To ease myself into the “interview-style” of questioning, I started with my parents. Mom (aged 51) is a Southern girl who works hard and laughs harder, and Dad (aged 56) is an Iranian-born lawyer who loves nothing more than to sit and read. The combination is both insane and adorable, and their love has taught me more than they will ever know. There were some hiccups with my first attempt at an interview (I first interviewed Mom separately…and then deleted my only audio copy as soon as we were finished) so this is the second interview. There’s a lot more that they each have to say, so more interviews may be posted later on.
A few notes: the interview is long, so prepare yourselves accordingly, but I think a lot of what they said is very poignant to religion today. To be fair, I’m biased…they’re my parents. Also a few times we mention the word “baba”, that just means Dad in Farsi.
and here we go.
Interview 1: Mom and Dad
Me: So I’m going to ask you guys the same questions basically, and we’ll delve into some things with each of you, but I would like for you to kind of alternate talking. So who would like to go first? Mom’s already had some practice.
Mom: Okay, well go with me first.
Me: Okay, so I would like you to go over your ‘faith journey’, how you were raised as a kid and where you are today and how you came down that path.
Mom: Okay. Pine Forest Baptist Church was the first church that I remember going to. We were very involved there. I asked to be baptized when I was around eight, which was a little young, I remember there being some questions as to whether I was too young to make that decision, but I convinced the minister that I was ready. So I was baptized there. Fully dunked. And we moved away from that house, to the other side of town, to [another church]…went there (sighs) occasionally. What I remember is we’d go at the beginning of the school year and then we’d go twice more, so it was almost painful, because every time I went back, I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know the people there, it didn’t feel like I belonged there. I didn’t enjoy going to that church. My dad never went very much. I think he went back at Pine Forest. When we finally joined Highland Hills—well I got involved because I knew some younger people there, and so I visited and then Mother visited and Mother got very involved. And so Mother started going very regularly and I went more regularly—had some great Sunday School teachers there, and of course, Reverend Jim Bruner who married your baba and me. He was just a wonderful minister. I learned a lot about my faith through him and the Sunday School teachers there. I haven’t found another place like that. They were just open-minded. You know, when your baba and I got married, Reverend Bruner sat us down and talked to us about how we were going to make this marriage work when we came from different faiths. He never seemed to question whether he should marry us, he just wanted us to be aware that it was going to be difficult coming from different places. I now understand there are ministers who would not have married us, and I find that shocking, because I never thought for a second that Reverend Bruner wouldn’t marry us! So that’s the beginning of my faith.
Me: So Dad, you come from a completely different background, so do you find any elements of her story that you can relate to or was your journey completely different? Can you give us some background?
Dad: Well the early stages were very different. Obviously the last thing Mom mentioned was Reverend Bruner and that’s a common experience that we had, and we both view it as a positive experience and I’ll get to that in a minute. But growing up, I believed that I was a Muslim, that my entire family was Muslim…looking back there were not a lot of routine vestiges of that religion in our lives. The only really consistent evidence of it was my grandmother’s faith—at least avowed faith—and her daily and routine prayers, which as a Muslim you are supposed to do five times a day. There were other events during the High Holy Days of Shi’a Islam…so I felt that was Islam and I felt that I was a Muslim. As I said, looking back I see that for a truly Muslim family a lot of other things would have happened that did not happen in my family. My mother and father were not practicing Muslims, they never prayed, they never fasted during the month of Ramadan, and as I grew older and understood their views, I realized that neither of them had a very traditional view of Islam at all. And somewhere along the way I began to question God. That primarily came from politics as opposed to a spiritual journey. There were a lot of people in Iran—academics, intellectuals, students—who were looking for change in Iran during the days of the shah, and for some of us it just seemed that religion and Islam were not consistent with the future that we saw for Iran. The initial impetus for questioning my prior beliefs was politics. Jumping ahead to what Mom said, when we decided to get married, we understood each other’s points of view—actually, I thought I