Monday, 22 June 2015

A Heathen's Suggestions for Helping Others Explore Faith - Josh Heath

It's Dangerous To Go Alone, Take a Friend

Know thyself. As a mantra, it’s certainly worth something. As a method to understanding and helping others, it’s also valuable. Well for the sake of this article, I’ll help you know me to understand why I might be someone worth listening to regarding the topic of helping others through their faith journey.

About 20 years ago I had a major crisis of faith. This was odd because up until that point, I had been raised in a basically atheist family with an agnostic Grandmother, straight-up atheist Aunt, and a Godfather who was effectively a Baptist but not particularly good at transferring his Christianity on to me. I was also young, younger than when most begin to consider the implications of faith and all its myriad ramifications on life. At 11 I was convinced that faith was what was missing in my life, the element that would make sense of the death of my mother, perhaps? Perhaps it was more a hope that there was some sort of life after death and I would one day be reunited with her? It was this, as well as a general feeling that science was effective at describing the day to day how of the universe, but poorly designed to describing the why of the universe. In the end, I went searching for faith, learning and reading along the way with the hope that I would experience some sort of connection with the divine.

So I read. (I was volunteering at the local library) I read the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, cover to cover. I read segments of the Qu’ran, discussions on the Torah, Buddhist texts, The Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, and some other works as well that discussed religion in general. None of it resonated with me, though it was certainly useful and interesting reading. What did resonate with me, was an alternative history novel about the Norse who instead of converting, held firm to their polytheistic faith. The idea was intriguing on multiple levels, both intellectually and on a deeper level of belief.

Could people still believe in the Norse gods? What would this look like and what would be the motivation for people doing so? At first, I thought the idea was pretty unlikely, the Norse myths resonated with me, but there was no way there were people that still thought those gods were real, right? Then I began sifting through a dictionary of religions in the library, and there it was: Ásatrúarfélagið. I had no idea how to pronounce the word, but the definition was clear: an organization focused on believing in and worshipping the Old Norse gods. I was hooked, and with the power of the internet I learned the more common word was Asatru, or Heathenry. Around this same time, I experienced what I can only describe as a religious moment, an interaction with the divine that convinced me I was on the correct track for myself.

Thor, a Wolf's Cross (combining Thor's Hammer and a late Viking age Cross 
symbolism), and a US quarter with the motto, In God We Trust

Over the years, I regularly questioned my own faith, and continued to read significant literature on other faiths. It seemed odd that I was attracted to this unlikely religion to some, but I knew for myself that I had found the faith I was searching for. Heathenry focused on appreciating one’s ancestors and actively thanking them for the actions that led to our existence, understanding and loving the land we live upon, and worshipping gods that believed in the adage of a gift for a gift. With values that focused on trying to better oneself, honoring ones family, and being an upstanding member of the community; being a heathen helped me to focus on understanding how to be a better person in my daily life.

All this being said, I knew that the faith journey I was on, would not be the same as others around me. I enjoyed reading about religion, and found myself in odd opportunities to help others along their own journeys of faith. I understood myself and why I believed what I did, and I constantly tried to understand others and why they believed what they did. I can’t say I’m perfect at doing so, and I don’t think anyone truly can be. We can only empathize with others, and listen, and be open to creating space to allow those we are helping to discover the right path for themselves.

So, I found myself in an odd position more than a few times when others came to me with their faith crises. For example, a friend once came to me to discuss faith on a regular basis, he had been searching but had been unable to truly define what he was looking for. He’s from Puerto Rico originally, and we both met while in the Army. He ended up taking a DNA test, curious to see what stories it would tell about his family line. What shocked him, was that his DNA came back with a strong tie to the Sephardic Jews of Spain. His family were Conversos, the Jews that had converted to Catholicism to escape the Inquisition, and interestingly, they were successful in making their way to the Spanish Colonies undetected. This surprised us both, but I thought it simply a curiosity since I couldn’t imagine this would affect him further.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. He followed through on this discovery with a sharp and strong interest in Judaism. I have always been interested in Judaism, especially the interesting interaction of Judaism in the 1st century with the culture of the Roman Empire. I became an ear, and a helping guide for my friend, explaining certain elements of Judaism as best I could and steering him to others who could provide details I didn’t understand in depth. I asked him questions, the why, the how, and the what next of his conversion, most importantly I asked him if he was confident that he was moving in the right direction. Since he is now a confident and practicing Jew, it seems that answer is self-evident.

The Future of Force and Faith conference where Josh advocated for the inclusion of religious diversity in the military

This article is not just about me, or my experiences, my goal in writing this piece it is to offer some advice to those who are friends and family to those that are seeking to understand their own faith, or lack thereof in more depth. Be willing to make mistakes, and sometimes fail to be as supportive as you would like. No person is perfect, and no journey of faith is along a straight line, if you are supporting a friend who is converting to a faith different from your own, you will have challenges along the way, but I think the keys I describe below will help you both.

