The Accursed Lake

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story comes from Charles Fletcher Lummis, Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1910), pp. 109-116; a book of stories of the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, or Tigua Indians of Texas. I have edited the story for length and clarity.

Long ago there was still a village east of the Eagle-Feather Mountains, where there lived a Hunter. One day, while out hunting, he followed the trail of an antelope until the trail ended in a large lake.

Just then, a fish thrust its head from the water and said, “Friend Hunter, you are on dangerous ground!” and off it went swimming.

Before the Hunter could recover from his surprise, a Lake-Man came up out of the water and said, “How is it that you are here, where no human ever came?”

The Hunter told his story, and the Lake-Man invited him to come in to his house. They entered the house by a trap-door in the roof, and climbed down a ladder. Inside, there were doors to the east, north, west, and south, as well as the door in the roof. Soon the Lake-Man learned that the Hunter had a wife and son at home.

“Why not come live with me?” the Lake-Man said. “I am no hunter, but I have plenty of other food. We could live very well here together.” And he showed the Hunter the four other huge rooms, all filled with corn and dried squash and the like.

“I will come with my wife and son in four days,” said the Hunter, “if the leader of my village will let me.”

So the Hunter went home, and his wife thought very well of the offer. The leader of his village did not want him to go, for he was the best hunter in all the pueblo, but at last gave permission.

So the Hunter and his wife and little boy came to the lake with all their property. The Lake-Man welcomed them, and they settled in. The Hunter went out hunting and brought back great quantities of game, and his wife took charge of the household, as was their custom.

Some time passed very pleasantly. But at last the Lake-Man, who had an evil heart, pushed the Hunter into the East Room, locked the door and left him there to starve. The room was full of the bones of people whom he had tricked in the same way.

The boy was now old enough to hunt small game, and he brought home many rabbits. But the evil-hearted Lake-Man wanted to get him out of the way, too. One morning when the boy was about to start hunting, he heard his mother groaning as if about to die.

“Your mother is in terrible pain,” said the evil Lake-Man, “and the only thing that will cure her is sacred ice from the Lake of the Sun in the east.”

The boy said he would go get the ice, and started off toward the sunrise.

He walked over the brown plains until at last he came to the house of Old-Woman-Mole. She was there all alone, for her husband had gone to hunt. They lived in an old broken-down hut, and she was huddled trying to keep warm by a dying fire. But when the boy knocked, she rose and welcomed him kindly and gave him all there was in the house to eat: a tiny bowl of soup with a patched-up snowbird in it. The boy was very hungry, and picking up the snowbird bit a big piece out of it.

“Oh, my child!” cried the old woman. “You have ruined me! My husband trapped that bird these many years ago, but could never get another, and that is all we have had to eat ever since. So we never bit it, but cooked it over and over and drank the broth. And now not even that is left.” And she wept bitterly.

“Nay, Grandmother, do not worry,” said the boy, for he saw many snowbirds alighting nearby. Using his long hair, he made sanres and soon caught many snowbirds. Then the Old-Woman-Mole was full of joy. After the boy told her his errand, she said:

“I shall help you. When you come into the house of the True People, they will offer you a seat, but you must not take it. They will try you with smoking the weer, but I will help you.”

With that, the boy started away to the east. At last, he came so near to Sun Lake that medicine men and guards of the True People saw him coming, and went in to tell the True People.

“Let him be brought in,” said the True People; and the guards brought the boy in through a magnificent building, until he stood in the presence of the True People in a vast room: white-colored gods of the East, blue gods of the North, yellow gods of the West, red gods of the South, and rainbow-colored gods of Up, Down, and Center. Beyond them were the sacred animals: the buffalo, the bear, the eagle, the badger, the mountain lion, the rattlesnake, and all the others that are powerful in medicine.

The True People offered the boy a white robe to sit on; but he declined respectfully, saying that he had been taught, when in the presence of his elders, to sit on nothing save what he brought, and he sat upon his blanket and moccasins. Then he told them that he had come for the sacred ice, to save his mother’s life.

