Friday, June 6, 2008

interview with Jay Rozendaal

I'm going to be staying at that hookah bar tonight, and the library closes at midnight, so while I've got the time and have a roof over my head, I thought that now would be a good time to catch up on the posting I've been needing to do.

As you saw in my recent entries, I was finally(!) able to upload the pics of Reverend Jay Rozendaal and his church, Christ Episcopal Church of Blaine, WA. I've got my note pad with me-- the very one on which I chicken-scrawled notes during my brief entretien with the vicar-- so now it's a matter of trying to remember the interview rightly. My apologies to Jay for whatever I've gotten wrong; I encourage Jay and others to comment on any and all of my blog posts whenever it seems I need to have my feet held to the fire.

Reverend Rozendaal is comfortable in his Christianity, even though he says he went through a period of "disgruntlement" with it long ago. He saw how his father, a Presbyterian minister, had suffered when taking an anti-war stand decades ago. I didn't ask, "Suffered at the hands of whom?", but I assume the answer to that question would be something along the lines of, "At the hands of fellow Christians."

Rev. Rozendaal was in seminary back in the early years of the Anglican Church's granting of the right of ordination to women. Before that time, during his "reading and seeking" period, he engaged in Buddhist practice and even went so far as to take precepts (the jukai ceremony in the Japanese tradition, as Jay reminded me), i.e., to publicly declare himself Buddhist. Jay became interested in the connection between Buddhism's meditative aspect and the meditative strains found in the larger Christian tradition, especially in Catholicism. His partner gave him a copy of Thomas Merton's journals, which I assume reinforced this connection (or was this the gesture that established the connection, Jay?), this awareness that Christianity, too, had a contemplative tradition.

Jay says his return to Christianity wasn't explicitly intentional. I asked him flat out, "Are you still a Buddhist?" and he said no, though he knows people who profess to be adherents of two traditions at once. He mentioned one person I should meet: Ann Redding, who teaches at Seattle University. She's an Episcopal priest as well as a Muslim. I admit I was surprised at this; while I can imagine certain liberal Christians who would be fine with this sort of pairing, I'd love to meet the Muslims who approve of Ms. Redding's religious orientation!

I'll inject a remark here: back when I was in grad school, one of my profs, Father William Cenkner, said that it's not really possible to hold on to two religions at once in a purely integrated manner. In his view, the best one can manage is a sort of bifurcated stasis, where the two religious tendencies are held together in tension, not harmony, and the dual-adherent is obliged to "switch" from one religious mode to the other depending on the situation. I wasn't too comfortable with Fr. Cenkner's formulation, but I haven't had the chance to speak with people who openly proclaim themselves to be members of two distinct traditions. Given the subjective nature of religious belief, Cenkner's contention would be hard to test.

What I often see, when I meet someone who claims to be of two traditions, is a person in transition-- they're leaving their "cradle" tradition and sliding more or less comfortably into their adopted tradition. Some of these folks leave not out of bitterness, but out of disappointment or disaffection; something about the new tradition appeals to them and attracts them. These folks strike me as fairly happy and grounded. Others, however, are bitter about their cradle religion and seem to be seeking ways to reject it.

This second group often has trouble truly moving into their adopted tradition; I have, for example, encountered plenty of ex-Christian Buddhists who have retained their black-and-white reificationist outlook despite years of Buddhist practice. These people, still walking around with chips on their shoulders, are prone to be combative with others not of their new tradition, often talking about what is "real" Buddhism and what isn't. Buddhist metaphysics, however, admits of no essences, so it's not consistent or legitimate for Buddhists to speak essentialistically.

Back to Jay. We talked a bit about scripture and its ambivalence. Jay calls this "a big issue" when we think about what evidence the Bible provides for religious exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. On one hand, as Jay notes, you've got the exclusivistic formulation, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes before the Father but by me"; and on the other hand, you have a more conciliatory passage in the Book of Revelation: "In my father's house there are many mansions" --an inclusive vision.

Jay zoomed back a bit to offer a global perspective: overall, "Christianity is a minority religion" in this world of nearly seven billion people. "The God I believe in," Jay said, "isn't a God who dismisses most of the human family because of how they worship."

Part of the problem with religion, Jay noted, is that people like Jesus and the Buddha (with Muhammad as a unique exception) didn't set out to start a religion. But as the number of adherents to a certain doctrine/tradition increased, it was inevitable that institutions would form. Institutions are necessary, but "when we humans do the work, mistakes are going to be made."

