Noreen and I first met in the historic city of Durham as we both embarked on our Theology Master’s degrees. While in the first part of our conversation, Noreen shared her background in Islam and her exposure to a variety of faith communities, she now describes her experience of attending church alongside me, despite not sharing the faith of the congregation.
Noreen has since taken on the challenge of studying medicine in California, and she leaves us with the lessons that the medical community may have to learn from the Church.
When we met, at what point did you find out that I was a Christian?
The way I always heard about your faith was in terms of your youth group and community engagement. It was never, ‘I’m a Christian and I do this,’ it was always like, ‘My best friends, we went to youth group together.’ I think a lot of people you grew up with, you went to church together, and so in telling me about your life-long friends, I learned about your faith. And then we were both in the religious studies department, so you wonder what brought you here. So it came up because of its association with your academic interests and your community, your friend group.
When that became clearer, was there anything that you thought you should be careful about saying or doing, or topics to avoid when we were around each other?
I wouldn’t say there was any filtering that I had to do in front of you specifically. It was actually a lot to do with the fact that I was part of a cohort of people in a religious studies department comprised of a lot of Christian students. As a person who comes to the study of religion with respect for faith and faith traditions, but a very academic interest in analyzing texts and participating in critical reading, I always felt the need to not be very explicit in things that I’m critical of, but speak in more of a mild way to invite discussion. I don’t want people to filter themselves in turn because I’m not filtering myself. That was just my general modus operandi in Durham because of the people that I found myself around; I don’t think that I felt that way at all in front of you in particular.
Are there any particular instances in the academic setting where you felt you should invite discussion without being too contentious?
Female reproductive rights came up a lot in different conversations I had with different people, and that’s always a very controversial topic. When I was there, the Me Too movement was still happening more publicly, and a lot of women in my age group were talking about their experiences, and there were some people’s perspectives that I felt frankly were harmful and under critical of patriarchal norms that have been widely normalized and accepted by our society. Women in particular, and I feel like that is really painful to see. I really had to restrain my instinct to be like: that isn’t okay to say.
These ideas are very problematic for many reasons, but knowing that this is a matter of faith and morality to a lot of people, I can’t just come out and criticize that directly, that won’t get me anywhere. A lot of discussions of faith have to be done with the recognition that this is somebody’s truth, no matter how you feel about that, and you can’t just expect someone to discard this truth after one conversation. That being said, it is really difficult to have long-lasting discussions with people when you’re both trying to change each other’s minds. It’s rewarding in some ways, because it helps you argue your points better, but in Durham there were moments where I felt like there were people just looking for information that validated their current beliefs, and I can’t do anything about that.
A lot of discussions of faith have to be done with the recognition that this is somebody’s truth, no matter how you feel about that, and you can’t just expect someone to discard this truth after one conversation.
The next step becomes, how much do you engage with these kinds of people? I don’t want to be quiet and complacent when I think ideas that people are espousing and actively promoting are harmful to others. But at the same time, I don’t think you gain much by just cutting people off, because maybe you’re the only person that’s sharing with them another point of view, and you don’t want them to lose that. So Durham was a really complicated environment for me to navigate, because I had friends that were really liberal, and I think progressive in the best ways, very socially-minded, but then other people who were living very insular lives and maybe hadn’t been exposed to or didn’t understand the strife of others.
Were there ever any situations when you were more vocal than you would normally have been?
There were two instances where I did my best to articulate myself and pose a point that I think was really interesting, related to a text we were reading and a critical analysis we were doing, and people just shut me down: ‘But the Bible says this, so that’s a moot point.’ I was like, wow. I’m here in this space thinking that assumptions are open for us to challenge, but my classmates are not engaging with that same kind of approach. There are assumptions that they’re working with, and their arguments are built on those assumptions. You can’t really have a debate when those are two competing approaches.
For some time we both attended services together at the same church, how did you first come across it?
I love history! You walk by the church and your immediate question is: what is this beautiful building? Walking in was like, wow, this is wonderful. And I get to see it every day, even better. This is from a Californian who thinks a hundred years old is really old! In Europe, half of the gorgeous buildings are churches, so you pretty much already assume that this is a place of worship, but it’s still so beautiful to see each one. So really just that interest of wanting to go in drew me there. And then when I realized that I had close friends that were attendees, I was thinking that I would very much like to go with them.
I think you’re the reason that I really went more consistently, because you told me that you were part of worship, and I wanted to go to see my friend. In high school, I went with my friend to her Bible studies group at seven in the morning before school, so going into my friends’ spaces of worship wasn’t a new thing for me. It felt like a gesture of showing how much I care for you, how much I’m interested in you, that I’m not deterred by any of this at all. Not that it’s something that would deter me, but I know we usually draw a circle around faith and don’t engage with it if we don’t connect with the person on that front. But that engagement to me is a sign of the interest that I take in you, my love for you, and the fact that I think you have something to teach me.