The True People gave him a sacred weer, that is, a hollow reed filled with the magical plant pee-en-hleh, from the smoke of which the rain clouds come. The boy took in the unpleasant smoke, but the Old-Woman-Mole dug a hole up to his toes, and the smoke went down through his feet into the hole so that no smoke escaped into the room of the True People.

The boy and the True People. Illustration by George Wharton Edwards (modified public domain image), based in part on photographs by Charles F. Lummis.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” So they put him into the room of the East with the bear and the mountain lion, but he came out again unhurt. They put him into the room of the North, with the eagle and the hawk; into the room of the West, with the snakes; into the room of the South, with the Apaches and other human enemies of his people. He came forth from each room unhurt.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” They had a great pile of logs built up, set the boy on the top of the pile and lighted it. But in the morning, the boy sat there unharmed, saying, “I am cold and would like more fire.”

So the guards brought him inside, and the True People said: “You have proved yourself worthy of us, and now you shall have what you seek.”

They gave him the sacred ice, and he hurried home, stopping only to thank the Old-Woman-Mole.

When the evil Lake-Man saw the boy, he was very angry, for he had never expected him to return with the sacred ice. He pretended he was glad to see the boy, but said he must go to the gods of the South to get sacred ice there.

The boy walked south across the brown plains until he came to a drying lake. There, dying in the mud, was a little fish. Picking it up, the boy put it in his gourd canteen of water. After awhile he came to a good lake, and the fish in his gourd said, “Friend Boy, let me swim while you eat your lunch, for I love the water.”

So he put the fish in the lake; and when he was ready to go on, the fish came to him, and he put it back in his gourd. At three lakes he let the fish swim while he ate; and each time the fish came back to him.

Beyond the third lake began a great forest which stretched clear across the world, and was so dense with thorns and brush that no human being could pass through. The tiny fish changed itself into a great Fish-Animal with hard, strong skin, and bidding the boy mount upon its back, it went plowing through the forest, breaking down big trees like stubble, and bringing him through to the other side without a scratch.

“Now, Friend Boy,” said the Fish-Animal, “you saved my life, and I will help you. When you come to the house of the True People of the South, they will try you as they did in the East. When you have proved yourself, the leader of the True People will bring you his three daughters, from whom to choose you a wife. The two eldest are very beautiful, and the youngest is not; but choose the youngest, for she is good and the beauty of the older sisters does not reach to their hearts.”

The boy thanked the fish and went on. At last he came to the house of the True People of the South. They tried him just as the True People of the East had done. Once again he passed the tests, and they gave him the sacred ice. Then the leader of the True People brought his three daughters, and said, “You are now old enough to have a wife, and I see that you are someone who cares for those around him. Therefore, choose one of my daughters to marry.”

The boy remembered the words of his fish friend, and said, “I choose your youngest daughter.”

The leader of the True People was pleased, and the boy and the youngest daughter were married. They started home, carrying the sacred ice and many presents. With the help of the Fish-Animal, they got through the forest, and walked on.

The evil Lake-Man being struck by lightning. Illustration by George Wharton Edwards (modified public domain image), based in part on photographs by Charles F. Lummis.

At last they came in sight of the big lake, and over it were great clouds, with the forked lightning leaping forth. They could see the evil Lake-Man sitting at the top of his ladder, watching to see if the boy would return, and as they watched the lightning of the True People struck him dead.

So the boy and the youngest daughter found the boy’s mother, and the three of them left the house of the evil Lake-Man. They left all the belongings of the evil Lake-Man behind, and when they got to the shore of the lake, the boy stood and prayed to the True People that the lake might be accurst forever. From that day its waters turned salt, and no living thing has drunk therefrom.

Drawing of a Tigua figure (copyright 2019 Dan Harper). After a vase made circa 2010 by Albert Alvidrez, member of the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo / Tigua Indian Reservation.

