001

Table of Contents
 
Praise
Title Page
Copyright Page
Dedication
Acknowledgements
Introduction
PROLOGUE
UNBEARABLE CERTAINTY
A GOD WORTH WORSHIPING
OUR OPPORTUNITY
THE COMFORT OF DISOWNING GOD
 
Chapter 1 - LIVING WITH A SPLINTER
 
THIN PLACES
THE ETERNITY PARTICLE
OUR STORIES
ENJOY LIFE, AND DON’T BE A JERK
FOOLISH, NOT STUPID
ANGER INTO COMPASSION
EMPTINESS
 
Chapter 2 - THE SECRET OF THE ORDINARY
 
THE FIRST GRACE
THE GREATEST SIN OF ALL
ORDINARY JESUS
THE SACRAMENT
PEOPLE KNOW
THE THIRD EXODUS
STRANGELY FAMILIAR
 
Chapter 3 - GOD MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
 
TORN
MYSTERY OR ABSURDITY?
A WAY THAT IS GOOD FOR ALL PEOPLE
POSSESSING THE KINGDOM OF GOD
BLIND TO OUR OWN TREASURES
CRAZY MUHAMMAD
EVOLVING MONOTHEISMS
DECOLONIZING THE NAME OF GOD
FAITH BREATHING
 
Chapter 4 - WHY IS GOD NOT MORE OBVIOUS?
 
A MYSTERY THAT CAN BE KNOWN
WHY NOT LOVE IT SO?
THE ECSTASY OF INCOMPLETENESS
TRUE RELIGIOUS EXTREMISTS
THE FRATERNITY OF MILK
 
Chapter 5 - WHERE DOES YOUR HEART GO?
 
FIVE MINUTES BEFORE WE FALL ASLEEP
WHY RELIGIOUS AND NONRELIGIOUS PEOPLE ARE THE SAME
THE IDOLATRY OF RELIGION
SAVING OUR RELIGIONS
BETTER THAN LIFE
CONVERSION AND CONVERSION
 
Chapter 6 - YOUR GOD IS TOO BIG
 
THE SIZE OF GOD
A QUESTION FROM THE CITY STREETS
SUPERIORITY COMPLEX
THE FULL EXTENT OF GOD’S GLORY?
GETTING THINGS DONE
GENTLE WHISPER
DOING WHAT WE KNOW WILL NOT WORK
 
Chapter 7 - THE BLESSING OF ATHEISM
 
FOR, NOT AGAINST
DISSING AND DISMISSING ATHEISM
WHAT WOULD GOD WANT?
IMAGINATION AND NOTHING
ATHEISM AT ITS BEST
THE VIRTUE OF ATHEISM
AT CAMERA THREE
ASKING BETTER QUESTIONS TOGETHER
 
Chapter 8 - ONE WORLD AT A TIME
 
WHAT WAS JESUS SELLING?
LOST IN MAPS
BETTER NEWS
WITHIN A CATHEDRAL
 
Chapter 9 - WHEN MY GOD BECOMES OUR GOD
 
SIBLINGS
IS GOD ENOUGH?
UNIQUE BUT NOT APART
GENESIS OF OUTSIDERS
A TIPPING POINT
EVERYTHING IS LIKE THE OCEAN
LOVING GOD WITH ALL OF MY LOVE
MY SECOND PRAYER
 
EPILOGUE
READER’S GUIDE
NOTES
THE AUTHOR
INDEX

Praise for It’s Really All About God
“Samir Selmanovic is asking the right questions at the right time, and refusing the consolations of certainty at a time when strident orthodoxies—atheist as well as religious—are perilously dividing us.”—Karen Armstrong, author, A History of God and The Great Transformation
 
“This is an important book at an important moment in American history. As religious issues come to the fore internationally—and the influence of American religious leaders who preach ‘my way or the highway’ begins to fade—we need a new generation of believers who can articulate their own spiritual integrity while actively respecting the integrity of others. Samir Selmanovic is such a leader. Samir’s personal and professional life has been richly formed by diversity. Now he offers us the fruits of his experience in this wonderfully readable book, grounded in his work in New York City with religious communities dedicated to honor and learn from ‘the other.’ We need a million more Samirs on the planet—people of conviction and humility who know that the vast mystery called God calls us not to the arrogance of ‘ownership’ but to the beloved community.”—Parker J. Palmer, author, A Hidden Wholeness, Let Your Life Speak, and The Courage to Teach
 
“A remarkable book that combines memoir, insight, wisdom, passion, and compassion.” —Marcus Borg, author, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, and Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
 
