In this edition of Interfaith Voices Matt reflects on the month’s theme of ‘the presence of faith’ with a candid reflection on how faith has shaped his experiences. Here, he considers the complexity of identity, self and faith.
“Are you religious yourself?” This is usually the question I am asked when I tell people that I’m doing my MA in Theology & Religious Studies. It’s a question I respond with awkward mumbling and twiddling of the thumbs. Sometimes, I feel uncomfortable answering all together and try and pass on to a different topic of conversation. In the dating arena, it’s often the point where a guy instantly loses all interest, I remember that one time a fellow member of the LGBT community called me a traitor for adhering to an oppressive system (I don’t think they’d even heard of Bahá’ís before). In the social arena, it is usually a green light for people to begin interrogating me on my most intimate beliefs, often citing phenomena such as the problem of evil in an attempt to show the idiosyncrasy of my faith, they rarely consider the possibility that I have suffered myself. For my family and old friends, I sometimes wonder whether they see it as one of “Matt’s phases,” i.e. something that is paralyzingly boring so as not to engage. It sometimes puzzles me that my faith can be something so viscerally important to me, yet something that I often feel ashamed, unpopular, or demeaned for.
So, when I was asked to write this piece concerning the presence of my faith; its presence in my life, interactions, work, leisure, time, I really didn’t have a monkey’s where to begin. Considering my faith, sexuality, social circles, and ever-spiralling reflexive identity, I will regularly end up in a “that ship has sailed” mentality regarding the reconciliation of my “self” with my “faith.” For me, it sometimes feels like the ship has not only sailed, but it is careering full-steam-ahead out of port with myself frantically paddling behind it. I try and think about the presence of my faith when I declared myself as a Bahá’í. It was after having visited the beautiful terraced gardens and shrines on the slopes of the sacred Mount Carmel. A week later, I was lying on my back next to a fire in a Bedouin camp in the middle of Jordan. I was lying under the great canopy of the night sky with only the sound of crackling fire, hushed conversations in the local language, and the gentle breeze whirring through the wadi (valley) as my anchors to the Earth. It was at that moment that I found the presence of my faith, the assertion that here is exactly the place I am meant to be, come whatever situation, circumstances, or surrounding I found myself in.
When I recite the greatest name 95 times-a-day (yeah I often lose count), or read from the great literature or poetry in the Bahá’í tradition, or hear the Persian prayers sung in beautiful melodies, I feel a similar ineffable belonging. I try and locate this presence of faith in the aspects of my life, my involvement working in a vulnerable women’s home, my work for the CCJ interfaith charity, my studies, and the loyalty I have to my friends and family. And so, whilst at the beginning of this piece I began a petty diatribe on how hard it was to live with faith, I come to realise the my security comes from not only my faith, but my mother who texts me pictures of my dog everyday, my dad who asks me to tell me about all I’m learning at uni, and the countless friends and family who have supported me no matter what.
True, as I sit here with every imaginable digit crossed regarding my PhD application, as I sit here grovelling in my recent relationship breakdown or the numerous grad programme rejections, I hear the tiny fiery voice of my faith emerge. Though the future seems scary I turned to writing my worries and thoughts in a (futile) attempt to match my tradition’s great mystic writers, and on my darkest days, I turn to this assurance. As an aside, I’m not a great mystic who roamed the mountains of Kurdistan so cut me some slack.
Walk fearlessly into the shadow of tomorrow, for fear and trembling over our future are just humanity’s innovation, creativity, and ability to love up against our oldest fear of the unknown. For wherever I go, my faith goes, whatever heartbreak of success I have, I have my faith. Right here is exactly where I’m meant to be, and thanks to my faith, I think I’ll be okay.
Matt Shahin Richardson is currently studying for an MA in Theology & Religious Studies at Saint Chad’s College, University of Durham. He graduated with a BA in Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics from KCL in 2017 and holds a graduate certificate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He will be starting his PhD in Sociology at Newcastle University under the title “Ritual and Reconciliation: queer Jewish identity and belonging in urban Britain.