The Red-Cedar Sculpture of the Woman Who Had Died

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is a Tlingit myth recorded in Wrangell, Alaska.

A young man and a young woman on the Haida Gwaii, the Islands of the Haida People, married. The young man was a chief, and the couple were very happy together. But soon after they were married, the young woman fell ill. Her husband sent around everywhere for the very best shamans, to try to cure her of her illness. He heard about a very fine shaman from another village on the island, and sent a canoe there to bring that shaman. But that shaman could do nothing. The young chief heard about another fine shaman at another village on another island, and again sent a canoe; but neither could that shaman cure the young woman. The young man sent for several fine shamans, but none of them could help his wife, and after she had been sick for a very long time she died.

The young chief felt very badly after his wife had died. He went from village to village to find the best wood-carvers in order to have them carve a sculpture of his wife. But though he asked several fine carvers, no one could make a sculpture that looked like his wife.

All this time there was a wood-carver in his own village who could carve much better than all the others. This man met the young chief one day and said, “You are going from village to village to have wood carved like your wife’s face, and you can not find anyone to do it, can you? I have seen your wife a great deal walking along with you. I have never studied her face with the idea that you might want some one to carve it, but I am going to try if you will allow me.”

The young chief agreed to try. The wood-carver found a very fine piece of red-cedar and began working upon it. When he had finished, the wood-carver had dressed the sculpture just as he used to see the young woman dressed. Then he went to the young chief and said, “Now you can come along and look.”

The young chief came to the wood-carver’s workshop, and when he got inside, he saw his dead wife sitting there just as she used to look. This made him very happy, and he said he would like to take this sculpture home. “What do I owe you for making this?” he asked the wood-carver.

The wood-carver had felt sorry to see how the young chief was mourning for his wife, so he said, “Do as you please about it. It is because I felt badly for you that I made that. So don’t pay me too much for it.”

But the young chief paid the wood-carver very well, both in slaves and in goods.

The young chief dressed this sculpture in his wife’s clothes and her marten-skin robe. When he finished, he felt that his wife had come back to him. He treated the sculpture just like her. One day, while he sat very close to the sculpture, mourning for his dead wife, he felt the sculpture move. He thought that the movement was only his imagination. Yet he knew his wife had been as fond of him as he was of her, and so each day as he ate his meals he sat close to the sculpture, thinking perhaps some time it would in fact come to life.

After a while the whole village learned the young chief had this sculpture of his wife. One by one, they all came to see it. It was so life-like that many people could not believe that it was not the woman herself until they had examined it closely and saw it was only made of wood.

One day, after the chief had had it for a long, long time, he sat down next to the sculpture, and saw that the body was just like the body of a human being. Now he was sure the sculpture was alive, and he began to treat it just as if it were his wife. Yet though he was sure the sculpture was alive, it could not move or speak.

Then one day the sculpture gave forth a sound like cracking wood. The man was sure something was wrong; perhaps the sculpture was ill. He had some people come and move it away from the place where it had been sitting, and when they had moved the sculpture they found a small red-cedar tree growing there on top of the flooring. The man left the young red-cedar tree to grow there, until it grew to be very large. (For many years afterwards, when people on the Queen Charlotte Islands went looking for red-cedars, if they found a good one they would say, “This looks like the baby of the chief’s wife.” And it is because of the young chief’s wife that red-cedars on the Queen Charlotte islands provide the very best wood for carving.)

But to return to the red-cedar sculpture of the young woman: The sculpture continued to grow more and more like a human being day after day. People from villages far and near heard the story, and came in canoes to look at the sculpture, and at the young red-cedar tree growing there, at which they were very much astonished. The sculpture moved around about as much as a tree trunk might move in the wind, which is to say not much at all, and the sculpture was never able to talk. Yet the woman’s husband had dreams in which she spoke to him, and even if the sculpture could not talk, it was through these dreams the husband knew his wife was talking to him.