“If atheists, agnostics, and nonreligious people like myself want to gain understanding and improve the world—not just complain about the evils of fundamentalism—we need to read not only the hard-line voices of ancient religions but also the freshest and wisest voices of modern progressive religion. Samir Selmanovic’s is just such a fresh voice. I can disagree with him on theology—indeed, I can deny the very God he thinks it’s all about—and yet I have learned much from his sensitivity, intellect, and generous spirit towards humanity.”—Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain, Harvard University, and author, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe
 
“Samir Selmanovic offers a deeply personal reflection on faith, doubt, and ultimately, spiritual peace. As the son of a Muslim father and Christian mother, Selmanovic was raised as a Muslim but later converted to Christianity, though his respect for Islam never abated. This unique interfaith background facilitates his telling a sophisticated and introspective story that simultaneously stirs the heart, challenges the intellect, and inspires the soul. Readers of this profoundly spiritual book will find themselves holders of a new and important perspective on their own religion, the religion of others, and even those without religion.”—Daisy Khan, executive director, American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA)
 
“The author’s spiritual journey has been truly unique. This puts him in a position to say some profoundly important things about God and the way religious people relate to God and to each other. You may not always like how the author says things, but he gives fresh meaning to the words of Jesus, ‘Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ I needed to read this book and I am glad I did.”—Jon Paulien, dean, School of Religion, Loma Linda University
 
“In a world in which religious traditions are too often digging in their heels into the tired sod of exclusionary self-righteousness, this love song to the God of all Existence is a much longed-for work of hope and optimism. Pastor Samir Selmanovic’s expansive vision goes beyond polite formalities of ‘interfaith dialogue’ to urge us all toward new vistas of mutual learning, sharing and celebration of Life. Drawing from his own extraordinary life story—his conversion to Christianity and his growing discovery that both love and God thrive beyond its borders, he helps us celebrate the many miraculous and mysterious ways that the loving and life-giving power we call God moves through us all.”—Rabbi Marcia Prager, author, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine
 
“I’m speechless in trying to describe this book. I laughed out loud in places and cried big tears at the end. It’s a work of faith, a work of art, and to some, no doubt, it will be a work of damnable heresy. I think this book will change people’s lives, and more: it can save lives, in the many senses of that word. All the religious pundits and broadcasters on radio and cable TV had better take notice, because this book threatens our conventional, comfortable categories and familiar black-and-white polarities. Selmanovic has the nerve to imagine our religions becoming not walls behind which we hide and over which we lob bombs of damnation, but bridges over which we travel to find God in the other.”—Brian McLaren, author/activist (brianmclaren.net)
 
“For all Seekers of the Truth, Samir’s deeply insightful, uniquely personal, lyrical quest for a relationship with God provides a clear vision of the need to dig deep, transcending traditional boundaries of faith and theology, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu. . . .—Rathi Raja, president, Arsha Vedanta Center of Long Island; executive director, Young Indian Culture Group
 
“Samir Selmanovic is a brave, compassionate, and wise spiritual teacher and community leader. This inspiring memoir/manifesto is a significant contribution to the growing body of literature on contemporary interreligious dialogue and action. Read it and be enriched!”—Rabbi Or Rose, director, Interfaith & Social Justice Initiatives, Hebrew College; coeditor, Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice
 
“Samir has written a book that reads like an extended poem; an ode to life. Where others see only the darkness and destructiveness of religion, Samir sees beauty and hope. Where others see only competition and violence, Samir sees synergy and life. And his vision is no simple syncretism; a blending of all religions into one inoffensive ‘smoothie’ of goodness and light. This book is a celebration of postmodern ‘otherness’ of the first order. It will inspire you, frustrate you, maybe even anger you. Samir will not answer all your questions or tell you exactly what to do next. But if you’ve ever felt that nagging deep in your soul that God is lurking just beneath the surface in places you have least expected, you need to read this book!”—Ryan J. Bell, pastor, Hollywood Adventist Church (ryanjbell.net)
 
“This is a delightfully seductive book. In a conversational and imaginatively colorful style, Selmanovic leads the reader, gently but engagingly, along the steps of his own life’s path to a conclusion that is as clear as it is challenging—that the only God worth believing in cannot be just ‘my’ or ‘our’ God. For all those committed to creating a truly multireligious civil society, this book is a gift.”—Paul F. Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture, Union Theological Seminary, New York City, and author, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian
 
“Samir has done what seems impossible—he’s written a book about God that’s fresh. Books about God, faith, and religion are a dime a dozen these days—but this one is so full of hope and enthusiasm. Completely honest. In the end, I found myself breathing more freely and wanting to love God and people more fully. I recommend this book!”—Carl Medearis, author, Muslims, Christians, and Jesus, and coauthor, Tea with Hezbollah
 
“Prepare to have your world expanded. Samir Selmanovic is like that voice in your head that causes you to reflect on the bigger questions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike will grow from this exploration of an un-managed God.”—Rabbi Justus Baird, director, Multifaith Education, Auburn Seminary
 
