How do we show belonging? Faith.

Faith

Why are we here? It’s an exclusively human pursuit to look for meaning and purpose. There is so much that is out of our control and so much we didn’t (or don’t) understand. Across millennia we have come together around fires or altars – in caves or in temples – to learn from our elders about the meaning of life. How to be good. How to ensure an enviable afterlife.

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Religious practices are front and center in most people’s lives. We are born into a faith community, celebrating countless religious holidays with family and friends. Our sense of belonging - and order - is strong.  Our given name, how we dress, how we celebrate - how we face nearly every major life milestone - is rooted in our faith. Inextricably woven into the fabric of our lives, we grow up feeling that is the way life is. It is how the world works.

Mission accomplished. Every faith community leverages the arts, providing us with ongoing opportunities to express beliefs and experience the strength of our connections. As a matter of fact, cooperation and mutual support is a core tenet in most religions. Loving one another. Being kind. Honoring the spirit in everyone. Making reparations for hurts. Thank goodness most of us grow up surrounded by lessons and experiences of the power of belonging.

Religions are culture masters. They know how to surround us with stories and activities that keep our beliefs and values front of mind and front of heart. They leverage daily routines to remind us: we wear this for this reason; we greet each other this way to show respect; we sacrifice these things to become free. 

In this section we explore some of the ways the arts in our real lives build and maintain our faith.

{Faith} in Appearance & Fashion

Our bodies come pre-wired to connect. They (we) are on high alert and ready to respond and build connections. But with billions of people milling around us, how do we increase the odds that we can find real connections?

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Attire

Sometimes religious groups feel it is important to establish a set of universal dressing guidelines – always differentiated by gender. These not only reflect the faith’s core values, but also bring the benefit of providing visible solidarity. Think Hindu, Sikh, Amish, Muslim, Buddhist …. You get the picture. 

But most often there are general guidelines for what is appropriate to wear to services. Modesty. Respect. Not too casual. Years ago I was in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC when some visitors went straight up to the altar rail. One man was wearing an “F — You!” sweatshirt. It just really made me wonder how someone could be interested/curious and totally insensitive. 

Perhaps we should teach children everywhere the basics of religious attire etiquette.

Officials & Celebrants

Hierarchies within an organization can be on full display simply by looking at how people are dressed. Predominantly male, you see robes of different colors and designs. Sometimes there is headwear that can put crowns to shame (think bishop’s mitres) serving as evidence of power and authority. All of these vestments carry symbolism and add formality and excitement.

Facial Hair

Guidelines about men’s facial hair are common, informing not only IF a man has a beard, but how that beard is to be groomed. An Amish beard looks different from a Muslim beard which is different from a Sikh beard. A very visible differentiator. Mission accomplished. Publicly straying too far from the norm can make some elders worry.

Hairstyles

Many religions have a position on how individuals should wear their hair, formally stated or not. Even in environments where diversity is thriving, you are likely to see similarities – working within common guidelines.

For those religious groups with strict guidelines, you can risk membership if you stray too far. It can be interpreted as a rejection of a basic tenet.

Hairstyle treatment for men and women, along with attire, can be a very public way of communicating your faith to the rest of the world. It is both a differentiator and a way to identify people who share those beliefs.

{Faith} in Music & Movement

We are musical creatures. It is like a rising tide inside us, making everything inside more fluid and connected.

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Dance & Movement

The more we visibly align our movements, the more we feel connected. Some communities of faith integrate dance and movement into their religious services or prayer practices. Swaying back and forth, spinning, nodding or simply sharing gestures during a prayer all add dimension to the experience and weave us together even more tightly.

Very often an ideal prayer position is defined for us.

Indigenous groups often make extensive use of dance. For example, Native Americans have unique ceremonial dances for specific gatherings, where the drums, instruments and movements are the prayers.

Communal Songs

Okay – this always gets me all verklempt. Singing together brings people into harmony – a sense that one’s self is melding together with others into a greater whole. This sends a rush of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals that we share at that moment.

Group glue. Very satisfying group glue. One of the truly great highs.

Intonations & Chanting

Many spiritual disciplines have mantras that use sound to help us focus and be more open to the spirit world or the divine. Repetition. Centering. Again, religions are masters at using music to help people into a state of openness and transcendence.

Unique Musical Forms

Each faith community develops a unique musical voice – instrumentation, rhythms, melodies. From drums to the muezzin call to prayer to bells and to cantors, music quickly establishes and maintains member connection. So recognizable that just a hint and followers feel the call. 

Because musical formats are so tightly linked with their spiritual experiences, members often resist any attempts to introduce changes. It can feel like toying with the faith practice itself. Introducing guitars into the Catholic liturgy back in the 60’s created lots of discomfort, but eventually the church found ways to accommodate a variety of preferences. Musical roots run deep.

{Faith} in Theater & Rituals

Acting is not pretending. We act our age. We act like a manager – or a waiter – or a diva. We actively choose how we behave in our lives.