When I asked Jay what religion is, he said he preferred to go back to the Latin root of religare: re-bond, reconnect.* Religion is what re-binds us to what is essential, to what is "our source, the ground of our being." We are made in God's image, and our journey is toward that godly state.

Jay remarked on a section of Thien** Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh's book Living Buddha, Living Christ, in which Nhat Hanh urges some non-Buddhist listeners not to convert to Buddhism, but instead to view Christianity (etc.) as that in which they are rooted, and that they should take the lessons in mindfulness they had learned from Nhat Hanh and discover how those lessons could be meaningful to them as Christians.

When Jay reflected on his past, he said that he still loved the Buddha, but in the end there was "a depth" to his Christian experience, because that's the tradition in which he was born. I'd agree that it's hard to tear out your own roots. Many people who leave the church-- or whatever their home tradition is-- often come back after a time. It's good that people can leave and come back: the difference between a good religion and a cult is that cults don't let you leave, but once you're gone-- escaped or driven out-- you're an apostate, branded for life. At the corporate level, cults know no forgiveness. When major religions behave like cults, this is a sign that something very unhealthy is going on in that community.

In talking about the internal strife of the Anglican Church, Jay noted that the root problem isn't about sexuality, nor is it about the ordination of women. It is, instead, a larger issue, occupying a larger framework: it's about one's basic approach to faith and the particulars of one's beliefs. Are those beliefs given and unalterable, or are they subject to revision upon the experience of new understandings and insights? Jay contends that revelation is ongoing. I would agree that, if we describe ultimate reality as a "living" reality, then we have to take seriously what that image implies: things that are alive move and change and grow and die; they are in process and exist always in relationship. The story never ends.

Jay has dealt with this issue, the issue of the processual nature of faith, in some of the classes he has taught. He has talked with his students about the question of authority and revelation, for example; he and his students have looked at the New Testament and seen it as a new interpretation of old scripture.*** The idea of finding new meaning in old scripture**** is, as Jay puts it, "enshrined in scripture itself." And Jay finished our conversation with a quote that I was at pains to get right:

"If we cut off our brains, we're doing a disservice to scripture."

Reverend Rozendaal, whom I've presumed to call "Jay" through most of this post, has been vicar of CEC for only about a year, but I think he's the right man for the job. He's earnest and energetic; he's accepting and perceptive; he's obviously interested in the promotion of human connection. He was also the driving force behind my visits to the Lynden gurdwara and the Bellingham Zen center, so I thank him for his kind help despite his busy schedule.

*Be aware that there's still debate about what the actual root of the word "religion" is. For the merest glimpse of this issue, see here.

**Thien = Vietnamese Zen Buddhism

***I failed to leap on the opportunity to ask Jay his opinion of Christian supersessionism-- the idea that the New Testament's existence implicitly denigrates Judaism because its revelation supersedes the previous revelation. Islam, too, is supersessionist: Muhammad is "the Seal of the Prophets." The word "seal" here refers to the idea that something (like correspondence on a scroll that has been shut with a wax seal) is closed off-- nothing more can be written. This makes Muhammad the last and greatest of the prophets of Allah.

****I remember this from my Bib Lit classes: it's not merely a matter of using the New Testament to make theology; the books of the New Testament are themselves theological works-- they are snapshots of hermeneutics in action. Scriptural hermeneutics is actually and always meta-hermeneutics.



Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, Kevin, and I'm very pleased that my #1 choice for you for Blaine turned out to be both so helpful and so interesting!

Anonymous said...

Reverend Holmes was in the news a little while back:

"I am both a Muslim and a Christian".

The article includes comments from Muslim leaders in the area:

Being both Muslim and Christian — "I don't know how that works," said Hisham Farajallah, president of the Islamic Center of Washington.

But Redding has been embraced by leaders at the Al-Islam Center of Seattle, the Muslim group she prays with.

"Islam doesn't say if you're a Christian, you're not a Muslim," said programming director Ayesha Anderson. "Islam doesn't lay it out like that."

Anonymous said...

I gotta say that, with all respect for Rev. Holmes for seeking out her own personal path to truth --

Hisham Farajallah seems to me to be on far firmer ground in this little disagreement than does Ayesha Anderson.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, as noted elsewhere, I have blogged on your "switching" interjection:

Religious Traditions: Kevin Kim on 'Switching'

By the way, I have some difficulty accessing this walk blog because of all the photos. My laptop hums discontentedly for several minutes before it allows access and even then is very slow. Perhaps you could have entries archived sooner.

Jeffery Hodges

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