“This is a solidly researched book that reads like a love song. My inner mystic jumped and leaped and shouted for joy. I found myself less lonely in this big old world. I felt like I was at a really good party, each paragraph a song, each page another glass of wine, each chapter the prospect of another dance with a beautiful woman. At this party, nobody got mad at me for letting my hair down. In fact, everyone, including God, encouraged me to go a little crazy.”—Rev. Vince Anderson, bandleader, songwriter, honky-tonkist, co-pastor of Revolution Church NYC (reverendvince.com)
 
“In a most refreshing yet startling way, It’s Really All About God confronts my Christian worldview and challenges my assumptions about God. But I understand that Selmanovic does not seek to persuade or convert, but to explore, to imagine with. His story is a remarkable demonstration of and testimony to the beauty and possibilities of radically God-oriented imagination.”—Julius Nam, religion professor, Loma Linda University
 
“For those who love armchair travel, Samir Selmanovic provides a breathtaking report on his spiritual journey, one that has taken him deep into the thicket of interfaith encounter. This book allows you to experience that adventure through his eyes. It may move you to take the next step in your own exploring. If so, fasten your seat belt and bring Samir Selmanovic along as a guide. As more of us take those risks, I can’t help thinking our world will be the better for it.”—Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, director, Department of Multifaith Studies, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
 
“What if the excruciating tension between God and religion is not something to be denied but, rather, embraced as an act of loving devotion to both divinity and humanity? In It’s Really All About God, Selmanovic offers a vision of spirituality that holds this tension as sacred. Rather than remain isolated in our ‘God management systems’ we can partner with each other across the boundaries that define us. The world would be better off and our religions would be more true, more just, and more beautiful.”—Sammer Aboelela, community organizer, New York Community of Muslim Progressives
 
“This book nourished my soul; it fed my life; it centered me on what truly matters: life-giving, radical, and hospitable love. Samir Selmanovic has a way of telling stories that is simple yet profound, down to earth yet not bound, prophetic yet loving, and serious yet full of humor. I laughed, cried, and wondered. I became nostalgic for the home of my childhood and the ‘thin places’ where divine encounters occurred. Samir’s love for life shines and his faith unsettles us. This is a powerful, moving, and empowering work, full of audacious hope.”—Eleazar S. Fernandez, professor of constructive theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
 
“Society is bearing a heavy cost due to our lack of meaningful discussion, growing divisiveness, and the mockery of religion. It is a long road back—or ahead—but Selmanovic has placed a roadmap before us. This book is epochal; it is for every atheist who is willing to converse and all the religionists willing to lift their head and look over the walls they have created.”—William Bevington, professor of information design and former executive director, The Parsons Institute for Information Mapping, The New School, New York
 
“I am excited, unsettled, and inspired by the vision of It’s Really All About God. Through sharing the story of his own faith and family, Samir shows how this growing vision of the kingdom of God has changed his world—and can change our world, too.”—Nathan Brown, author, Nemesis Train
 
“Why are thousands not saying what this man is saying? Such obvious truth must be made even more obvious, and this is exactly what Samir Selmanovic is doing for all of us and for the future of humanity. After you read this wise book, you will say, ‘Of course!’ and ‘Thank God!”’—Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, New Mexico
 
“In his book, It’s Really All About God, Samir Selmanovic takes us on his personal spiritual journey, a journey that winds through different cultures, continents, and religions. The insights he gains along the way lead him to a unique understanding of the meaning of all religions, one that is grounded in the encounter with ‘the other,’ and one with which he intends to gently challenge all of us into rethinking what our faith means to us. Even if one does not agree with all of his conclusions, one can appreciate the invitation to go along on this journey as part of one’s own journey to deeper religious—and interreligious—understanding.”—Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, senior program director for faith and order and interfaith relations of the National Council of Churches USA
 
“A keen and compelling storyteller, Samir Selmanovic has crafted a spiritual autobiography that interweaves humor and lyricism with practical theology in a tale of conversion, embrace, and reconciliation. Provocative yet delightful, It’s Really All About God is a welcome addition to the literature of interreligious relations.” —Lucinda Mosher, Th.D., executive director, Religions for Peace—USA
 
“Samir Selmanovic delivers a message of vital importance to each of us in our increasingly interdependent world: that we only live the fullness of any of our religious (or nonreligious) traditions when we pay attention—serious, loving, and appreciative attention—to those outside our own faith. As a former Christian, this book filled my heart with genuine optimism that the vision of a human family, inclusive of and rich with all of our many different traditions, is not only necessary but also possible.”—Phil Robinson, Leader, Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF) Mythological RoundTable® group of New York
 