Source: Tlingit Myths and Texts, John R. Swanton, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 39, U.S. Government, 1909, pp. 181-182

Detail, Centennial Pole, Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska

The above is an edited public domain photograph of the Centennial Pole, dedicated in 2011 at the Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, showing the woman carved at the bottom of the pole. “The bottom figure…is a fascinating female portrait by Donnie Varnell, a Haida carver from…Ketchikan (Alaska). Flanked by male and female salmon, she represents Mother Earth.” (Mike Dunham, “Sitka’s Centennial Pole a showpiece of modern totemry,” Anchorage Daily News, June 6, 2014.) Since the story above is a Tlingit tale of the Haida Gwaii, the homeland of the Haida people, it seemed appropriate to use a Haida sculpture to illustrate the story.

Fifty years ago yesterday…

…on Nov. 15, 1969, Son House was recorded live, performing “Death Letter Blues,” “John the Revelator,” “Preachin’ the Blues,” and “I Wanna Live so God Can Use Me.” House accompanies himself on guitar on the first and third songs; the other two are a capella. Since he was Son House, he did a little preaching too. All four songs are worth listening to, but the first song, “Death Letter Blues,” is my favorite. Listen on Youtube.

Ducks

Yesterday I went for a walk along Charleston Slough in Palo Alto at high tide. It was a gray day, and the light seemed to make the colors of the ducks appear more dramatic than usual. Looking at the ducks helped me forget the crazy stuff that’s in the news these days.

Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca carolinensis)
American Wigeon (Anas americana)
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

Notes: Common and Latin names from Dunn and Alderfer, Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th ed. (2017); however, the AOU now assigns American Wigeon to its own genus, Mareca. Photos: inexpensive superzoom camera (cheaper than your smart phone) and free image manipulation software.

Classical gender equality

The Daffodil Project aims to “champion gender equality in classical music.” In a blog post, Elizabeth de Brito writes:

“Mozart and Beethoven together make up just over one third of all classical performances…. Add the next 4 most played composers — Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky — and they make up 78% of classical performances. Over 400 years and hundreds of amazing composers, but nearly 80% of all performances are of just 6 white male composers that all died over a century ago?!”

De Brito produces an online gender-balanced classical music program which in its first year had “409 composers including 204 female composers, 155 living composers, and 40 BAME composers/composers of colour.” The most played composer? — Florence Price.

And De Brito has hit on one of the main reasons why I don’t bother going to hear classical music concerts much any more — I’m so bored by hearing the same composers over and over again. I like “classical” music just fine, but I don’t want to hear Beethoven and Mozart again and again, I want to hear living composers, women composers, non-white composers….

Which brings me to Unitarian Universalist services that use mostly classical music: what would happen if half the music in our worship services was composed by women? or if we programmed more composers of African descent? and how about a Mexican composer? Life would be a lot more interesting.

A new history of Universalism

A blog post by historian John Fea alerted me to a new history of Christian universalism by Prof. Michael McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, and pointed me to an essay by McClymond that summarizes some of the book’s arguments. I turned to this essay with high hopes, because I would love to see a scholarly history of both organized universalism, and universalist theology.

And indeed, in the essay, McClymond makes what I think is an important argument: “Twenty-first-century Christian universalism may be interpreted as a form of [a] religion of humanity, minimizing humanity’s ineradicable spiritual divisions and annexing the biblical God to a secular affirmation of total human solidarity…. Universalism admits that the first-century Jesus was crucified, but it insists that the twenty-first-century Jesus will be crowned by the crowd. Universalism is the Gospel narrative frozen at the moment of the triumphal entry, when everyone stands in solidarity applauding Jesus.” In other words, Universalism is linked to rationalism, and more specifically to a rationalist interpretation of Biblical texts that selectively ignores any texts that disprove the idea of universal salvation.

