He has had a somewhat similar childhood to mine, including sojourns in Foreign Places which include Africa, which may inform matters somewhat; the difference lies in the fact that he's American, American-born, and I am not. So in some ways although we both stand and observe from the outside, a little way, he has at least one foot in the root culture of the United States from the get-go while I only came to that culture late, and very much from that outside. He has a lot to say about the matter, and I find myself nodding and agreeing with a lot of it - with MOST of it - probably with all of it, in certain contexts. Some day I'd love to have s sit-down conversation with him about this (but since we usually run into one another at conventions where either of us might be crazy busy and saying hello in passing on our way to some other commitment elsewhere that might be difficult to manage...) In the meantime, and without being prompted by circumstances as deeply charged as his current ones are right now, I'll offer you my take on it - for those who care to listen. My own personal Credo.
The culture I was born in is deeply connected to its faith - the Orthodox Church informs a lot of living, much like the Synagogue does for a person of Jewish faith. In fact, in some respects my own tribe's attitude to religion is more alike to Judaism than it is to Christianity - we are Orthodox Christian because we are Serb and the two go together.
Ours was not a church-going family in the sense that every Sunday morning was dedicated to white gloves and hats and hymnals. Ours is not that kind of church. But I was taken to the cathedral in Novi Sad when I was a kid - Saborna Crkva, otherwise known as the Cathedral of Saint George - for various religious-themed festivals. For instance, when I was really little, to something called Vrbica - all I really remember of it, being practically a BABY, was that us kids were given little bells to hand around our necks on pretty ribbons, like baby lambs, and then allowed and encouraged to gambol around the place while the clergy handed out duly blessed branches of pussy willow (that's where the name comes from - "vrba", the root for "vrbica", means "willow") with buds still soft and velvety under childish fingers, to be taken home and cherished in pots and vases - it was all joy and laughter to me, but this fell on the Saturday which marked the greater cycle of the Easter holidays, and (I had to look it up - that's how much religion infused it for me!) it commemorates the resurrection of Lazarus, and also the entry of Christ into Jerusalem where (so the story goes) he was greeted by children. Who may or may not have been wearing lamb bells.
But the bells would ring out, and there is nothing quite like the melodious and noble bells of an Orthodox cathedral. And we'd go into the hushed quiet of the church, with the light filtered through a myriad stained glass windows, and iron troughs filled with sand where yellow wax candles brought by the faithful had been brought and lit and left - commending the living to the Lord, in the upper trough, and remembering their beloved dead, in the lower. I would be given a candle, and I would solemnly light it from another already burning, and my grandmother would guide my hand as I planted the candle in the sand in memory of ancestors from whom I sprang, people who walked this earth before me, whose blood and whose bones were given unto their children and then, eventually, knitted into the being who would become me. Sometimes the choir - up on the high balcony, unseen, their voices pure and echoing in the great cathedral like those of angels, would sing a snatch of liturgy - because all liturgy in this church is, of course, sung. And sung in an ancient language - Church Slavonic - which is recognisable to me as ancestor to my own living language but with a patina of age on it that makes it oddly believable that it was used from time immemorial to worship God.
Here's what a simple Lord's Prayer sounds like, when sung by a choir of such angels:
This is the church where I did this growing up, practised this simple faith:
I still say that, to me, this is the place where God lives.
If I walk into any Orthodox church, anywhere, and light a candle for my own dead - it is here, in my mind's eye, that the candle is planted, and here that it burns. Here, because all the memories are here. God, and memories. Potent stuff.
I am not "religious". Not dogmatically. I do not believe that there is a great old man with a white beard who directs the course of my life in any way shape or form. I do not pray, in the accepted sense of that word - and I certainly do not pray for other people. But when rdeck suffered his stroke six and a half years ago, one of our neighbours down the road, who happened to be a German missionary couple of some description, came knocking on my door. We were not close friends or anything like that, the only reason we really knew them at all was that they had a magnificent German Shepherd whom they'd walk past our house and of course I couldn't help fawning on him, and it was thus that we met - but the wife had heard of what had occurred in our house, and she came to knock on my door and offer her sympathy... and to ask me something. "If you don't mind," she said, "I would like to pray for him."