“How can our religions become interdependent, and thus viable and valuable, for the twenty-first century and our children’s children? Samir Selmanovic has devoted his life to this question and It’s Really All About God invites us to join him on the journey.”—Bowie Snodgrass, director, Faith House Manhattan
 
“Anyone tired of the constant tensions between peoples in the world religions will enjoy this book.”—Bruce L. Bauer, Chair, Department of World Mission, Andrews University
 
“This book comes at a critical time, offering help for those of us left wondering how to faithfully bring our traditional religious practice into the pluralistic world of the twenty-first century.”—David Oakley, PhD, founder and chief science officer, WAVi Co.; founder, Addison College Project
 
“The Dalai Lama says that when he was young, he thought Tibetan Buddhism was the only way, but later came to know Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and realized they greatly enriched his life. He and Samir Selmanovic have a lot in common, as detailed in this fine, brave book, which explores, through personal experience, ‘. . . this treasure of difference, and why our first valid response . . . should be gratitude.’ ”—Marcia Kelly, author, Sanctuaries and 100 Graces

001

Dedicated to four Gospels:
 
Roy Naden
 
Rafael Candelaria
 
Rod Colburn
 
and
 
Brian McLaren.
 
You have been saving my life.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Thank you, my mom, Marta; my dad, Sead; and my sister, Bisera, for teaching me how to live and love well. Thank you, Vesna, Ena, and Leta, my dearest. We did it!
 
Thank you, everyone from Citylights, Faith House Manhattan, and other beloved communities that sustain my life.
 
My gratitude to everyone mentioned in this book and all of you who have been throwing logs on my fire, comforting me when bruised, and helping me cope with this difficult and beautiful space of diversity, especially Bill Ashlock, Ryan Bell, Nathan Brown, Norm Buggel, Russell Chin, Lynette Darken, Robert Darken, Jennifer Elwood, Sean Evans, Ted Ewing, Lawrence Geraty, Dragutin Matak, Julius Nam, Jon Paulien, Alvin Poblacion, Rosemary Poblacion, Monte Sahlin, Helme Silvet, Mary Yeager, and Zane Yi.
Thank you, everyone who has gardened this manuscript with me, particularly my mentor and friend, master gardener in his own right, Professor Roy Naden, who has generously poured himself out in every season. Your kindness, patience, and skill kept me whole. My gratitude to my wonderful literary agent, Greg Daniel; to an extraordinary editor and human being, Sheryl Fullerton, a good fairy that every writer dreams of, and the entire team at Jossey-Bass/Wiley. And to those of you who have gifted a part of yourself to both the writer and the writing: Sammer Aboelela, Horace Alexander, Chad Allen, Vince Anderson, Justus Baird, William Bevington, Melvin Bray, Mari Brown, Todd Chobotar, Eleazar Fernandez, Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Fritz Guy, Marcia Kannry, Justin Kim, Paul Knitter, James Mills, Lucinda Mosher, David Oakley, Marcia Prager, Rathi Raja, Phil Robinson, Robin Simmons, and Bowie Snodgrass.
 
I am grateful to those of you whose influence, professional help, friendship, and support sustained me while writing this book: Nurah Amatullah, Christina and Raj Attiken, Jay Bakker, Lauralea Banks, Iowaka Barber, Ken and Diana Bauer, Erich Baumgartner, Jessica Binkley, Paulina and Rajko Biševac, Laura Bothwell, Troy Bronsink, Mary-Ann Broussat, Ruth Broyde Sharone, Elyse Bryant, Toan Bui, Tony Campolo, Osman and Ervin Čengić, Robert Chase, Yo Colburn, Eunice Cordoba, David Crumm, Bonnie Dwyer, Jon Dybdahl, Greg Epstein, Marry Erra, Jackie Evans, Fred and Anabel Facemire, Jim and Janelle Fazio, Duane Fike, Sieghard Frischmann, Lynne Fujimoto, Eric Gang, Jeff Gang, Becky Garrison, Juliet Rabia Gentile, Christine and Tim Gilman, Kim and Shelby Goerlitz, Sheila Gordon, Marc Greenberg, Lisa Sharon Harper, Christina Harris, Steve Hatzman, Peter Heltzel, Sylvia Hordosch, David Ingber, Amanda Jackson, Kurt and Michelle Johns, Greg and Darla Johnson, Ryan Jones, Tony Jones, Kevin and Michelle Kaiser, Daisy Khan, Michael Knecht, Julijana and Milorad Kojić, Cheryl Lake, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Ronald Lawson, Samuel Leonor, Dragutin Lipohar, Greg Loewen, Sam and Sarah McCash, John Khabir McGeehan, Mitch McKee, Jill Minkoff, Josip Moćnik, Ector and Audrey Mojica, Titus Müller, David Oceguera, Andy Padre, Doug Pagitt, Eboo Patel, Victor and Denorah Pechaty, Dunja Pechstein, Stephen Phelps, Jan Podsednik, Luiza Purice, Nancy Raquet, Heather Reifsnyder, Paul Richardson, Tony Romeo, Or Rose, Desire Santos-Kho, Maria Sargent-Wayne, Frieder Schmid, Greg and Mary Schramer, Lorie Suntree, Larry Thomas, Miroslav Volf, Jerald Whitehouse, Darlene Zaft, and Jennifer Zosa. May your kindness keep on watering the world.
 
