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I don’t normally turn to movie critic Roger Ebert for thoughts about religion, but a friend of mine recently sent me a link to a Chicago Sun-Times article Ebert wrote remembering Gene Siskel, his movie-reviewing colleague, who died in 1999.
Ebert has always been an excellent writer, and the piece is a compelling reflection, on the 10th anniversary of Siskel’s death, upon their history together. But there was one passage in it that struck me as particularly noteworthy, especially as someone always looking for thoughts about religion in the mainstream world. Ebert called attention to Siskel’s devout Judaism:
His parents had started one of the early synagogues on the North Shore after World War II. “I had a lot of long talks with my father about our religion,” Gene told me. “He said it wasn’t necessary to think too much about an afterlife. What was important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave.” Gene said, “The importance of Judaism isn’t simply theological, or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue.” In a few words, this was one of the most touching descriptions of Judaism I had ever heard.
That’s a profound observation, I think — that one of the most important aspects of faith are the traditions it gives families, and the way it connects people today to people from centuries ago (“we’ve stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue”). Regardless of theological beliefs, he’s saying, religion is a good, beneficial thing because its practice binds people together into community.
I agree. But it’s also a lightning-rod statement, of course, because there are plenty of things about that idea that will get people angry. Sure, that’s a nice thing to say about Judaism — it’s important to keep those traditions strong, and to know that Jewish boys in ancient Palestine were learning and reciting the same prayers as Jewish boys in 2009. It’s cool to know that early Christians were saying the Lord’s Prayer and observing Communion, just as Christians do today. We can get behind that statement because it applies to our team, but my guess is that a lot of Christians and Jews would get behind it only if you apply it that way.
What if you extended it? How many of us would say that Muslims have stayed together and respected certain traditions for the last 1500 years, and it’s important that they continue to do so? It’s hard to say that if we think Muslims are wrong in their beliefs, or deluded in their faith.
And I know a lot of contemporary, non-liturgical Christians who look at even Christian tradition as lifeless and empty. They would read Siskel’s statement and think it was, well, stupid. The importance isn’t necessarily theological? they would think. That’s nonsense. The traditions are only meaningful because of the theology behind them. Without theology — without orthodoxy, without right beliefs — it’s just a bunch of meaningless actions.
And with respect to Judaism or Islam, they might scoff at the idea of “continuing” a tradition just for the sake of continuing it…because, as a Christian, we’re supposed to believe that the other guys are wrong. And why continue something that might be wrong?
So I guess I’m not really here to offer any conclusions or praise for Siskel’s statement, or Ebert’s response to it. But it’s thought-provoking. It causes me to question both the traditions of my own faith and the why it may (or may not) be important to continue them. It causes me to look at my motives and ask how far I can agree with that statement: only in regard to my own faith? Or with other religious traditions as well? How far am I willing to extend grace and see beauty and purpose in religious practices? Only as far as the borders of Christianity? Or beyond it?
I’m interested in your thoughts. What role do the traditions play in faith? How important are they? Are they as important as theology? What is your reaction to Ebert’s recollection of Siskel’s statement about faith?