultural clashes that have polarized modern society. Initially I was concerned that my interest in this assignment was a form of orientalism. As defined in the eponymous 1978 book by Edward Said, “orientalism” is Western culture’s tendency to characterize and romanticize Middle Eastern (primarily Islamic) thinking. I vowed however to rid my mind of preconceptions to the fullest extent possible and remain open to the possibilities presented by a different, coherent, internally-consistent worldview.

D. My Experience at the Mosque

Through a friend I made arrangements to attend the Al-Tawheed mosque in Westwood. I attended on Friday July 10, 2009 at noon. Prayer is one of the central tenets of Islam. Islam requires its adherents to pray five times a day. Friday noon is a traditional time for gathering and community prayer, otherwise devotees pray in situ wherever they might be. In comparison, while most Catholic churches offer an early-morning mass every day, the predominant focus is on Sunday mass.

A mosque is a place of worship roughly synonymous with a church or synagogue. It predominantly is a location where prayer takes place. Many mosques have prohibitions against non-Muslims from attending; this one did not (although I did feel vaguely uncomfortable and that I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb). Spatially the mosque only barely resembles the temple, the church or the cathedral. There are no pews. No images are allowed in mosques (unlike Christian churches with baroque and unsettling images of the crucified Jesus). Genders are separated during the course of the service.

Catholicism follows a prescribed and lengthy order of worship, comprising readings, prayers, a homily, and the Ceremony of the Eucharist. What goes on in the mosque is briefer and more to the point. The focus is on prayer. Prayers are led by an Imam. Although their religious roles and standing are different, the Imam is the rough equivalent of a rabbi, priest or minister. The service begins with praise to Allah. There is an invocation of blessings on the prophet Muhammad. There is a recitation of passages from the Qur’ân. The Imam makes a short and non-controversial statement. Prayer is ritualistic and accompanied by certain bodily movements, including kneeling on the floor.

Ethnographically most of the attendees were of Iranian descent. [The common place-name for this part of Westwood is “Tehrangeles.”]. From a socio-cultural standpoint Iran is a modern and highly sophisticated society. Iran’s modern history dates from 1921, which is when Shah Pahlavi’s father came to power, unifying the country, which had disintegrated into warring tribal factions much like Afghanistan today. Pahlavi himself ascended the Peacock Throne (as it is called) during WWII. While he modernized the country he also was seen to be under control of the major oil cartels. Khomeini led the Islamic revolution in 1979. While the rise of Islamic fundamentalism played a role it also was precipitated by economic factors such as regaining control of oil production. A key pivot point in Iran’s relationship with the West was the Iran hostage crisis, which did not end until Reagan became the U.S. President. A second key pivot point is the Iran – Iraq war, which also can be seen in terms of Shia – Sunni conflict, an historical rift in Islam. One of Khomeini’s objectives was to eradicate the upper class. This comprised: people associated with Pahlavi (government and military); professionals; educated people; and people with money (merchant class). This program was popular with everybody else who long had been suppressed and lived in endemic poverty.

In economic terms Khomeni’s success can be seen in Marxist terms, not necessarily religious ones. People in jeopardy got out as fast as they could, depending upon their individual circumstances. The first wave lead to a second and then a third as more people realized they had to leave in order to survive. Many of them moved to large cities, Los Angeles in particular.

E. Conclusions

I did not expect to find a hot bed of sword-waving Jihadists or incipient suicide bombers with plastic explosives strapped to their belts. I did however expect to find people who were more pious and devout than what one might typically find in West Los Angeles, more generally known for its sybaritic if not sinful tendencies. Although it might sound like a cliché, I was surprised to find people who were not that much different than myself. It no longer was clear to me they could be divided into a distinct ethnic group; the very attempt to do so is an exercise in dehumanization.

It also occurred to me that one of the key universal themes of the Iranian diaspora is the homelessness experienced by émigrés – people who have been uprooted and forced out of their country. They are exiles, strangers or foreigners in a new country. They have had to start over, frequently taking occupations or accepting social status much inferior to their former ones. They have adopted strategies to assimilate while at the same time retaining a cultural identity. The key antinomy is: emigration – assimilation. In this sense the story of Iranian emigration is like that experienced by other groups in American history (Irish in the 19th century, Vietnamese following the fall of Saigon, current Hispanic). Completion of this assignment helped me better understand this dynamic.