Jerald F. Dirks, the former minister of United Methodist Church, a Harvard Hollis scholar and author of the book, “The Cross and the Crescent,” describes in this third part his early life and education, his disillusionment with Christianity while at School of Theology, and his first brush with Islam.
WHILE I never spoke to my Muslim friends about those books, my wife and I had numerous conversations about what I was reading. By the last week of December of 1992, I was forced to admit to myself, that I could find no area of substantial disagreement between my own religious beliefs and the general tenets of Islam. While I was ready to acknowledge that Muhammad (peace be upon him), was a Prophet (one who spoke for or under the inspiration) of God, and while I had absolutely no difficulty affirming that there was no god besides God, glorified and exalted is He, I was still hesitating to make any decision. I could readily admit to myself that I had far more in common with Islamic beliefs as I then understood them, than I did with the traditional Christianity of the organized church. I knew only too well that I could easily confirm from my seminary training and education most of what the Qur'an had to say about Christianity, the Bible, and Jesus (peace be upon him).
Nonetheless, I hesitated. Further, I rationalized my hesitation by maintaining to myself that I really didn’t know the nitty-gritty details of Islam, and that my areas of agreement were confined to general concepts. As such, I continued to read, and then to re-read.
One’s sense of identity, of who one is, is a powerful affirmation of one’s own position in the cosmos. In my professional practice, I had occasionally been called upon to treat certain addictive disorders, ranging from smoking, to alcoholism, to drug abuse. As a clinician, I knew that the basic physical addiction had to be overcome to create the initial abstinence. That was the easy part of treatment. As Mark Twain once said: “Quitting smoking is easy; I’ve done it hundreds of times.” However, I also knew that the key to maintaining that abstinence over an extended time period was overcoming the client’s psychological addiction, which was heavily grounded in the client’s basic sense of identity, i.e. the client identified to himself that he was “a smoker,” or that he was “a drinker,” etc. The addictive behavior had become part and parcel of the client’s basic sense of identity, of the client’s basic sense of self. Changing this sense of identity was crucial to the maintenance of the psychotherapeutic “cure.” This was the difficult part of treatment. Changing one’s basic sense of identity is a most difficult task. One’s psyche tends to cling to the old and familiar, which seem more psychologically comfortable and secure than the new and unfamiliar.
On a professional basis, I had the above knowledge, and used it on a daily basis. However, ironically enough, I was not yet ready to apply it to myself, and to the issue of my own hesitation surrounding my religious identity. For 43 years, my religious identity had been neatly labeled as “Christian,” however many qualifications I might have added to that term over the years. Giving up that label of personal identity was no easy task. It was part and parcel of how I defined my very being. Given the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that my hesitation served the purpose of insuring that I could keep my familiar religious identity of being a Christian, although a Christian who believed like a Muslim believed.
It was now the very end of December, and my wife and I were filling out our application forms for US passports, so that a proposed Middle Eastern journey could become a reality. One of the questions had to do with religious affiliation. I didn’t even think about it, and automatically fell back on the old and familiar, as I penned in “Christian.” It was easy, it was familiar, and it was comfortable.
However, that comfort was momentarily disrupted when my wife asked me how I had answered the question on religious identity on the application form. I immediately replied, “Christian,” and chuckled audibly. Now, one of Freud’s contributions to the understanding of the human psyche was his realization that laughter is often a release of psychological tension. However wrong Freud may have been in many aspects of his theory of psychosexual development, his insights into laughter were quite on target. I had laughed! What was this psychological tension that I had need to release through the medium of laughter?
I then hurriedly went on to offer my wife a brief affirmation that I was a Christian, not a Muslim. In response to which, she politely informed me that she was merely asking whether I had written “Christian,” or “Protestant,” or “Methodist.” On a professional basis, I knew that a person does not defend himself against an accusation that hasn’t been made. (If, in the course of a session of psychotherapy, my client blurted out, “I’m not angry about that,” and I hadn’t even broached the topic of anger, it was clear that my client was feeling the need to defend himself against a charge that his own unconscious was making. In short, he really was angry, but he wasn’t ready to admit it or to deal with it.) If my wife hadn’t made the accusation, i.e. “you are a Muslim,” then the accusation had to have come from my own conscious, as I was the only other person present. I was aware of this, but still I hesitated. The religious label that had been stuck to my sense of identity for 43 years was not going to come off easily.
About a month had gone by since my wife’s question to me. It was now late in January of 1993. I had set aside all the books on Islam by the Western scholars, as I had read them all thoroughly. The two English translations of the meaning of the Qur'an were back on the bookshelf, and I was busy reading yet a third English translation of the meaning of the Qur'an. Maybe in this translation I would find some sudden justification for…
To be continued next week
n Courtesy of www.islamreligion.com