This book belongs to you my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and a multitude of other people that my life depends on. I don’t know where my words stop and yours begin.
 
Samir Selmanovic

INTRODUCTION
002
The credits of the movie An Inconvenient Truth were still rolling when my wife, Vesna, and I sprang up from our sofa to tidy our apartment and move on with our lives. But our daughters, Leta (eleven) and Ena (thirteen) went silently to their room, so I followed to tuck them into bed.
 
“What is it?” I asked them as they looked up at me from their pillows.
 
“What have you done?” Leta said, without a trace of a smile.
 
I just stood there.
 
We just stood there. You and I.
 
Our children are looking at us, holding their breath in silence. Their unspoken accusations and mute hopes are not only about the physical environment of the world we are leaving for them; they are also about the spiritual environment they are inheriting.
 
I have been in the “religion business” for twenty years now, and this book is my way to enter this silence, grieve, ask for forgiveness, and look for signs of new life. Our religions—by which I mean any systems of meaning—are the caretakers of the spiritual environment of the world. What have we done?
 
We have come to the place where millions of people say, “Religion? No thanks. I’d rather be spiritual than religious.” But our departure from religion is at the very same time a departure from its rich treasures of community, insight, art, practice, organized action, and hard lessons. Without religion, we find ourselves isolated, incoherent, and naïve on our spiritual journeys.
 
As Phyllis Tickle, author of The Divine Hours and The Great Emergence, observed in an e-mail, “All faiths are alike in their wisdom, more or less. It’s in our mysteries where we differ.” An honest conversation about our religions is, therefore, an intimate endeavor. Only when we believe that the other is not there to hurt us—though the other may struggle to understand us—can we begin to share not only the light but also the shadows of our religion. To step into such conversations, we have to be ready to embrace the holy awkwardness that surrounds our God talk.
 
Life is so wide and so deep that our religions are barely adequate to help us take it in. It’s Really All About God is another way to say It’s Really Not All About Religion. This book is an attempt to step above, under, or sideways from our religions and look at them not merely as their adherents but as human beings. I wrote this book because I believe that love for our religion is meant to be as dynamic as any love relationship. There must be a distance and not only an embrace—a tension. It’s Really All About God is an invitation to acknowledge that distance and find a safe, honest, and hopeful relational place where wholesome love for our religions can thrive.
 
Religion, held properly, can change, and that gives me hope as we face our children. Religions are living things, and our children and our children’s children need to see us treating religions as such.
 
Some of my Muslim, atheist, Jewish, and Christian friends understand the subtitle of this book—Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian—as describing a person who embraces four religious traditions at once. I am not sure such a person exists. But the concept makes sense to them nevertheless. “Hyphenated belonging” is becoming a reality for many people who have found truth, beauty, and justice—in other words, life—in more than one Scripture, tradition, or practice. In their experience, being asked to make up their mind and renounce one religion in order to embrace another would be akin to being forced to choose one parent and deny the other or to rely on one sense at the expense of the others. The way religions contradict or collide with one another is not nearly as important to them as the way they complement and illuminate one another.
 
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that the mystery that upholds my life is informed by Christian texts, history, and community. The cradle of my religious faith is Protestantism of a rather evangelical sort. For me, the subtitle of this book is a string of adjectives modifying the noun Christian. I embrace all the honor and shame that come with this identity. Yet I am not merely Christian. There is no such thing. None of us is a clone produced by our religion, not even people who try very hard to be one.
 
The other—individuals or groups that are not like us—is always there, affecting us, hurting us, blessing us, changing us. And because of this, we are all irrevocably unique. I would not have become or stayed Christian without the blessings of Islam, atheism, and Judaism. My hope is that Muslims, atheists, Jews, and Christians who read this book will hear one more voice affirming how indispensable our differing treasures are—and not just for ourselves, but for others, too. To maintain the breath of life in something as complex and beautiful as human experience, our mysteries need one another.
 
This book is mostly about four systems of meaning—the three Abrahamic faiths and atheism. As much as I had wanted to expand the pegs of the tent of this book, I soon realized that I cannot do everything at once. I am neither qualified nor capable. I do expect, though, that the treasures of other religions will reveal themselves between the lines in every chapter of this book and bless us more and more as our conversation deepens and expands.
 
