Amidst rising religious sensitivities, perhaps it's best for us all to reflect silently rather than react publicly.
When I was 10, I wanted to become a nun. Even so, that does not qualify me to comment on religion.
Furthermore, now I am neither particularly religious nor a scholar of Comparative Religion. That convent calling, steeped in the promise of prayer and contemplation, was only inspired by the virtues of my school’s few remaining nuns.
That ambition did not even last a year. After much ribbing and teasing by both teachers and students, it lasted a month at the most. In a small town, going to church as a family was a big part of my growing up. So was the fellowship – interacting and communicating – with people of various ages, races and backgrounds.
I still hold dear, to a certain extent, the values of those formative years. However, the fixed, structured and, what I now see as restrictive religious forms, have long since ceased to hold me in thrall.
Nonetheless, my much-lapsed religious sensitivities have recently been awakened. News of religion hogs the headlines every day and what used to be casual convivial conversation now focusses on religion. There is no way to ignore the ramifications of religion in our lives.
Regardless of whatever faith we profess, religion has become the immovable elephant in Malaysia’s midst. So much more than the other elephant – race. Yet I can’t quite recall when religion became such an obdurate issue, so unyielding in its stance.
It definitely didn’t used to be this way. No matter what our beliefs, we used to be able to interact with one another without any underlying currents or suspicions. We ate at the same table, played in the same fields and talked about the same things.
Not like now. Even among the most educated and enlightened, discussing religion – any religion – and its practices has become a dance of diplomacy, attempts to say what we want to say without saying anything at all.
Religion is now tagged as ultra-sensitive, with discussion measured, placatory and debated only on the surface, preferably with kid gloves. Without offending anyone.
What used to be a private communion between similar-minded individuals and their chosen faith has now become a case for public pontification. It would not be so disturbing if this collective coercion was based on promoting the irreproachable values that every faith upholds.
Respecting one another, being just to all and valuing each person’s freedom to believe are the basic tenets of any faith.
Even I, who am not religious, can appreciate that. Why then do the Believers fail to do the same?
It has come to the point that, even if we wanted to, we can’t skirt around the sidelines any more. Staying out of the elephant’s way is not an option, not when it’s in the room.
We can’t afford not to be involved in expressing our opinions. The issue of religion is, sadly, not confined to only our shores. Over centuries around the world, wars have been fought, families dispersed and countries estranged.
On a recent visit to Sibu, the Sarawakians I met asked me what was going on in “Semenanjung” (the Peninsula). Why were we West Malaysians so hung up on race and religion and saying unkind things to one another?
They weren’t boasting when they showed off their longhouses where almost a hundred, or sometimes more, family members live under one roof.
Their way of life was not a coined concept, they told me, but rather something adopted and adapted over time.
They have quietly learned to live side by side, despite their different faiths.
Which brought to mind the words of an ex-nun, Karen Armstrong. The prolific author and speaker is described as a provocative and original thinker on the role of religion in the modern world.
Four years ago, at a festival of words and ideas, I listened to her talk. She was urging her readers to rebuild their faiths by recognising silence and reticence. To her, speech had become impotent. The approach to God, she claimed, had to be with silence.
She said the mind has to be clear to be receptive. This will not be easy for those seeking certainty from religion amid all the noise and chatter surrounding it.
“Silence pushes the mind as far as it would go,” she informed a packed-to-the-brim hall, for that is where thinking for yourself will begin.
It’s time to take a pause, surely? From bashing each other’s religions. A quiet time for reflection must be decreed. If for nothing else, at least to find out where we went wrong. The rising babble must subside, in favour of some quiet solitude and contemplation.
If we aim to find solace.
I may not have known it at 10, but I’ve learned since then the value of silently reflecting, not publicly reacting.