Also of great interest to me was the way McClymond traces recent belief in universal salvation through twentieth century theologians such as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jurgen Moltmann, up into twenty first century authors David Hart and and Richard Rohr. McClymond doesn’t mention my favorite twenty first century Quaker Universalists, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland — but why should he? — they are marginal figures at best, especially compared to Richard Rohr who, according the McClymond, hobnobs with Oprah and Bono.

So far, so good.

But even though McClymond has an important argument to make, his essay reads more like an apologetic for traditional “limitarian” theology, rather than careful history. Indeed, I’d say his history comes across as slapdash. For example, his essay includes several inaccuracies just in the first two sentences:

“Not until the nineteenth century did any Christian body make universal salvation its official teaching. The first to do so, the Universalist Church, later merged with another to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.”

Organized Universalism dates to the late eighteenth century: the General Conference of Universalists was organized in 1793 (according to David Bumbaugh, former professor of history at Meadville Lombard Theological School). And New England Universalists organized themselves as early at 1785, so there is an argument to be made that organized Universalism in North American began in that year. The General Conference changed its name to the Universalist Church of America in 1942, less than twenty years before it consolidated (not merged; there is a legal difference) with the American Unitarian Association.

Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797) was one of the founders of the General Conference of Universalists.

Minor details, but not unimportant details. Universalism did not originally call itself a “Church,” but rather named itself a “General Conference.” Theologically, this was consistent with Universalists’ emphasis on what historian Stephen Marini calls “Gospel liberty,” which in turn is important because there were multiple theologies of universal salvation among eighteenth and nineteenth century Universalists. Compare Hosea Ballou, Elhanan Winchester, John Murray, and James Relly, all active in the eighteenth century, and you will find diverse universalisms: trinitarian and unitarian, ultra-universalism (the belief that the soul goes immediately to heaven upon dying) and restorationism (the belief in punishment after death, but not for all eternity), and many other diversities of belief. This internal diversity in organized Universalism could actually strengthen McClymond’s argument that Universalism depended on rationalism, for each of these universalisms was argued on the basis that God gave humans rationality and expected them to use it to find out answers for themselves; thus these organized Universalists of the General Conference of Universalists placed rationality at least on a par with scriptural authority, and it could be argued that some of them placed rationality as superior to scriptural evidence.

There is even more theological diversity once you get outside the General Conference of Universalists, especially once you get into the twentieth century; by the mid twentieth century, the real strength of Universalism lay outside that denomination. The Great Depression caused the Universalist General Conference to shrink rapidly; changing the name to Universalist Church of America in 1942 was what we’d call today a rebranding effort, but rebranding didn’t work; according to some old Universalists I knew, the Universalists didn’t consolidate with the Unitarians, they were taken over by them; and perhaps a misinterpretation of these historical facts is why McClymond makes this unhistorical pronouncement: “Once human reasoning had deconstructed the divine mysteries of election and eschaton, it applied its tender mercies to the Trinity and Incarnation as well…. No election, no hell, no atonement, no divine Son, no divine Spirit, and no Trinity — all that remained was moral uplift and human solidarity, or, as one wit put it, the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston.” Oops: that last epigram was directed at the Unitarians, not the Universalists. But it’s simply wrong to conflate the Universalists and the Unitarians: Bob Needham, an old-time Universalist I once knew, is probably turning over in his grave to hear McClymond conflate Universalism and Unitarianism, for that kind of sloppy thinking infuriated him.

In truth, at the time of consolidation in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) retained very little of Universalism, and retained less and less as the years went by. By the twenty first century century, there are very few actual Universalists within the UUA, and the real strength of universalism lies outside the UUA — and also outside the Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBUs), the other main denominational home of the doctrine of universal salvation in North America. Today, Universalism is barely a footnote within the UUA; and the UUA and the PBUs are barely footnotes in the religious life of the United States.

Judith Sargent Murray published a Universalist catechism in 1782, which taught a “triune God.”