This is not a book about Christian pluralism, so for those of you who are interested in my views on this matter, I direct you to a splendid article written by a friend who is one of my mentors, Professor Paul Knitter, “My God Is Bigger than Your God,”1 as well as chapters I have contributed to two other books.2
 
Many questions raised in this book have been asked before. But questions that matter sooner or later reappear among us in new forms and with increased stakes. To address them, I do not offer a systematic interdisciplinary research work. Many fine books of that sort have already been written. Instead, I offer my personal stories and reflections, adding one voice to many others reporting from their life experience, the ultimate lab of all research.
 
Our Scriptures have spoken to us, and our lives ought to speak back. That’s how we love our religions, challenge them, care for them, transform them, and help them deliver their promises to the world.
 
Our children are gazing at us, hoping in us. Theirs is the gaze of God.
 
 
To enhance your reading experience and help include more voices in our conversation, I suggest the following:
1. Organize a book discussion group using the Reader’s Guide in the back of the book.
2. Visit the Web site http://www.itsreallyallaboutgod.com for additional information, podcasts, ideas, events, and links to social networking sites.
3. Write an It’s Really All About God book review for Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Borders.com, or a blog. Your experiences and candid comments will help others.
4. Suggest It’s Really All About God to a friend, colleague, book club, blogger, religious community, civic group, college class, or any group interested in diversity, cooperation, religion, spirituality, secular space, or interfaith issues. Together organize an event in your community. Serve together. Celebrate the gift of life together.

PROLOGUE
LIFE WINS
003
On a cold Saturday morning in December 2001, Soo Lee waited for her already-late friend on a busy street corner in Manhattan. She discovered she was standing in front of the doors of an old limestone church off Park Avenue where I was the pastor. Its large red doors were symbols of the large hands of God embracing everyone who ventured inside. That’s what God was all about, I thought—inviting people in.
That’s what God was all about, I thought—inviting people in.
For Soo and most of her friends, church was a treacherous place. But the cold was biting, and the doors were unlocked. It was Christmas, and I had titled my sermon “The Magic of Christianity.” Soo was a lively and tender young Korean woman who followed the spiritual path of White Magic and the Wicca religion, and the words “magic” and “Christianity” together drew her from the foyer into the sanctuary. She sat and listened to a story about a stable in Bethlehem, a magical moment in human history when, as Christians believe, the physical world as it appears to us humans and the spiritual world of God’s Kingdom—the world as it really is—interpenetrated and became one.
 
Soo, as I later learned, is a person of uncommon stamina, a single mom, an urbanite who had learned to handle the grind of New York City with the smile of a marathon runner who has found a groove in the midst of pain. My wife and I loved spending time with her. We liked the way she thoughtfully constructed her sentences. We liked the way she paid attention to what we didn’t say as much as to what we said. And we liked the way she treated everyone and everything around her. With compassion. Over the next several months, Soo and her little son, Tristan, became family friends. Soon we were caring for her boy and she was caring for our little daughters.
 
Some months after we met Soo, my church hosted the annual gathering of a national network I belonged to that consisted of mostly professional clergy and church leaders. The main service was going to include a closing segment we titled “Testimonies of Failure,” with six leaders who would tell us how they had failed in their religious work. It was not to be “how God turned things around for me” or “how my failure has actually been a blessing.” There would be no explanations, no justifications—just standing up, sharing the misery, and sitting down. I had a month to find someone who could address these hurting people with some healing words.
 
I thought of people who had cared for and encouraged me, and Soo immediately came to mind. But the thought seemed preposterous. Soo? How could I ask a witch to pray over a group of pastors? She could neither defend nor advocate for our religion—she was an outsider. But the experience of being a part of Soo’s life had opened a crack in the wall that separates “us” (those on the inside) from “them” (those on the outside). Then a thought broke through, a possibility that I found both burdensome and exhilarating. What if God is on the outside too? Does God have to be absent out there in order to be present in here?
 
The thought of inviting Soo into the inner sanctum of our Christian experience ripened like wine, intoxicating my orthodox faith. Everything I had been taught told me that God, in God’s infinite wisdom and love, has chosen to dwell in our religion. It was a kind of certainty one can stake one’s life on. But then everything I had experienced with Soo—and, as I began recalling, others like her over the years—told me that God dwells in the lives of people. All people. Drunk with these thoughts, I hesitated. Which should win? Religion? Or life? Should I use life to prop up my religion? Or should I use my religion to honor life?
 
“Okay, I’ll do it,” Soo said with a smile when I asked her. Then she added, “But only if I can pray to God as Mother.”
 
“Soo,” I said, and paused, taking time to swallow a momentary feeling of regret for approaching her at all, “some of these religious leaders are worn out and beaten down, and on that day, our goal is not to expand their theology but to comfort them.”
 
