Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Reza Aslan, author of Zealot and host of Ovation’s Rough Draft with Reza Aslan, brought up a new idea when she asked him, “What is belief?” He answered, “Identity.”
I’ve spent my life sifting through various religions and philosophies in search of what I truly believe. From the time I was introduced to the Catholic Church, I’ve been trying to determine what is real for me. It didn’t do me much good to sit through a mass delivered in Latin if I didn’t understand the language. My high school didn’t even teach Latin. I only knew a deity that demanded obedience or else. No matter how well behaved I was I didn’t experience enlightenment.
I was born on Native American soil while being of European lineage. I got in trouble if I asked the priests or nuns about the differences in belief systems. Who was right? Like most people, I was in search of “the truth.”
If belief is identity, I didn’t know who I was for most of my life. I know now (or think I do), but what if you don’t? Are you void of identity if you don’t know what you really believe? I don’t think so. You just don’t know how to define it with clarity. Doesn’t mean that you don’t know your own mind.
When you ask a Jewish person “who” or “what” they are, they will generally respond with their religion instead of a nationality. “I’m a Jew.” I’m not sure any other group of people does this with as much conviction. Ask an Irishman the same question and he will identify regionally. I’ve always been a blend of several varieties like table wine. I’m not comfortable with labeling my belief system as any one thing. If I had to, I’d call it Open. Open to all systems of belief, understanding that even through our differences we share common ground.
There’s the old “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” line. But being spiritual is not the same as believing in a deity. In my view, I am a spirit living in a human body. Being human is the perspective from which I view the world. As much as I can identify with other species, I am human and cannot view life from any other perspective. Just as the humans who penned all the religious texts on the planet. They identified their beliefs in human terminology, including their gods. Does this perspective define me? Of course it does. What I believe about everything defines me: business, politics, art, morality, etc. Stir all those things into a pot and you have a souffle as unique as the human who made it.
At last week’s RiverRun Film Festival, the film Heavenly Nomadic told the story of a dying culture of horse people who, when the leader of the clan died, killed his horse to go with him to the next life. Talk about a defining belief system. Indigenous people honor elements in nature, especially animals.
I adored this film by the way.
I envy Aslan’s ability to clearly articulate my own understanding. If you are as fascinated by belief systems and other world views as I am, check out his books as well as the series Oprah Winfrey produced last year called Belief, and Morgan Freeman’s current series running on the National Geographic channel, The Story of God.