I still want a good solid history of universalism (small “u,” i.e., not restricted to the General Conference of Universalists and its successor bodies) that extends from at least the eighteenth century up through the present day. I’d like to see both an intellectual history, and a social history. I’d like to see a history that recognizes the diversity of beliefs within universal salvation — and there’s a great deal of diversity amongst Judith Sargent Murray, Karl Barth, Gulley and Mulholland, the Primitive Baptist Universalists, Richard Rohr, and Jurgen Moltmann. I’d like to see a history that pays careful attention to facts, even seemingly insignificant ones. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to get any of that from McClymond’s book. And I’m not willing to pay ninety bucks to buy his book to find out.

Oh well.

Any other scholars out there interested in writing a history of the doctrine of universal salvation?

Update, Nov. 13: revised captions and added parenthetical note defining ultra-Universalism; numerous minor edits for clarity.

The problem with free will

“Free will exists to an extent for the individual, but disappears in the group.” — Spider Robinson, Off the Wall at Callahan’s (Tor Books, 1994), courtesy of.

Given that Unitarian Universalists tend to be obsessed with free will: assuming this statement is true, it would explain a lot about the dissatisfaction many Unitarian Universalists have with Unitarian Universalism.

(For the record, my sense is that free will is a cultural artifact of Western Christianity, not a valid way of thinking about how human beings interact with the world.)

The Raja’s Son

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious children. I adapted this story from story 49b A raja’s daughter turned into a boy in “The B40 Janam-Sakhi: An English translation with introduction and commentary of the India Office Gurmukhi Manuscript Panj. B40, a janam-sakhi of Guru Nanak compiled in A.D. 1733 by Daya Ram Abrol,” ed. W. H. McLeod (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev Univeristy, n.d. [1979]), pp. 206-208. In the translation of the original story, the raja comes across as deluding himself that his child is, in fact, a girl, not a boy. But since nowhere does the raja’s child express any discomfort with identifying as male, though he is biologically female, I chose to interpret the raja’s child as transgendered. In the story, I avoid the term “transgendered” as anachronistic, but assumed that the raja’s child did in fact identify as a man; this is consistent with an assumption that there have been what we Westerners would call transgendered eprsons across cultures and throughout time. There are also stories from the Western religious traditions that present transgendered persons (e.g., queer theologians who argue that Jesus had non-binary gender, etc.), but I chose to retell this story simply because it tells about a child growing up into an adult. Note that the excerpt from the Guru Granth Sahib combines translations from Bhai Manmohan Singh, Dr. Sant Singh Khalsa, and The Sikh Encyclopedia. Now here’s the story:

There once was a raja, a Hindu king, who married a woman who was a Sikh. When she became the rani, or queen, this woman stayed in touch with the Sikhs who lived in the kingdom, and who had their dharamsala, or place of worship, just below the palace where the raja and rani lived. The Sikhs were well known for their beautiful hymns and their beautiful singing, and the raja came to enjoy listening to the hymns that were sung during kirtan, that is, during the Sikh worship service.

One day, the rani said to the raja, “Do you not wish that we had a child?”

“Oh yes,” said the raja. “I would love for us to have a child. I wish we could have a little boy.” For in the raja’s kingdom, it had always been men who had ruled the kingdom, and the raja hoped for a song that would rule his kingdom after him.

The rani said, “Let us go down to the dharamsala, and ask the sangat for a child.” The sangat was the gathered community of Sikhs, and it was thought that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Skih religion, was present in the sangat, even though he had died long ago.

The raja agreed to do this. A large congregation of Sikhs had gathered for Ekadasi, a Hindu lunar celebration. Even though Sikhs did not celebrate Hindu holidays, the Guru Arjan had said:
On Ekadasi, see God by your side,
Control your desires, and listen to God’s praise,
Let heart be content, and be kind to all beings.