“I understand, Pastor Samir. That’s all right. For now. Let’s leave the discussion about the Christian obsession with phallic power for some other time,” she said with a gracious smile. “Is it okay if I pray to God as Holy Spirit?”
 
“Wonderful,” I said, relieved.
 
On the day of the gathering, after the six “losers” had shared their stories, the congregation was quiet, stunned by tales of the stark reality behind much of religious work and community organizing. Most of us religious people who go to our places of worship to receive religious goods and services assume that our faith is triumphantly marching forward on all fronts. Nobody wants to be a part of a losing battle. So talking about failures devoid of happy endings created an unbearably empty space in our hearts.
 
The sacred Scriptures say that in emptiness, God creates.
 
Then it was Soo’s turn to pray. After introducing her to the crowd, I stepped aside, regretting my choice again, my jaws tightening, my palms sweating. How did I get myself into a situation of bringing a witch to bless a conservative Christian crowd? Did I want to lose my job?
 
Or was I heeding the call of Jesus—losing my life in order to find it?
 
With the steady voice of a person who has no doubts that our ordinary lives are saturated with the Presence, she said, “Dear Holy Spirit, I am not a Christian. But I and my son are cared for in this church. These people who follow you work very hard to make a difference in the world and love people like us. Now they are tired, disoriented, discouraged. Please, make them see how important their work really is. What would our world be without people like them? Help them continue caring so that people like me might find a better way.”
 
There are religious experiences that have the power to restart our hearts, when fresh faith in God, humanity, and world is uploaded into our soul systems. This was one of those moments. A hush fell over the crowd, and Soo’s words lingered in the air like a sweet heathen scent. While some sat there paralyzed by the offense of her presence at the church pulpit, many of us basked in her compassion for us. We were hoping that if we just stayed quiet, there would be more words from her, interceding to our God on our behalf.
 
Life won.
 
After the crowd dispersed, I sat on a pew in the empty sanctuary to jot down these words in my notebook: “We are scared of finding our God in the other. Why do we fear something so wonderful?”

UNBEARABLE CERTAINTY

At different times in my life, I have belonged to Muslim, atheist, and Christian camps. In every one, I was rather certain. I believed that we—whichever “we” I was a part of—were right. And for us to be right, I thought, others had to be wrong. There were insiders and there were outsiders, and I found comfort in being on the inside.
 
Even now, in my early forties, I know I cannot survive without some kind of certainty. To live, I need some stable ground to live on, a soil from which I can sustain my life, a place where I can pitch my tent, a landing where I can make friends.
 
In the past several years, however, I have been questioning the certainty of my religious insider-outsider worldview. Such certainty had a tendency to divide my world and isolate me from the “outsiders,” who, as some of my co-religionists and I believed, could not teach me, bless me, or correct me in the matters of God.
 
Now I am looking for a better way to stand on the ground of my beloved religion, to hold the treasures of my faith differently. Now I am looking for a better kind of certainty.
 
To create new empty space within, I decided to let some uncertainty enter my life, and I wish I could say the experience has been wonderful. It hasn’t. It feels like stepping on a makeshift bridge, suspended, with firm ground left behind and no assurances of what I might find beyond the thick fog in the front. Questioning my own certainties has been a lonely, painful experience.
 
Uncertainty hurts.
 
Yet it is uncertainty that has been saving my life. Doubt would carry me. When I allowed more questions to serve as vessels of my faith, life could win. And expand. I could grow deeper, where fresh, strong new currents of faith could be found.
The thirteenth-century Sufi poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, a great scholar of ancient Scriptures, theology, and law, confesses:
Those who don’t feel this Love
pulling them like a river,
those who don’t drink dawn
like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper,
those who don’t want to change,
 
let them sleep.
 
This Love is beyond the study of theology,
that old trickery and hypocrisy.
If you want to improve your mind that way,
 
sleep on.
 
I’ve given up on my brain.
I’ve torn the cloth to shreds
and thrown it away.
 
If you’re not completely naked,
wrap your beautiful robe of words
around you,
 
and sleep.1
Rumi doubts words, especially words about God, and trusts the experience of living instead. Not because words are a lie, but because in comparison with life itself, words that seek to explain life are sleeping pills. Our experience of living cannot be contained in mere language. Our formulations are shallow. Life spills over.
If you are drawn to stay on the solid ground beneath your feet, it might be best to follow that impulse and get rid of this book.
If you resonate even fleetingly with Rumi’s ecstasy of losing confidence in words that attempt to define or deny God, read on, and let’s take this difficult journey together.
On the other hand, if you are drawn to stay on the solid ground beneath your feet, it might be best to follow that impulse and get rid of this book. The blessing of firm ground is hard won and, I now know, can easily be underestimated.
 