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Services – High Octane Bonding

There is, perhaps, no greater experience of the arts than in religious services. Religious celebrants often lead the community through carefully crafted processions, adorn themselves in specialized robes, utilize ornate or precious artifacts, fill the air with incense, engage in songs and inspirational music and remind the community of their beliefs by telling stories and reading from sacred books.

These practices get into members’ minds, hearts and souls, creating frameworks and pathways to connect deeply with one another. Many faith groups meet regularly, embedding themselves into family routines, providing community support for daily human struggles. They celebrate, not just articles of their beliefs, but family milestones.

Rituals – expansive formal ones down to standard call and response activities – physically unite many voices into one.

Rituals – Marriages

This is the biggie – the Super Bowl of rituals. New couples ensure new generations. So, make way for the big guns. These events matter. Expectations are high. The community wants to see evidence of maturity, love and commitment to each other – and to their faith. Even the engagement process is highly ritualized, demanding evidence of readiness and worthiness. For men, this might involve showing income stability and for women, perhaps, devotion and fertility? These make sense when we remember that the future of a faith depends on successful marriages. Weddings are huge community events – like holidays in the midst of a more routine calendar of religious holidays. People plan for months, buy expensive gifts, wear their very best clothes – and they dance. Everyone feels the warmth and glow during the ceremony. Little boys and girls want to be brides and grooms someday. Best wishes abound.

Rituals – Coming of Age

Cultures from around the world celebrate a child’s coming of age. Nearly all faiths define an age when a child is capable of understanding the significance of the community’s beliefs – and is ready to commit to supporting it. Jewish bar and bat mitzvah, Amish rumspringa, Christian confirmation and the Apache Sunrise ceremony are but a few examples. This transition matters. It represents acceptance of the mantel – carrying the belief forward into their adult lives. 

The arts are everywhere. Old words and new words. Old music and new music. Traditional sequences. Symbolic gestures. Although the focus may be on the celebration, something is very different from that moment on.

Rituals: Naming Conventions

Often members of a faith community choose names for their children that reflect their culture and history. Muhammad? Rachel? This can serve as a proud and early identifier for the rest of the world to see, calling up names of their cultural heroes.

Regional Variations

Although most religions are global, there are significant regional or ethnic differences. A Christian service in Denver will differ from a Christian service in Atlanta or Madrid or South Korea. Each region or ethnicity weaves its own traditions, aesthetics and values into the celebrations. Although the service itself remains recognizable, you will definitely know where you are and will feel the culture. Group gatherings bring the differences into high definition.

{Faith} in Visual Arts

We absorb images as fast as the eye can see, sometimes zipping right past consciousness. Just too much to process too quickly. We may get an impression. A feeling.

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Statues & Paintings

Museums are filled with extraordinary religious art objects. Statues like the tiny Venus of Willendorf (30,000 BCE) to enormous Buddhas have supported the practice of faith. Cave paintings to Egyptian vases capture sacred narratives.

This is a powerful reinforcing loop – faith inspires art which inspires faith. These creations inform and enhance people’s religious experience and become representative of specific beliefs.

Symbols

Most religious groups use a range of images and symbols to enhance and broadcast their beliefs. These can be highly stylized, with each element representing a key part of the story. The tiniest details matter. The specific color of the robe. Where the finger is pointing. The number of stars.

People often wear these symbols as a way to share their beliefs with others. Walking through a diverse workplace you can find lots of evidence – little previews into individuals’ lives – by simply noticing pins, magnets, badges, holiday cards – any statement. Small invitations to explore some important differences.

Jewelry…even Bumper Stickers

Many people proudly announce their faith in their everyday lives with symbolic pins, rings, pendants, stickers on their homes or car windows, bumper attachments and stickers. These also help people find connections with people they might not otherwise know.

{Faith} in Storytelling & Language

Humans are blessed with an evolutionary advantage; we can transmit deep concepts and complex information to one another. Lessons learned over generations are passed down.

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Creeds & Beliefs

There are few statements we make in our lives that have more significance than our public scripted statements about our beliefs. These indicate the core of our values and are central to our identity.

Sharing these commitments builds trust and communion among members of the group. Hesitating to be forthcoming, people might wonder why. It’s a real clarifying moment.

Prayers & Meditations

Each faith provides scripts to help its members in their spiritual practice. The formats, language – even the intentions – vary across religions. Once memorized, these stay with people throughout their lives, serving as an easy connecting point with their values structure and with other members.

Storytelling

The telling and retelling of stories is at the heart of most faiths. Myths, allegories and parables teach us about creation and provide inspiration for living our best lives. These stories give us our heroes. And they provide an endless source of lessons, ready to be conjured up with the situation demands. Now, go forth and be a good Samaritan.

For those faiths that meet weekly or routinely, these stories are often set into annual calendars, ensuring they don’t fade from circulation. They serve as the syllabus of key learnings.

Sacred Texts

Most religious groups have writings that represent their core tenets. The books, and sometimes words that come from the books, are treated with reverence. “The Word” is a tangible, earthly representation of the divine and is treated with careful ceremony.

Words have enormous power. Reading them, touching them and repeating them with others draw us together. In the beginning was the word ….

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