About a year ago, I participated in an informal discussion group on religious harmony. Is it possible to achieve? What would it look like? What are commonalities between cultures and religions that might lend themselves to a foundation for harmony?

Abrahamic ReligionsThere were a few interesting developments in the class. The first was that the group tended to center around the Abrahamic faiths. The second was that the group tended to center around how harmony could be achieved between the major Abrahamic faiths often at the expense of other groups — especially of atheists and agnostics. The third, a personal development, was that I realized how little I know about Islam.

I still know very little about Islam, so maybe some of the things I took away from the discussions were really shallow and off-the-mark. But things that intrigued me were what I learned about the disbeliever in Islam…the kafir.

Interestingly, both things that amused me about the idea of the “kafir” related to the second interesting development in the class. Apparently, Islam really isn’t too hot on polytheism — polytheists are lumped in the disbeliever/unbeliever kafir category too. (And so our discussion sometimes tended to discussing whether or not various polytheist religious could be reconciled with monotheism somehow). But the other thing that amused me was kafir for atheists and agnostics.

Wikipedia has an entry for the kafir, if you aren’t aware of the concept. Interestingly, the type of disbelief that intrigued me most — and that still intrigues me — has the shortest section: disbelief out of denial:

Kufrul-Inkaar: Disbelief out of denial. This applies to someone who denies with both heart and tongue. The Qur’an states: “They recognize the favor of Allah, yet they deny it, and most of them are ungrateful.”[Soorah Nahl (16), Ayah 83]

The emphasis on a lack of gratitude struck me. One quote from the Quran, Surah 14, verses 32-34 (sorry if this is not a good translation):

Allah is He Who created the heavens and the earth and sent down water from the clouds, then brought forth with it fruits as a sustenance for you, and He has made the ships subservient to you, that they might run their course in the sea by His command, and He has made the rivers subservient to you. And He has made subservient to you the sun and the moon pursuing their courses, and He has made subservient to you the night and the day. And He gives you of all that you ask Him; and if you count Allah’s favors, you will not be able to number them; most surely man is very unjust, very ungrateful.

King Benjamin Speaks, MosiahNow, of course, from these verses, you might recall of other scriptures in our own religious tradition that speak to the same idea. For example, in Mosiah 2:21-26, King Benjamin speaks that

…if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

23And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.

24And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately blessyou; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?

One of the references to that citation of “unprofitable” is Luke 17: 7-10, of which the point of note is:

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

Of note is the idea that we never pay back the debt. Even when we do what we are commanded, it’s not “profit” but our “duty.” But secondly, because our offerings and our obedience are immediately followed up with blessings, we never reach even ground.

I guess the problem for me — as a nonbeliever — is an attribution problem. Islam and Mormonism in some way, shape, or fashion, argue that “all things denote that there is a God,” and so we all — unless we hide or ignore the apparent reality and truth — will naturally acknowledge that God deserves our gratitude.

But this just isn’t the way every person feels. If I don’t perceive God in any way, shape, or fashion, it’s difficult to find him to be the source of much of anything. Supposing that nonbelief is a spiritual “blindness,” my question would be: do blind people “hide” or “ignore” sight? Is it useful or accurate to speak of it as if the blind person had any culpability?

So, for a long tong, I just couldn’t even grasp the concept. It was a disconnect where I just couldn’t understand religion. I’ve had quite a few of these disconnects.

…and so, I’ve tried not to think much about religion in the past few years, except on blogs like Wheat & Tares…

This entire semester, I’ve been busy with fencing. As the treasurer of my school’s fencing club, I don’t want to brag, but I’m one of the most treasured people — if I don’t do my job, the club comes crashing to a halt (because money’s a big deal for a fencing club.)

As we have gone to tournaments and hosted tournaments, and especially as I have taken a class this semester on project management, I’ve noticed more than I ever have the amount of work required to host a good tournament and all of the places a tournament can crash and burn. I’ve come to the realization that we students being able to host a fencing tournament — while juggling full course-loads — is probably the most impressive accomplishment we fencing club officers will have with respect to our university lives.

Fencing Tournament
This isn't one of our tournaments -- we don't even have nice grounded strips! Photograph courtesy of En Garde! Detroit

…But our club couldn’t work with just us officers. Even recognizing that without us, we would surely fail, it’s not true that with us, we will surely succeed. One thing the club needs even more is the support of parents.

Fencing Time
The main page of the tournament management software, Fencing Time

When we were hosting a tournament last semester, we discovered early on that we did not have a bout committee. If you don’t know fencing, I will say this: bout committee is pretty important. The bout committee runs the show: he or she (or preferably they) centralize all the information…the sheer data…that must travel around the tournament. Who fences where and when? What directors direct where and when? Who has won when and where, and who should they fence next? Are there any complaints that need to be processed? Any appeals?

And for a last-minute tournament, we discovered we didn’t have our normal person. So we needed someone who could quickly learn the software and learn it well enough to make the tournament go without problems.

Who stepped up to that plate? One of our fencers’ mom.

Wow, yeah.

Other parents have let our entire team stay at their home before a tournament, have cooked the entire team dinner the night before, breakfast the day of, and bought lunch and snacks and water at the tournament. We have parents who are willing to make our team shirts, to buy socks with our school colors on them, to embroider names on our fencing equipment.

And one day, I thought:

my parents have never even seen me fence.

It’s true. Except for in pictures or in very recent videos I’ve taken, they have never seen me fence.

This didn’t bother me that much, because I thought: well, my parents are busy people. My tournaments are 5+ hours away, and it would be an ordeal. So I never thought to ask.

What bothered me was a week or so ago, my father went to an event my brother was a part of for Circle K International. He spoke of wanting to get more involved. The event was only about 3 hours away for him, but I was jealous.

So, I wrote on Facebook a little bit of what I have written to you. These parents do x, y, and z for the club, but my parents have never even seen me fence.

My father wrote in response:

“If you were trying to hurt me, you did.”

I died inside.

At the moment of my original comment, I never anticipated anyone else’s (especially not my parent’s) feelings, but when my dad responded (and my mom soon after), what was striking was that I knew I was wrong. I was the ingrate. Totally and completely. I knew there was no way that I could argue they were in the wrong and that I was justified. And that’s when I got some of the message of the scriptures above.

My parents have provided me with everything. I mean, even just talking about fencing, how dare I imply that they have never been involved? My equipment comes from them. My ability to participate comes from them. If we put their support of the club — both direct and indirect — in dollars, it would be substantial and competitive.

But how easy was it — in the moment — to deny with both heart and tongue? To recognize the favor of my parents, but still to deny it?