Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Crescent and The Cross

Here are two of the things I have been doing over the past month, since I arrived in Kuwait. More to follow in subsequent posts.

Going to the Aware centre with Francis

The Aware center on Surra street is an organization devoted to furthering intercultural dialogue, focusing on Arab-Western relations. It holds talks and other events, has an English language library on subjects related to Islam, and offers Arabic lessons. Since I arrived I've been there seven times, five times to hear speeches on various topics and twice to attend an Arabic language class I've joined. According to what I've heard it seeks converts to Islam amongst Westerners. Certainly it tries to cast Islam in the best light it can, to make it as palatable, as comprehensible to the western mind as possible.

Owing to the fact I have yet to ‘crack’ the bus system in Kuwait, which exists but remains unclear to me; and owing to my not having a car – an unusual fate for a Western expat – I get to the Aware center by taxi, normally with my trusty taxi driver Francis, an Indian, Christian Gentleman keen on calling me ‘Sir’. The journey takes about 10 minutes and costs about two pounds fifty. Talking generally about taxis, it’s advisable to form a relationship with a driver you can trust, whom you can book by phone and who knows where you live, given that road signs and addresses don't seem to exist, at least whjere I live.. To my knowledge all Taxi drivers are non-Kuwaiti citizens, most are from India and Bangladesh. Most are Muslims, as are most non-Kuwaiti residents, and most don't speak English very well, though usually adequately. Francis is a Christian from Cochin south of Goa, India, to which he returns every year to see his family. His English is very good and he is usually very reliable.

The talks last about one hour and are followed by an opportunity for questions and discussion. We are served tea during the speeches and the general atmosphere has been very calm, relaxed and welcoming. The centre is staffed by a devout, very smiley Ugandan Muslim and a British female convert to Islam from Dorset who married a Kuwaiti man many years ago. There are many pamphlets and short publications which can be read and taken away about Islam and Kuwaiti culture, and the library is well stocked. The talks take place in a large, rather beautifully decorated room. We sit on comfortable sofas that circle the room and are attached to the wall.

The talks so far have been on Education in Kuwait (it urgently needs to improve if Kuwait is to be prosperous in a post-oil future or one freed from dependency on western investment and experts) ; The history and prospects for Failaka Island, which lies 20Km off the Kuwaiti coast and was once called ‘Ikarus’ (It was settled by Alexander The Great, has many classical ruins, was trashed by Saddam and may be ruined further by the prospects of Government supported tourist development); Tolerance in Islam (Islam is tolerant towards Christianity and Judaism, or at least should be – but obviously Islam expects to be dominant in an Islamic country. The idea of Tolerance for atheists, gays, extra-marital sex, western style hedonism was obviously unmentionable.) ; Intercultural marriages (these can work and be beneficial, though they might be a challenge. Islamic women cannot marry non-Muslim men unless they convert. The reason- to protect her from his non-Islamic influence. Islamic men can take non-Islamic wives, however, and these are not obliged to convert. Does it matter that her children will have to be Muslims?); a Speech given by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of the Gulf Area (an excellent account of positive, peace-desiring sentiments expressed in recent decades by senior Catholic and Islamic authorities.. Little treatment given to the profound theological differences existing between these two consciously missionary belief systems.)

I was unsure if I wanted to take the introductory Arabic course. But now after the first two lessons - there will be ten in all - I’m glad I have. So far I’ve learnt to recognize, write and pronounce 10 letters of the Arabic alphabet and been introduced to a few useful greetings and sayings.

Going to the Anglican Church

This I've done on three consecutive Fridays (?!), after spending my first Friday - the Sabbath in these parts - going to the large, very crowded Roman Catholic Church near the historical city centre. Whereas the vast majority of the Catholic congregation was Indian or Bangladeshi (it seemed I was one of only three Caucasians in the service) at the Anglican Service, the majority have been white, though a large group of Chine worshippers attend, as well as a fair number from the subcontinent and Africa. Our vicar from Derby, England is really good, friendly and enthusiastic. His services are pitched, I'd suggest, at the higher end of the low church categrorisation, as it were. In other words, the services are not that ‘happy clappy’ or spontaneously effusive in their expression, and there is a fair amount of collective recitation from the Order of Service booklet, including the Nicean Creed. On the other hand, there is no trace of incense, or attention paid to Mary; nor is the ambience particularly formal or grand. Indeed the ‘sharing of the peace’, when the congregants shake hands with one another, is without doubt the most prolonged, energetic and sociable I’ve ever experienced. Curiously enough, the British Ambassador plays the piano during the services and has been teaching us to sing new, unknown hymns. After the services, over cake and diet coke, but alas no coffee, I’ve been edgily trying to befriend new people so as to extend my limited social circle and have made some limited progress. The first time I went, the vicar invited me to join him and some friends for lunch at the Tumbleweeds Restaurant, one of the many American restaurant chains here. He’s also invited me to his house for tea, though I’ve yet to go.

As I write the above I feel I should write something about my spiritual background, my transcendent CV, as it were, at least as it relates to Christianity. I don’t tend to like being mistaken in any straightforward way for an ‘ordinary Christian’. I suspect that what I wrote above might put me in that box.

Though it’s obvious I’m very interested in spirituality and religion, I haven’t usually been a churchgoer, though this has begun to change somewhat since 2005. As a child, despite my love of Jesus and conviction about the existence of God – if not my direct existential closeness to him – I found the church services my mother took me to in Cambridge, as well as the ones I had to sit through at school, usually boring and missable events. For this reason, I didn’t get confirmed along with others in my year were when I was 15 - though this was also because of the principled objection I then felt to organized religion in-itself.

