Insight: Stories inform our faith and our theology
By: Douglas Kindschi, Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU
Last Tuesday’s Weekly Watch featured Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and Interfaith America speaking at our Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue in 2018. He described a theology of interfaith. He did it with a story from the Qur’an about the creation of humans and how Adam could give the names of creation while the angels could not. Patel noted that the term in the Qur’an is plural, “names,” indicating the variety and diversity of creation. Patel also noted that later the Qur’an affirms the diversity of people, and states God “made you different tribes so you could learn from each other and compete in doing good.”
The creation stories in Jewish and Christian scriptures have also had significant impact on the theology and the faith understanding of those communities. The concept of each person’s intrinsic worth derives from the concept of being made in God’s image. Care for the weak, the stranger, and the refugee are also outgrowths of that concept.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, prior to his death in 2020, wrote about the Jewish love of telling stories and of the formative power of such stories in the identity of the Jewish people.
The Exodus story is the primary story that is told in the Jewish community each year during Passover and at the Seder meal. Scripture as well as the sages have for thousands of years taught that it is the story to be told to the children each year. Sacks writes, “We come to know who we are by discovering of which story or stories we are a part. … If we are the story we tell about ourselves, then as long as we never lose the story, we will never lose our identity.”
Sacks continued the theme, writing about an encounter between the Dalai Lama and the Jewish community that was documented by Roger Kamenetz in his book, The Jew in the Lotus. When the Dalai Lama and many of his followers had to flee Tibet because of the oppression from the Chinese who had been governing Tibet, he feared that the exile might last a long time. He decided to ask the Jews for advice, regarding them as experts in maintaining identity in exile and he wanted to know their secret.
Following the weeklong discussion they learned the importance of storytelling to keep the culture and identity alive. They talked about the Seder service, leading to a special Seder in Washington D.C. with the Dalai Lama where he share these words:
In our dialogue with Rabbis and Jewish scholars, the Tibetan people have learned about the secrets of Jewish spiritual survival in exile: one secret is the Passover Seder. Through it for 2,000 years, even in very difficult times, Jewish people remember their liberation from slavery to freedom and this has brought you hope in times of difficulty. We are grateful to our Jewish brothers and sisters for adding to their celebration of freedom the thought of freedom for the Tibetan people.
Sacks concludes his recounting of the power of telling and retelling the Exodus story with, “It gave Jews the most tenacious identity ever held by a nation. In the eras of oppression, it gave hope of freedom. At times of exile, it promised return. It told two hundred generations of Jewish children who they were and of what story they were a part. It became the world’s master-narrative of liberty, adopted by an astonishing variety of groups, from Puritans in the 17th century to African-Americans in the 19th and to Tibetan Buddhists today.”
Narratives or stories are often the way we reinforce and carry our various group identities. Religious narratives not only build identity of whom we consider to be in our tribe, but also become the containers for our basic human values. It is all too easy, however, to focus on differences in our stories, rituals, and beliefs rather than the deeper values that nearly all religious narratives support and teach.
Alasdair MacIntyre, political and moral philosopher, wrote, “Man is essentially a storytelling animal, but a teller of stories that aspire to truth.” Our religious traditions over the centuries have given us the stories that form our identity, bind us together, and help us aspire to truth.