Friday, May 20, 2005

Ice Cream? No, Thanks

One recent summer I had a conversation with a devout woman who made it clear from the outset that she felt strongly that I must adopt her faith, the sooner the better, for the good of my immortal soul.

What bothered me the most about our little chat was not her attempt to convert me. I’ve been dealing with that sort of thing for years, and if anything, I’m stronger in my faith than I was back when the first attempts were made. It was that even as she explained to me why her religion is the only true one and I must join it, right away if possible, she was careful to tell me that she wasn’t trying to convert me.

But that’s exactly what you’re trying to do, I told her.

Oh, no, she said. Not at all. I’m just trying to tell you that I found something wonderful and that it would be lovely if you tried it. Just like if I had some ice cream that was absolutely delicious. I’d be selfish if I kept it to myself, right? If I have this wonderful ice cream, shouldn’t I share it?

That analogy doesn’t work so well for me, I told her, because we’re not dealing with ice cream. Ice cream is something we can take or leave. We’re dealing with the most deeply-rooted beliefs of the soul. And all the pretty, seemingly open-minded things you are telling me now cannot hide or contradict the fact that your faith teaches, and you believe, that no matter what kind of person I am, no matter what good deeds I may do in my life, as long as I do not accept your faith, God will send me to Hell when I die.

She had no answer to that.

Then there was the young man in the Arab market who tried to get me to join his religion. I wanted to buy a silk scarf, but he was concerned with the salvation of my soul.

But where do you think you will go when you die? he asked me worriedly when I told him that I had no intention of changing my religion.

Wherever God sends me, I told him. He was pretty quiet after that, and I was able to buy my silk scarf.

That’s why I found this article in the Jerusalem Post so refreshing:

I have lived in Israel for 20 years. No one has suggested I need to convert to Judaism. No one has implied I don’t belong, never mind that I look like a caricature of a goya, bland as Velveeta cheese in coloring and features. Now and then, though, I “pass”—and I have to say it pleases me. I'm not here to teach. I'm here to learn.
I can’t speak for other denominations, but the essence of my own is humility, tolerance and the constant, almost impossible striving to save our own souls. We are taught to listen, learn and shut up, until such time arrives that we are so perfect we can be examples and help others. I'm so distant from that goal, I should be mute for at least another couple of millennia.
Keeping my mouth shut and listening, I have learned so much here. Besides, who the hell am I to preach to you? Your ancestors were devotedly following your spiritually and intellectually rich religion while mine were having hoedowns around trees, sacrificing infants, slavering over stones and whatever else pagans in Europe and North America were into.
I love Israel. Not just for its past, because Jesus walked here and so many places are sacred to me. Not for the future, because the ingathering of the Jews is supposed to herald His return. I love this country for what it is, here and now. In all its exasperating, in-your-face, multicolored and deafening pageantry. Even when it drives me bonkers, it makes me grin. It’s a 24/7 circus, a delight to the mind and senses.
So never fear. You won't find me on your doorstep, peddling papers, inquiring about your acquaintance with that first-century superstar, or bouncing around bellowing “Hallelujah!” on street corners.
It isn’t a matter of just not being my style. It isn’t my religion, any more than it is yours.

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