The raja and rani presented their wish for a son as a hymn was being sung. “Speaking to the congregation, the raja and rani said: “You come together for Guru Nanak, and so whatever wish is asked of you will be granted. We ask that the Guru would give us a son.”

Those who were in the sangat said, “Trust in the Guru, he will grant you a son.”

Not long thereafter, the raja’s wife told the raja that she was pregnant. “Guru Nanak was right,” they said to each other, “and soon we will have a son.” When the baby was born, the baby’s body looked like a girl’s body, but the raja and his wife were confident that Guru Nanak had correctly foreseen that their child would be a son.

The raja and his wife gave the baby a name that was usually given to a boy, and then waited to see what would happen. And when their baby grew enough to begin to walk and talk and run around, it became clear that the child knew he was a boy. So what Guru Nanak had said did indeed come true: the raja and his wife had a son.

The boy grew quickly, and became a fine young man. Although he had a young woman’s body, nobody in the raja’s palace thought much about it, and the young man did everything that all the other young men did. Then one day, his father called him to the throne room.

“My son,” said the raja, “it is time you married. I would like you to marry –” and he named the daughter of a neighboring raja.

The young man thought he liked this daughter of the neighboring raja, and he also thought that she liked him, so he did not disagree with his father’s idea. But he asked, “Why is it that you want me to get married now, father?”

“I have received a marriage proposal from the young woman’s father,” said the raja. “And besides, I would like to see you married, and I would like you to have children, so that my grandchildren will continue to rule this kingdom.”

The young man looked thoughtful. “Of course I would like to have children,” he said, “but as you know, even though I’m a man, remember that I do have a woman’s body….”

His father waved this away. “Do not worry,” said the raja. “I trust in the Guru. He said that your mother and I would have a child, and we did. He said that your mother and I would have a boy, and we did.”

So the marriage proposal was accepted. The raja instructed his Hindu pandit to carry out the ceremonies to prepare for the marriage. But there were those who whispered, “The young man has a woman’s body. If he marries a woman, how can the two of them have children? The old raja will bring disgrace on us all.” But the old raja didn’t listen to these whispers; he trusted in Guru Nanak, and he knew that his son was indeed a man.

Before long the day of the wedding arrived. The young man got on his horse and, accompanied by a large party of well-wishers, rode to the neighboring raja where the wedding would take place. Suddenly a golden deer appeared in front of the party, and the raja’s son boldly spurred his horse and gave chase to this magnificent animal.

The golden deer ran from the raja’s son, leading him away from the others, until at last the deer jumped into a garden. The raja’s son followed, but when was inside the garden he found, not the golden deer that he had expected, but the Exalted One, Guru Nanak himself.

The raja’s son bowed down before the Exalted One. The Guru said to him, “My child, the Guru will fulfill your wish.”

The rest of the party had been following the raja’s son, and just then they arrived in the garden. Upon seeing Guru Nanak, the raja walked around him, then prostrated himself and laid at the feet of the Guru. “I am truly blessed, to see you, Baba Nanak!” said the raja. “You granted my wish to have a son. No human mouth can praise you enough, for you are beyond all praise!”

“Go in peace,” said Guru Nanak. “I will be with you wherever you go. Wherever you sing my hymns or offer praise to me, there you shall find me.”

The raja and all those in the wedding party became Sikhs from this moment. They continued on their journey, all chanting, “Guru, Guru!” The raja’s son was duly married to the daughter of the neighboring raja, and all was well.

Internal diversity of Islam

Rizwan Mawani, a Canadian scholar, has published a new book titled Beyond the Mosque: Diverse Spaces of Muslim Worship. I’m interested in the book because according to an interview by Religion News Service, Mawani provides insight into the internal diversity of Islam:

“The challenge of writing a book like this is that there are exceptions to almost every universal we try to proclaim upon the Muslim world. I’m always hyper conscious about asking ‘Is this sentence true for all Muslims? And if not, how do I modify it to reflect a pan-Muslim experience?'”

