“The Heart of Our Faith Traditions“
A Review of
It’s Really All About God:
Reflections of A Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.
by Samir Selmanovic.
Reviewed by Bob Cornwall.
This review originally appeared on Bob’s blog:
It is reprinted here with the reviewer’s permission.
It’s Really All About God:
Reflections of A Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.
Hardback: Jossey Bass, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Being a long time participant in interfaith dialog, I know the difficulty of maintaining one’s religious identity while at the same time engaging the beliefs and practices of others with an open heart and mind. There is a fine line that one must walk. How does one remain true to one’s faith while at the same time honoring, respecting, and learning from the faith of another? If we struggle with this question, consider the situation of a person such as Samir Selmanovic, a Croatian Seventh Day Adventist pastor who grew up the child of a nonobservant Muslim Father and a nonobservant Catholic mother in an essentially atheist country. It’s Really All About God is a spiritual memoir that explores a journey that has taken a person from no faith to an exclusivist evangelicalism and on to an openness to receive blessings from a variety of religious traditions, including significant encounters with both the Islamic and Jewish faiths, while remaining true to one’s Christian faith.
While It’s Really About God is a spiritual memoir, it is more – it is a resounding call for people of many faiths – and even no faith — to recognize that our conversation about matters of life and faith must begin with an affirmation of our common humanity. Whatever we may profess, at the very basic level of human existence, we share the same planet and must acknowledge that common humanity in the other. The fact that such a book as this, one that affirms the presence of God in and every human being, is written by one who would claim to be an evangelical is all the more remarkable. Indeed, that the book is written by a pastor from a tradition that is considered sectarian in nature is even more surprising.
Biography is often the key to developing a broad understanding of religious reality. If one has few if any encounters with other faiths, it’s hard to envision building relationships with the other. Of course, if one has had close but difficult encounters, it can also be difficult to overcome the obstacles to building relationships. Samir Selmanovic is one who has had significant relationships with others, but those encounters, while not always easy, had positive impacts.
The author was born and raised in Croatia, while it was still part of communist Yugoslavia. His parents with secular in their orientation, but came from very different faith backgrounds. His mother was a non-practicing Catholic, while his father was culturally Muslim. The religion that was promulgated in his home was neither Catholic nor Muslim, but a commitment to two principles: Pleasure and Honor. His was a happy and fulfilled upbringing – having close relationships with the family. This closeness, however, was upset when Samir converted to Christianity (of an Adventist variety) while serving in the Yugoslav army. This decision was not well received by the family, especially Samir’s father. He tells of numerous efforts that were undertaken to dissuade him from this pursuit, even including a conversation with an Imam. This encounter didn’t have the intended consequences, for at the end of the conversation the Imam commended Samir for becoming a believer. The message here is that like many families, Samir’s was discomforted by a challenge to the family traditions.
As we read Semanovic’s reflections we’re invited to let go of our stereotypes of the other. By focusing on Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths – the faith traditions that he has had the most experience with – the conversation is a bit more manageable than if other traditions are brought in (although he does give attention at points to Buddhism and Hinduism). By focusing on three monotheist religions that share a common heritage he can appeal to their better instincts and remind them of their common affirmations.
In assessing the author’s message it might help to juxtapose two chapters, one of which speaks of God management systems, by which we try to confine and manage God through our interpretation and application of texts, and a subsequent chapter that speaks of our God being too big. For those familiar with J.B. Phillips’s book Your God is too Small, this chapter title might be confusing. What the author is getting at is not that God is “small” in the way we think of “smallness,” but rather our tendency to lift up the superiority of our God over the God of the other. He asks a good question: “Have Christians – along with Jews and Muslims – fashioned theology that portrays a God who is on an ego trip?” He then goes on to suggest that some of us who are God followers, at least, “at times seem to be on one (p. 158).” That is, we seem to find it necessary to lift up our God above others so that we might feel more important.
In wrestling with this juxtaposition of ideas – our need to contain God (which is the point of Phillips’s book) and our need to lift God above all others – we discover the dilemma faced by people of faith if they wish to engage one another in a meaningful way.
If we must begin with the assumption of a common humanity – so that the other is my brother or sister – we must seek to understand the basic nature of faith. Here is where atheism comes in, for it raises important questions about God and God’s nature. Atheism reminds us that we have choice of whether we believe or not. The atheist raises the question of why we believe, and frees our imagination to think of God in new and different ways. Why is this important? Selmanovic writes:
Unquestioning faith is blind faith, and blind faith is no faith at all. (P. 183)
The atheistic philosophers and thinkers speak words to those of us who are people of faith that we may not be able to say to ourselves – that is “We have to admit that much of our religion is made up to serve our own selves, giving us everything from the land of our neighbors to a ready-made sense of purpose” (p. 185-186).
As we ask the question, what is faith? Selmanovic suggests that we move away from the question of eternity to focus on the present and the temporal. With that in mind, we can receive the word that the pearl of great price that we seek is not Christianity nor eternity nor even God’s acceptance, but rather it is “the Kingdom of God, an invitation to learn to love well” (p. 220). “To love well,” that is the essence of faith. This is the purpose of life – to learn how to love well. Christianity at its best, as is true of other faith traditions at their best, offer a way of loving well.
What is the point of the conversation – it is to see in the other the love that is God, to affirm that love and encourage its expression in the other. We need not abandon our faith to recognize that there are boundaries that need to be removed. It’s not that we should all be one homogeneous faith without definition, but rather that we recognize God’s presence in our differences. As we do so then we can learn that loving God occurs as we love others.
At a moment when religious and ethnic communities have become increasingly polarized, and when fear distorts relationships, It’s Really All About God serves as an important invitation, much like Eboo Patel’s Act of Faith, to rethink the boundaries that we have set up that keep us from learning to love one another and that with increasing frequency lead to violence. Like Patel, Selmanovic invites us to engage one another for the benefit of humanity. We do this by recognizing that the heart of our faith traditions, is the call to love.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com