As a teenager, as it happens, my love of Jesus found its most vivid expression in my devotion to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Rock Opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, especially the 1973 film version by Norman Jewison. I would listen to and watch this rock opera with passionate admiration, while others my age explored their more customary identifications with bands such as Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Dire Straits, The Smiths and The Cure (though I liked some of these too). The only time I routinely attended Church before 2005 was during my BA studies at Durham University in 1992 and 1993. This period of ‘Churchification’, if I can call it that, in the aftermath of my mystical-Christian experiences which had themselves followed my run-in with Reverend Moon’s Goons, saw me going to the local Presbyterian Church. It had attracted me on account of the simplicity and deep sincerity of its devotions. Nevertheless, because of its, to me, evil doctrines regarding hell and damnation, and the general prissiness of the wider Church in general towards sex and hedonism, which I really couldn’t embrace, I always knew my interest in Mainstream Churchianity was highly conditioned and far from enthusiastic.

My issues, indeed, with the doctrine of hell and damnation were destined to seriously undermine my allegiance to the Christian faith in general. Although I always wanted to hold out the belief that the doctrine was false, that Jesus didn’t believe the things it is apparent from a straightforward reading of the Gospels that he did believe, I came to accept that most Christians did not agree with me, even if they were embarrassed about the cruelty of this doctrine. On the other hand, it is true that ‘liberal’ attitudes towards Salvation certainly existed in the Church; but they tended to be only very loosely Christian or Christocentric in a unique, specific sense; they tended to embrace, in other words, a polytheistic, ‘universalist’ approach to spirituality that said or at least implied, generously but also rather meaninglessly, that all religions were the same, etc. For that reason, then, how meaningful was it for such believers to call themselves Christian? Meanwhile, those Christians who did take the Christian revelation seriously and felt it had something unique and special to impart, almost exclusively –to my knowledge anyway – seemed to want to cling, however awkwardly and shamefully, to this orientally despotic, to be frank infinitely cruel doctrine. In a circumstance, therefore, in which one could either have a relationship with an all embracing, all- loving God who actually had very little to offer or say that was distinctive, powerful or necessary; or a God who had a very distinctive promise of salvation and newness of life to offer, but also threatened you will eternal hellfire if you didn’t embrace some very particular ideas about Jesus Christ, I really began to feel, unenthused by both possibilities, that I should just hold up my hands and disengage entirely – which is basically what I did.

That said, I didn’t become Anti-christian. I never lost my respect for Christianity, and would always defend it when it was fundamentally attacked – even when I'd agree with many of the ethical bases of the detractor’s crusade (why are anti-theists always so passionate?) Neither did I lose my love of Jesus or my belief in his significance and greatness, despite the hellish utterances which he either did say, with a literal or else figurative meaning, or else which were attributed to him by the New Testament compilers. Essentially, I just let the whole business slide; egged on by a certain spiritual exhaustion combining with the recurrent depressive episodes overshadowing much of my mid to late twenties.

By 2005, my spiritual sensibilities had revived, just as my life in general had become much more stable as a teacher of English in Slovakia. My interest in Gnosticism in 2002 and 2003 reminded me of the idea that God might be truly all-loving in a genuine, unmanipulative sense, as well as radically absent from the judgementalist, oppressive modes of human reality; and also that God is present within the hearts of all people, asleep and wanting to be awoken. The writings of Neale Donald Walsch in 2004, for all their sometimes excessive sentimentality, struck a real chord for a while, especially his early books and helped my mind re-engage with the transcendent. Finally, my intense encounter with Tibetan Buddhism in the summer of 2005 further strengthened my ever growing interest in an interior spirituality that was also all-compassionate and all-loving, even though my residual, stubborn attachment to the Christian heritage – which is very different in its basic presuppositions from those of Buddhism – prevented me from embracing its teachings and practices for long.

Actually, my recent spell of attending Church services, albeit irregularly, began in late 2004 at Bratislava’s Roman Catholic English language services. So it preceded and enveloped, therefore, the entire duration of the period I was interested in Buddhism. Indeed, for awhile I was something of a two-timer, going to the meditation center on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to Church on Sudays. I’d be misrepresenting myself if I didn’t admit a significant reason I went to Church at all was to be closer to a certain Slovak lady who was also happened to be my Slovak language teacher. I could also sometimes get lonely, and appreciated the group relocations of the English speaking Catholics to McDonalds for their post-Mass coffees.

In early 2006, while the Buddhist interest gradually faded away, the Catholic spell morphed into a Lutheran reorientation – to the International Baptist Church which I bewilderingly had only barely been aware of over the past five years in Bratislava. To be frank, I found the Protestants more welcoming and more friendly; though of course this could be attributable to my Protestant (or at least Anglican) upbringing. I also preferred their style of worship, since the protestant emphasis on the individual chimed more harmoniously with the obviously individualistic cast of my soul. What was really quite novel, however, was that I began for the first time to take the Eucharist or ‘The Lord’s Supper’, despite the fact I still hadn’t been confirmed. Technically I thought this wasn’t allowed. Not having wanted to gatecrash uninvited at the altar, I'd never gone up before, well except as a child to be blessed. But the nice pastor told me I didn’t need to be – so that made a change. But I didn’t go to Church every Sunday, nor did I buy into the full package.

Here in Kuwait while I’ve gone every Sunday so far, I’m not sure I always will. But it is been enjoyable so far. It’s an important social center for me, in a country where its important to have things to do. Fundamentally I still maintain, as I always have, that ‘Being a Christian’ and ‘Going to Church’ are not identical or mutually necessary things.

In any case I’ll try not to get into too many ‘Hell’ arguments, as they tend rather easily to spoil my day and upset me – as they did in my earlier, more volatile, more theologically sensitive years.

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