Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Faith Between Us

The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God

Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb (2007, Bloomsbury)

I saw this bumper sticker on my way home yesterday: “Spiritual people inspire me. Religious people frighten me.” That remark speaks for many of my friends and neighbors, and I know what they mean: the religious people who get the most airtime are a scary lot. Consequently, thoughtful believers are sometimes tempted to keep faith a private matter, or mention it only amid a cluster of defensive qualifiers. Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal know those qualifiers well: “Yes, we believe, but we’re not like those fundamentalists and the Bible-thumpers. Yes, we believe, but we’re not on the front lines arguing against gay marriage or stem-cell research. Yes, we believe, but we’re not praying to usher in the end of the world.” But how tiresome it is always to describe our faith negatively, and it’s no wonder we duck the chance.
In The Faith Between Us, their shared spiritual memoir, Korb and Bebergal come out of the closet about their religious lives. It is no coincidence that they do it together: “Faith is not, we’ve learned, a private matter at all. We’re tired of faith coming between us. God’s will is that it may live between us. Faith is nothing if not shared.”
Bebergal grew up in a secular, suburban Jewish home; he is a recovering hedonist, groping toward a theistic Judaism. Korb was a pious Catholic child; he is a recovering ascetic, gradually letting go of the church’s certainties. They are both writers; each has a divinity degree (Bebergal, Harvard; Korb, Union Seminary;) and they’ve been friends and correspondents since 2001. These ten interconnected essays are the story of the friendship, the faith, and the conversations they share.
Here’s Bebergal on the first toe he dipped in these dangerous waters: “Scott knew when I asked if he believed that I was asking if he had doubt also. I was not asking if he was in perfect communion with a higher power, not asking if he was ‘born again,’ not even asking if he believed God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai. I was asking if he looked for the sacred in his life, if he had encountered holiness.”
Both writers are sensitive to the slippery nature of language about holiness. Bebergal says, “A pure encounter with the holy, with the divine, is beyond language. Religion is the phenomenon of putting the encounter into identifiable terms through myth, symbol, ritual.“ Korb talks about responding to what feels like a divine tug, and having to name it: “love, faith, hope, even Jesus. None of these names may be accurate. They all may simply be figures of speech. But with faith, what else is there?”
What there is, in the end, is a faithful response. “The [Hebrew] word for faith (or belief) is a derivation of the word amen, which is a declaration of an oath, a promise. In this sense, faith is not about believing that God exists, but rather believing that in some way we can be in relation with God, that we can each trust the other to fulfill the terms of this oath--in much the same way that we must relate to a loved one or a friend.”
Let us give thanks for such friendships, and such wisdom. Hallelujah, Amen!

Voices, May 2008

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