If I make this effort of goodwill, perhaps you and I – and this ‘you’ is pretty general – can engage in really meaningful discussions in the future, because I’ve proven to you that I am coming to this conversation with nothing but openness. And you’re a musician, this is something you’re doing on your time. Knowing that you have a friend here that supports you; I want you to feel that. That’s what took me there physically the second time, after the gushing over the history part.
When you arrived and were going along more regularly, what impression did it make on you through things such as the teaching and the songs and the worship and the prayers?
I had the great fortune in that at this time I was taking a class called ‘Social-Scientific Methods in the Study of Religion’. When you are going into different faith spaces, in terms of pedagogy and scholarly engagement, you enter that space on the space’s terms. I’m entering this faith community’s space of worship as an outsider, but I don’t necessarily have to behave as an outsider. When I went in, I was like: I’m going to pretend I belong here and there is nothing out of the ordinary about me being here. And so thank goodness there was a projector with the words so that I could read the Apostle’s Creed with everybody! And when there was worship I would sing along.
There are two levels of consciousness with which you engage. One is that, maybe I don’t really agree with the lyrics, and this is totally foreign to me, but if you boil it down, this is music, and we connect through music and melody. I’m a human just the same as everyone here, and I can still engage with this in a way that I enjoy so that I leave feeling happy and refreshed, knowing a little bit more about what people mean when they say they go to church and they worship.
Coming from a different faith tradition, particularly in Islam, we would never have music as part of worship, so that was a totally different experience for me, and it was fun. I see why it’s done. I still think it’s meditative in focusing on the lyrics, because I really had to try to not sound like I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had to learn the melody fast so I’m not singing in E when everybody is in C! People in church are musicians; that’s how they worship, and it’s a great intersection in that way. But because I had to focus intently on being a part of that space, I would forget about everything, about the stress of school and what I needed to do when I went home that evening. I appreciated the positive impact going with you had on my life.
I didn’t think at the end of the day it mattered that I wasn’t a Christian in that space. People were so welcoming. I think what the church does well is create a space of community, especially for newcomers, and – if we’re getting a little more critical – for people who conform to that community, it’s a great space. In the limited capacity that I was there, when people didn’t know too much about me, it was really easy to blend in and feel like: this sense of community is really cool.The church does such a good job at establishing it.
You say, ‘for people who conform,’ and you talk of making an effort to fit in and not give away too much about yourself; was another side of that the fear that if you did, you would be welcomed any less?
I got to blend in because I was quiet and I followed you around. You were my ambassador in that space where I was like: okay, I go to Logan, and Logan tells me where to go, and he’s my automatic in into different groups, but knowing that if I had tried to speak about anything I might not be able to get very far. In one instance, we would break off into pairs and you would each say a prayer to one another. I was thinking, I don’t know how to say a prayer in this setting, because the prayers I’m used to saying have some Arabic in them and they’re rooted in a different theology, so to give a prayer that aligns more with what you hear in church was a serious performance for me.
Not to say that I was being insincere, but I had to adopt the language that I was hearing people use in this space to make myself feel a bit more authentic engaging with Jesus Christ in a prayer, whereas I wouldn’t do that in a Mosque. That was a really interesting place where I didn’t want to give myself away, and I didn’t want to not do that well, because someone here is praying very honestly with me, and I want to give them that same honesty back.
Being this critical observer of faith, I’m always thinking: this is really great, but only if you’re lucky enough to easily fit in.
Going back to your point of conformity, I definitely was asking: how do I play this role? But then also thinking about other lived experiences, and the strife people have if they’re a person of colour in a very homogenous space, or if you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community in a religious space. When I think about how good that community felt at times, and the integration that’s possible, I don’t forget that church communities and other religious communities at the same time can deny people that same sense of community. Knowing how good it feels, then later being denied it because of your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your heritage, or your background for any reason, that’s really painful. And it happens.
Being this critical observer and consumer of faith – if you will grant me that in this neo-liberal age – I’m always thinking: this is really great, but only if you’re lucky enough to easily fit in. If you disagree intellectually, it might be harder. That’s why I think people have such an identity crisis when they’re sitting in a faith space seeing people believe this idea as a collective, or feel like they need to live out a behaviour that they can’t, and they think, ‘Oh my gosh, something’s wrong with me, I’m bad, I’m in the minority in this community that I really want to be a part of.’
This is all going on in my head while we’re in church. But again, I can’t emphasize that it doesn’t diminish the experience; I still really enjoyed it. As someone in the religious studies department, I felt like it supplemented my education so much, because I learned more from going to church and seeing people live out their faith than I did in my religious studies seminar.
As someone who has grown up into a theistic belief that there is a God, has been exposed to different religious communities, and has also been within a Christian community, what keeps you from identifying with Christianity? Is it simply a matter of: I don’t believe it’s true? Or are there things in particular that would hold you back?
