Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Boundaries of Faith

A week ago, I moseyed on over to a quite lovely meeting of local pastors/religious leaders in the Bethesda area.  It was a reasonably eclectic bunch of folk, drawn primarily from the denominational traditions.  There was Methodist representation, several Presbyterians of different denominations, UCC folk, and a couple of Unitarians.

As we began, the pastor who'd convened us to schmooze and share and support one another noted with regret that he'd tried to get rabbis and imams, too, but had only managed to snag Christians.  To which I thought, but did not say, well...um...there are Unitarians here. 

Unitarians cannot really be accurately described as Christian.  Some are.  But the denomination itself doesn't view itself that way.   I thought it might seem unwelcoming to note that, though, so I let that thought hang in my brain for about half a second, before one of the Unitarians made the point of offering that correction herself.

Self-definition can be such an important part of faith.  Which is why, over the last few weeks, I've followed with some bafflement the case of a teen in North Carolina.  She was booted from school because she has a nose ring, and nose rings violate the local school policy of autocratic conformism.

Her response, which was taken up by the ACLU and apparently has now worked for a local judge, was to say that piercing and body modification were her religion, and by not allowing her to wear a nose ring, the school system was violating her rights to religious expression. 

Note, here, that it isn't that her religion implies that piercing has a particular symbolic significance.  The Church of Body Modification is a non-theistic group that believes that piercing and tatooing and scarification are the goal of human life and self expression.  Oh, and some of them like to hang themselves from the ceiling from hooks in their flesh.   You can check it out at the website of the Church, although, really, ouch.  And ew.  Again, this isn't theistic.  It does not serve to express anything other than the act itself.  They just view doing decorative and/or painful things to their bodies as their life purpose.

So what I gets me to wondering is, well, is it a religion?   Yeah, they're really into it.  But if something has no theistic or transcendent overtones, and no cohesive philosophy other than a shared interest in a particular activity...is it faith?   If it is, why wouldn't some motorcycle clubs be a religion?  If Harley Davidson defines your existence and sense of self-identity, there'd be little difference between that and tattooing and piercing.   If you live to play World of Warcraft, and view it as defining you on some fundamental level, could that be considered a religion?  Could you sue a school system for blocking access to WoW, and thus depriving your of your rights to practice your faith?  I know plenty of folks who'd like to try.

I also wonder that whenever I see atheistic or humanist groups included as part of an interfaith gathering.  Having suggested in past in conversations with atheists that the depth of their convictions is functionally faith, I know that suggestion is not well received.  Yet there are humanist chaplains.  A strange thing.

What are the boundaries of what is and is not faith?  Are there any?

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