It wasn't my faith. It wasn't my God. It was nothing I believed in. But it was sincere, and offered out of her own faith, carried deep in her own heart. It couldn't hurt - maybe, if there WAS a God, he did listen when people such as this prayed. So, there on my back deck, this woman reached out for my hand, bowed her head to the great cedars that ringed the back of my house, and said a prayer for my husband. A very simple prayer, such as a child might have uttered - she couched it in no high-faluting language, she just humbly asked for God's attention so that she could bring to him this man who was so sick, and if he could spare the time and the will, to look down upon him and to ease his pain and to make him better. Thy will be done - but - if that's okay - could you just, you know, glance this way and stretch out your hand in blessing?...
It moved me to tears. Not because I suddenly "saw the light" or anything like that - but because that kind of faith is a gift freely given - she was not out to convert me in any way shape or form, she had just offered to put in a word where she believed she might be heard. And I appreciated the gesture. It was what she could give, she offered it graciously, and it was purest grace to accept it.
This is not true of evangelism in its most - and I use the word advisedly - FUNDAMENTAL forms. Evangelism baffles me. The idea that you can "save" someone else by stuffing your own religion, your own beliefs, your own dogma down their throats - and threatening them with doom and damnation if they don't swallow - is at odds with my basic understanding of faith.
I am a child of a "mixed marriage", coming from two parents of differing faiths. Neither of them is religious in a temple-attending kind of way - and our home was always a free-thinking zone, not trammelled or hobbled by what some nameless and awe-inspiring and thundering and judgmental God (of whatever stripe) handed down as holy writ. I was allowed to grow up free, and then, when old enough, to make up my own mind.
I chose to get christened, in that same church where I went with my lamb bell as a child, when I was a full grown-up, with all my faculties - my full reasons shall remain my own, but they were fundamentally a commitment to my culture rather than to religious dogma as such. When I returned to the town where I was born, a handful of years ago, I organized a short memorial service in that same church for all those people whom I loved and who are no longer with me - including that grandmother who used to bring me here, holding my small hand gently in her own, to receive a blessed willow branch and run around tinkling my little bell with the other children like a flock of lambs. I lit another candle, there, where all my candles always burn - because I will always remember, mourn, and miss this magnificent woman who has such a huge hand in raising me. I may not believe in an omnipotent God but I believe in Guardian Angels, mostly because I believe she has always been one, even when still walking this earth, more so than ever than she is gone from me. They may not be the Guardian Angels that come to YOUR mind when I say those words - my grandmother is certainly no Clarence from "It's a wonderful life". But she is part of me, part of my own spirit, she is all that is good and gracious and serene and gentle and loving in me, and isn't that what an angel is supposed to be...?
So I am not a full atheist, like jaylake defines it. But my faith is part of the fabric of my culture and my roots, rather than something separate from it, something that can be politicised, and evangelised, and otherwise externalised to the extent that much of modern religion is in America, in particular, today. I know that there will be a certain kind of response to this which will take up arms against my interpretation of faith in America - but here's the thing - you ask an American what he or she is and they will tell you that they are AMERICAN. That does not presuppose anything. If you ask a Jew what he is, no matter if he or she is American or not, they will self-identify as JEWISH rather than AMERICAN - or perhaps as AMERICAN only second. By the same token, you will have the same self-identification when it comes to the Balkans - stating your ethnicity will instantly state your religion, with few exceptions. Croats are Catholic. Serbs are Orthodox. That's a given. The faith isn't an external coat - I'm an American AND a Christian, for instance, with the faith overlaid on top of the nationality - but rather it's the bone marrow of the human being you are addressing. I am who I have stated I am, and BECAUSE I am that THIS is my faith. Catholicism or Orthodoxy aren't something we put on on Sundays. It's something we carry inside of us. It's in the blood.
And it's perhaps because of this that the Ortodox faithful, at least in the parts of the world where I come from and pretty rarely anywhere else from what I know of it - simply don't evangelise. Our faith is that of the flickering candle, not the bonfire of the heretics. We believe what we believe. If you ask, we will tell you about it - not because we think it's a superior faith, or because we think you will go to Hell if you don't know such things,, but because you are interested, and you asked, and that is where it will be left. If you want to join us, you are welcome. If you want to hold to your own faith, that's okay. If you don't believe in any faith, that's fine too. In the end, it's what inside our own souls that matters, and that is nobody's business but your own - it's between you and whatever you choose to believe in.
I do not pray. But occasionally I'll talk to God, or to those angels who stand beside me, like my grandmother's shade. Hey, God. Hey, Grandma. It's a grand old world. Thanks for everything.