For me, the certainty of my own isolating belief system became unbearable. For a long time, I tried to deny it. I kept telling myself I had to stay faithful to what I believed. But eventually I had to be honest about what was happening to me and decided to face my fears of uncertainty.

A GOD WORTH WORSHIPING

I made it a personal discipline to take trips outside the boundaries of Christianity. I did it, first, to find out whether my God is on the outside of my religion, woven into all of life, and second, to look at my religion from the outside in and experience the way my religion, like any other, excludes others. In the process, I have adopted a simple question that helps me navigate the journey: Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?
 
It is here, staring into this obvious question, that traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam often become paralyzed. Throughout history, we have been struggling with this. Today, however, the other is rapidly moving into our political, economic, physical, conceptual, familial, and emotional neighborhoods. We have never been connected like this before.
 
And like never before, the presence of the other in all of its beauty, fragility, dignity, and need is demanding our answers. If God created all humanity but gave life-giving knowledge—usually referred to as “revelation”—to only some of humanity, could God in any meaningful sense be thought of as the One God and not only as a god?
To say that God has decided to visit all humanity through only one particular religion is a deeply unsatisfying assertion about God.
Wouldn’t such a god be historically or geographically local and therefore either disinterested, powerless, or in some other way incapable of giving lifesaving knowledge to all humanity? To say that God has decided to visit all humanity through only one particular religion is a deeply unsatisfying assertion about God.2 Once I made this opening in my heart, difficult questions began bursting out with startling force.
I began to reason that either every human being has a genuine opportunity to know One God, or God cannot in any meaningful sense be the God of all humanity. In other words, if knowing God is a way to life, and if God has divided the world by revelation, then the destiny of those who don’t have access to a life-giving revelation of God would serve no other purpose than being a “control group” in a cosmic experiment, a vast human sacrifice.
In even more stark terms, Yahweh, Abba (meaning “Daddy,” a name for God that Jesus affectionately used), or Allah would not differ from Moloch, an ancient god of destruction reported in the Bible that required human sacrifice for his glory.
 
Most, or at least some, people would be created by God for one purpose—to die. Would such a God be worth worshiping?
Faith is an exercise in having high expectations of God.
I asked myself, “Do we have the right to ask these questions about God? Can we question God’s motives, wisdom, and ability?” and came to a conclusion that we have not only the right but an obligation. Faith is an exercise in having high expectations of God. Why wouldn’t we ask? Our sacred Scriptures urge us to insist that God is light in which there are no shadows. Rather than offending the name and character of God, such high expectations actually honor God. It is the way we distinguish God from nongods, the way we worship God.
 
At times, we tell ourselves, “God is a mystery, and we cannot know God’s ways. So the questions that try to explain God and God’s ways are beyond our ability to understand. We are not God, and we have to accept that we cannot know.” I get that. I get that we can’t get it. It’s true, we cannot know God as God is. We are mere human beings. But these questions about God did not seem pointless to me. To say “God is a mystery” is too often used as a self-serving conversation stopper, effectively avoiding the task of addressing questions we don’t yet know how to answer. We can keep our images of God safely unchallenged and protected from conclusions that might force us to concede the presence of God in people with whom we disagree. These questions, if entertained, might demand that we change our theologies, liturgies, and practices. The bondage of certainty can supplant the freedom of faith and make it impossible for us to say, “We don’t know,” “We apologize,” “We want to change,” and “What can we do to make things right?”
 
If we choose to interpret our sacred texts and cherished traditions in a way that fosters an image of God who withholds God-self from people outside our religion, would not such a choice make God not only less than divine but also less than human? Shouldn’t God at least match our human capacity for justice and compassion? These questions haunted me all the way into a confession of my doubt. Either everyone has a real opportunity to find God, and therefore life, or God is not worth worshiping. A view of God who mysteriously withholds God-self from everyone fails the moral sensibilities of the general public and should fail the moral sensibilities of ardent believers. For God to create human beings to die in order to show the consequences of life outside Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is incompatible with the core teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To think of God as favoring any human group would be simply un-Jewish, un-Christian, un-Muslim. A god would take a place of One God. If God is not on the outside of our religions, whatever is inside is meaningless.3
 
Without God on the outside, the inside crumbles.

OUR OPPORTUNITY

I am not saying that it is possible or desirable to reconcile the religions of all humanity into one universal set of principles. Such an amalgamation would lead to the trivialization, dissipation, and ultimate loss of the treasures of religion and culture. The desire for common good and spiritual unity of all humanity often creates a mandate to impose these “obvious” universals on everyone. We all differ through our particular stories and ways of being. That we are all particular is what’s universal about us. We have this treasure of difference, and our first valid response to this state of affairs should be gratitude.
 
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