That’s a huge question, and I would preface it by saying that I don’t think there’s anything inherent to any religion that has made me not choose to join that faith community. But I also haven’t had any experience with religion or faith that makes me committed in the sense of: this is the best path for me; I feel this cognitive resonance and this feels true in every regard. I haven’t felt that with any kind of religious engagement I’ve had as an adult. That doesn’t change the fact that I respect religion and I’ve made myself a student of understanding faith; it’s our business to understand our fellow humans and what makes them tick, and how they explain their life experience.
You’re currently studying medicine, and you’ve spoken before about how there is a lot that medicine can learn from the Christian community. What do you think it is that the medical community needs to learn, and how is it that the Christian community might be able to inform their practice?
The first thing that medicine could do with is to remember that medicine and religion were intertwined inextricably from early human history; the same people who were your spiritual providers were your medical providers. It was really in the enlightenment that those domains separated and spiritual issues were addressed by religious leaders and religious institutions, while physical health was a matter of science and the domain of man. That divergence really did unwind our understanding of the importance of spiritual, emotional and mental health to physical health, and just overall wellbeing.
A very important thing is just being cognisant of the role of faith and spirituality in people’s lives, in that it has a huge bearing on their mental health, and interestingly for some, on their physical health as well. When we think about caring for a whole person, and a whole person’s wellbeing, it isn’t just about their physical ailment and focusing on the parts. When modern scholars say that we need to treat the whole person, they’re recognizing that there is this unnatural separation of physical and mental and emotional health after the enlightenment, and that’s how we came to get modern medicine that focused on becoming a scientifically competent enterprise, and then in the United States in particular, a business enterprise, which makes it all that much more complicated.
All of this lays the foundation for what Stanley Hauerwas says in his 1986 essay; so this is dated, but still super relevant. The essay is called, ‘Salvation and Health: Why Medicine Needs the Church.’ He says that it needs the Church, or something like the Church. His point is that in the same way that the Church is a community trained in being present in the face of people’s pain and suffering, medicine is very much a profession that’s focus is on being present for people in similar times. But when physicians only spend thirteen to twenty-four minutes with a patient, they don’t really get to know their patient, connect with them, and be present. Presence requires time, and thirteen minutes on average is not enough; you need a community that can provide that long-term sustainable care, that presence, and his argument is that the Church gives a really good model for that.
Everybody has unique talents and something to offer the world, and I want to make sure they have the health and wellbeing that allows them to do that.
Undoubtedly Hauerwas’ argument is based in a very distinct Christian theology, so the theological component of it can’t be debated; it is theological. How can medicine benefit from that? The idea is, thinking about medicine on a community level, how do we create support groups? How do we provide resources for patients? Especially those who are chronically ill and isolated from society because of their illness? When someone is chronically ill, we hold them at arm’s length; we don’t want to hear about their pain and their suffering beyond a certain extent, it’s exhausting. I don’t personally feel that way, but that’s the sad truth of it.
Medicine and the Church, in Hauerwas’ perspective, are the two institutions that really do become essential to that mitigation of isolation. Hauerwas makes this argument that healing as a communal concern will decrease the likelihood of this isolation that chronically ill people feel, and therefore decrease the strain on mental health, creating these networks of support. You can have support groups, community-based health efforts that allow care to be sustainable when patients leave the doctor’s office.
I know that studying medicine is not an easy thing to do by any stretch of the imagination! What drive you through that? What is your goal, and what is it that keeps you going even when things aren’t easy?
I really believe that Michel Foucault’s phrase, knowledge is power, is true. When you think about caring for someone’s ailments, knowledge is power. You have a very, very significant and intimate role, in that someone comes to you and says, ‘I’m feeling this pain,’ and you examine their body.There’s the expectation that if you need to undress for the doctor, you undress, no questions asked. You come in and full intimacy and honesty is expected in this relationship. That’s a very private space, and I think we need professionals who are cognisant of that, and who enact their empathy in compassionate ways to provide care that allows people to feel safe in those most intimate moments.
In a very practical way, I don’t think we could be ourselves without our health; we couldn’t do things, we couldn’t go places. When you’re in pain it suppresses your personality. You’re not yourself, and that leads to a sense of isolation, because people remove themselves from you. In order for people to carry on being themselves, I need to care for them. I want to support them, be there for them, promote and maintain their health, so they can go on being Logan, they can go on being X, Y, Z, and bringing their gifts to the world. Everybody has unique talents and something to offer the world, and I want to make sure they have the health and wellbeing that allows them to do that.
On a very somber note, we live in the twenty-first century, where in developed countries we have solved a lot of preventable diseases, but we haven’t shared resources profitably or equitably, and we need health advocates to say: no more. It doesn’t matter the economic status of your country, you deserve to not die of diphtheria, or dysentery, or malnutrition. We can prevent that, and the fact that we don’t is really a shame. We have to make our care for other people our business. Just as much as we should observe and understand one another, we have to care for one another. To me that’s all connected.