The above is just one of my experiences helping my friends during their explorations of faith, but I think it exemplifies several of the points I think are important to keep in mind: understanding, openness to questions, listening, and support. When a friend, family member, or associate is going through steps in a faith journey, they will need people to lean on, to help them along the way. You might not share their new faith, you may even disagree with it on some points, but if you are supportive and understanding they’ll trust and respect you throughout. That trust is essential, and powerful and something I think it is essential to retain in those we keep close.

  • Understanding: remember that everyone has a story. The brief story I told about myself is only a small segment of my personal history. It is what I felt was most relevant, but there is much more I could tell and much more which likely impacted my interest in heathenry. When a friend is considering embarking upon a new discovery of faith, or seeking to deepen their connection to their existing faith, be considerate of their journey through life, of the story that they have to tell. The connection, the spark that speaks to them may not always be clear, but from my experience there is always something in a person’s history that can help them along the way. 

  • Openness to questions: This part is something which either the person seeking faith, or choosing to move away from faith, and others need to be ready to encounter. If you are exploring a lesser known religion, you should expect questions from your friends and family. They may want to know details, they may want to know why this particular faith speaks to you. You may not have all the answers at that moment, but I think it is helpful to consider them. It also should be acceptable to say something along the lines of this, “I am moved by the divine when I consider this faith.” Or alternatively, “I’ve never been moved by the divine and I don’t feel faith, so I am seriously questioning the role of religion in my life.” 

At the same time, if you are supporting someone in their faith exploration, I think it is useful to ask them questions. “What made you initially interested in this faith?” “What are some of the tenants of this faith?” What is the history of this faith, and how to others see it?” These are just a few, open ended questions that can be helpful to the person you are supporting, and can also open an exchange of understanding between you both. That is key, trying to understand and be open to questions, if you find yourself getting defensive, or upset, tell the person that, you might not be the best person to help them and as long as you are there for them in general, that is ok. 

  • Listening: Active listening is essential to helping someone through a faith exploration. You might not have the answers, or you might think you do, or, you might know that you have answers to specific questions. However, there is a time and a place for advice in these journeys. At times, all that is needed is to hear a person, to really truly hear what they are saying and why they are saying it. A person may have been moved by the Holy Spirit, or felt Allah’s presence while reading the Qu’ran, hearing them describe these moments is invaluable. You may not be moved the same way, you may not want to be moved the same way, but it cannot hurt to listen to a friend recount this experience. Alternately, a person may express their frustration at trying to receive these experiences and want to talk through the situation. 

  • Support: This support will come in a myriad of different ways, and sometimes in ways not related to faith directly. You may find yourself reading a book alongside your friend/family member to understand what they are saying when they talk about a component of their new faith. You may bring them to church, or mosque, or drive them to the local druid grove to meet people involved in their new faith. You might watch their children while they get baptized, or stand by with the kids while they declare their new faith. If this is a person you love, you should be willing to support them in all the ways you are comfortable doing so. If you are uncomfortable with any request, being open and honest is the best advice I can offer. 

I am involved in inter-faith work because religion is fascinating to me, and because I believe the divine is a significant force in our lives. I also believe that our world is a pluralistic one for a reason, I respect those who share a different faith than my own, because I believe in our inherent similar humanity. However, I have experienced discrimination because of my faith, and I have seen friends face discrimination over theirs. I have seen Christians, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Atheists, and Heathens like myself encounter disrespect and sometimes outright hostility over their religion (or lack). I find this reprehensible. We must stand alongside one another, lifting each other up, rather than holding each other back. We may not agree on matters of faith, but we should be able to agree on the inherent right of all to find their own way in life.

. . .

I would be remiss if I did not briefly mention a campaign the organization I co-direct is currently involved in. The Open Halls Project is dedicated to advocating for and supporting heathens in the US Armed Services. The US Army is still denying our right to have our religious preference in their official system. If you believe in religious freedom, and I hope if you are reading this blog you do, please follow this link and send a few emails to those who can make this request happen. Thank you so much for reading this post, and many thanks to Sarah Ager for asking me to write for Interfaith Ramadan. For those fasting, I hope the fast is bearable.

Josh (and Nisse, a house elf from Danish and Swedish lore)

Josh Heath is the Co-Director of the Open Halls Project, an advocacy organization for military Heathens. Josh is also a graduate student at American University where he is studying International Peace and Conflict Resolution. He is an advocate for dialogue and his studies have largely been focused on ethnic identity creation and ethnic based conflict. On top of all of that, he is an Admissions Counselor for an educational technology company in the Washington D.C. area and a loving father and husband.

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