Faith is a very difficult thing for me. Growing up, I was taught (not by my mother, she loves everyone) that there is a prescribed path to getting into heaven. You believe that Jesus Christ died on the sins for your cross, or you were going to hell to burn forever. The only ones who escaped this fate were those who had never been introduced to Jesus. If you were introduced and refused, you were going to hell. I grew up absolutely terrified of God and all the punishments I was sure to receive when I died. There was a point in time where I was so afraid of death I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep at night. When I did, I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night having a panic attack.
As I got older, I began to question what I was taught. What if the people in Africa and Asia were brought up believing that their religion was the only right one? Even if they were given the chance to know Jesus, they wouldn’t want to accept him. They have grown up believing that their faith was the correct faith to get them to the afterlife. For all we know, they could believe that Christians are going to go to hell if they don’t accept their traditions. The more I thought about it, the more confused I became. Who said that the bible is the only text that holds the correct answer? I couldn’t see how a person could be doomed to hell simply because they grew up in a different part of the world where they “got it wrong.” Like faith is a textbook you bought at the bookstore and if you got the wrong edition you were going straight to hell. It was in that moment that my faith finally wavered. A god who damned others solely for how they were raised scared me.
As an undergraduate I double-majored in religious studies and history. I was desperate to get it right, because at that point in my life I gave up believing in any sort of god. I learned so much about different religions, and as I did I began to see the connections between them. I was raised looking at how other religions were different, and in college I had the opportunity to see how alike they all were. That common thread that wove between religions gave me peace. That experience I had in college changed me, and I think I am better for it. Today, for the most part, I avoid talking about religion with people, and that includes my students. I’m scared of giving someone the same experience I had growing up, and I think a part of me is still scared that I’ve got it all wrong.
This is a blog about a book, not about my own personal struggles with faith. I wish desperately, though, that I had seen Faith by Maya Ajmera, Magda Nakassis, and Cynthia Pon as a child. This book, published in 2009, does not promulgate or proselytize. Instead, this text is a beautiful reminder of what I discovered in college—the religions of the world have common threads. Humanity across the board is much more alike than it is different. The book is very simple to read, but depending on the child, it could take a guiding hand to understand. It starts off with the sentence, “In our world, there are many faiths.” It then goes on to talk about the different ways that religions celebrate their faith, through things like prayer, singing, reading holy books, and cleansing oneself. Each two-page spread only has one or two sentences on it. The scarcity of the main text is supplemented by the amazing photographs that make this book a unique and unforgettable experience.
On each page are numerous photographs that illustrate what the text is saying. For example, on the page that says “We listen to and learn from others,” there are pictures of Islamic children at a madrassa, Christian children at church, a Jewish son learning to sound the shofar, and Buddhist students at a Sunday School. Each picture is accompanied by a caption that explains what religion it is and what the people are doing. It is absolute brilliance. Our religions always seem so different, and yet on two pages you can see how five different religions are all connected by an idea like learning from others, praying, or visiting holy places. The differences no longer seem very different.
I love several things about the photographs that are included. First, I appreciate that there is a wide variety of religions from across the world. The text has everything from Christianity, to Native American religion, to Zoroastrianism. Even more than that, however, is that all of the religions are not where you would always think about them existing. There is an absolutely fabulous picture of a Muslim family in England. You see the picture, and they don’t “look” Muslim because there are little blonde-haired girls. We often associate Islam with the Middle East and with olive-skinned people, so it is nice to see the variety that occurs within faiths. We have got to take away the stereotypes. Another thing that makes this book appealing is that there are lots of pictures of kids. Unfortunately in our country, there is a lot of hatred when it comes to other religions (I’m not saying everyone, everywhere. But growing up fed on a religion of hate and intolerance, I know it’s there. I do believe that there are many more wonderful people of faith than those like the ones I have known). Kids level out the playing field. I mean, they’re just kids. It’s why we get so worked up when we see pictures of kid soldiers who are carrying around AK47’s at the tender age of 6. Children are innocent, and by presenting all these different religions through the eyes of children, I think it makes other religions seem less intimidating, less threatening. After all, they are children like the ones we have in our classroom.
Being a religious studies/history major, I have always been baffled at the lack of religion in the curriculum. So much of the history in the world is steeped in history. You cannot explain the Holocaust to someone who doesn’t know what Jewish is, and you cannot explain the Anglican Church without talking about the Schism with Rome. Our children do not seem to get a glimpse of any religion other than their own until they are much older, and that is a shame. When I was student teaching, the guidance counselor came in to teach a lesson about tolerance. She asked people to name some different religions. The only two “different” religions that the children were able to name were “Christianity” and “Catholic.” I sat there, absolutely baffled by what these children did not know. They weren’t angry or hateful towards other religions, they just didn’t even know that they existed. I feel that intolerance is bred from a fear of the unknown, and our children not often given any glimpse into other religions. If we helped our children to understand other religions, they would grow up without that fear, without that intolerance. I am not saying that the lack of religion in schools is making students intolerant, only that intolerance exists and teaching about different religions could help lesson that. With books like Faith, we are helping to bridge the gap between ourselves and others.
"In our world, there are many faiths" photograph taken from http://mshesaltine.edublogs.org/tag/maya-ajmera/