Mawani looks at the diversity of architecture (as you’d expect from the title), but other kinds of internal diversity as well — such as how ritual practices are constantly evolving, thus providing insight into diversity over time. But, according to the interview, Mawani also tackles some hot-button issues, such as the issue of gender:

“[T]here are communities like the Alevis [with 25 million adherents], found mostly in Turkey, who don’t define themselves as Sunni or Shia, where men and women pray side by side in spaces called cemevis, and oftentimes even interspersed with one another. Because in Alevi theology, God doesn’t see the body. All he sees is the soul of the believer, and gender is ultimately dissolved.”

Although in the West, we typically divide Islam into Sunni and Shia, Mawani found diversity beyond this bipartite division. For example, many of the first Muslims to come to North American were probably neither Sunni nor Shia:

“Another interesting thing to consider is how Islam came into North America. If we look at the earliest migration of Muslim communities, we of course have West African slaves, many of whom we now know practiced Islam. Many of them probably brought a form of Sufi Islam. So though Sunni Islam is the predominant form of Islam in the U.S. today, it’s not necessarily how America got introduced to Islam.”

In the interview, Mawani also touches on the geographic diversity of Islam, pointing out that one in three Muslims worldwide come from South Asia. I was particularly interested in Mawani’s comments on how to find Muslim diversity in North America; a Web search for “masjid” is going to exclude some significant Muslim diversity:

“If you live in a big city, especially, there are lots of opportunities to engage or even work with various Muslim communities. Obviously you can do a Google search and walk through your neighborhood looking for mosques. But you may need to research other names. There are masjids, of course, that are used by Shia communities, but they also have spaces known as an imambara or matam or husayniya or something else, depending upon which part of the world that community comes from. There are many Sufi and mystically inclined spaces in many cities, so searches for words like tekke or zawiya or khanaqah can unearth communities in our own area that we may not be familiar with.”

Read the entire interview here.

Buying the book: Do the author a favor and do NOT buy from Amazon, because they drastically cut how much money the author receives per book. Instead, I recommend buying all your religion books from the Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago. They do not yet have “Beyond the Mosque” in stock, but you can special order it here.

The Golden Rule and political discourse

I just signed on to the “Golden Rule 2020 Pledge”:

“We all have an important role to play to help heal our nation, increase understanding of each other, and bridge our divisions. I stand with other Americans by joining Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Dignity and Respect in Politics. I commit to treat others with respect and dignity as I engage in political discourse and behavior throughout the 2020 campaign season.”

I’m tired of hearing Americans badmouth each other, just because we have differing political beliefs. That kind of behavior is not good for our country. It trashes the commons of our public discourse. More than that, I’m tired of hearing myself badmouth others just because I don’t happen to share their political beliefs. I don’t want to be that kind of person. If others want to engage in trash-talking, that is their choice — I don’t have to make the same choice.

Yes, it’s a bunch of Christians who started the Golden Rule Pledge. But, according to the Internet Encylcopedia of Philosophy (a peer-reviewed Web site), the Golden Rule predates Christianity, and transcends the particularities of Christian doctrine:

“The golden rule is closely associated with Christian ethics though its origins go further back and graces Asian culture as well. Normally we interpret the golden rule as telling us how to act. But in practice its greater role may be psychological, alerting us to everyday self-absorption, and the failure to consider our impacts on others. The rule reminds us also that we are peers to others who deserve comparable consideration. It suggests a general orientation toward others, an outlook for seeing our relations with them….This is a strongly egalitarian message.”

Note that the Golden Rule does not require us to follow such Christian precepts as loving others as you love yourself, or turning the other cheek. All that is required is recalling how we would like to be treated, then trying to treat others that way. If even a few of us do that some of the time, public discourse will become more civil. Equally importantly, from my point of view, trying to follow the Golden Rule is a way to try to be more like the person I aspire to be. Check it out, and see if you want to sign on, too.

#GoldenRule2020