understood Mom’s point of view. In retrospect, maybe I didn’t. I thought that hers was more of a traditional Southern Baptist kind of perspective, and I don’t know whether she has evolved over the years—I know I have—it’s conceivable that I just had an overly simplistic view of what people who called themselves Christian were like. I thought they would all be the same. So I went into our relationship truly concerned (chuckles) about how issues were going to be resolved, especially when it came to having children. I was very aggressive about not wanting our children to be indoctrinated in Christian belief—in fact, I went beyond that, and I didn’t want you kids—this is before you were born—to even be exposed to it. Obviously that was not either practical or fair, and one of the first evolutions in my view in that regard came about when I decided that perhaps I ought to leave the decision to each child, and a proper way to do that would be to let you two explore all the possibilities to the extent that you wanted to. And ultimately that’s the side that I came down on. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think that either of you received a vast education in Christianity until middle school or high school. I mean we did go to church some during [earlier] years, I always wanted to accompany the family when you guys went to church, when mom wanted to go to church. I had an intellectual interest in hearing sermons, I enjoyed hearing what was said and the way things were approached, aside from the music and all that which I always enjoyed. So I wasn’t averse to going to church, I just was never going to take the initiative. But in that process you guys got some education, you and Neena, and I think the education became a bit more formal and perhaps profound at Westminster. And I was fine with that. I had gotten to the point that—it’s not that I believe my view of the world was wrong, it’s just that I wasn’t sure that it really mattered if I was right. Life being what it is, I just wanted you guys to take comfort in faith if that is something you were attracted to. And I think that’s what we did. We just let you guys steep yourselves in it as much or as little as you wanted to, and let you each come down on whatever side—just find your own spiritual place.
Me: Mom, you have stated you wanted to raise us as Christian.
Mom: I did.
Me: What was your reasoning behind that?
Mom: Well one, I wanted to share my faith, a similar identity, another reason would be that it had given me comfort when I went through difficult times. I wanted you to have that. I just thought that Christianity colored my lens of humanity. Sunday school was where I drew a lot a lot of my beliefs, learned to really empathize, learned to think about how I was who I was, and if I had been raised in a different environment how I might be different and how I might treat another person. I had a Sunday School teacher who really wanted us to step outside of understanding that we are what we are because of the way we grew up and yet somebody else might not have that same history and they could be different. You can’t make them have the same experience you had and that Christ would have loved all of them. I learned that “Jesus loves the little children”, a song we sang all the time. Did you sing that much in Vacation Bible School?
Me: I think we did. I don’t remember.
Mom: Such a powerful song. I really think a lot of people as adults forget that. To me it is the core of Christianity, is that you love everybody. Doesn’t matter who they are, where they’re from, what their religious beliefs are, give everybody the respect of being a human being. To me that’s the basis of Christianity. And that’s one of the problems I find with a lot of churches today, is that I feel like they’re a lot more judgmental than open and accepting, and that was not how my faith emerged. My faith was one that you gotta accept everybody where they are, and that’s just what my faith is. You have to empathize.
Me: So do you believe that people are inherently good or inherently evil?
Me: So for you, it doesn’t matter if their motivations are good or bad.
Mom: The world’s not black and white. In every decision you see somebody make, there are list of priorities going on in that person’s mind. There are a list of things that maybe they have been taught or they’ve seen on they’re reacting to. You can’t know that. You can only know it from your perspective; you can’t know it from theirs. Maybe you’ve got somebody who ran a red light, and all you can do is think “well they’re idiots”, but you don’t know what their perspective is. You don’t know if the house they grew up in, their family ran red lights all the time; you don’t know if they’ve got a sick kid at home they’re trying to get to; you don’t know if maybe they’re alcoholics and they had too much to drink—you don’t know what their story is. And that’s just the simple version. You know when somebody does something wrong at work, it’s very easy to use your experiences and your beliefs and say “I can’t believe they made that choice”, but you know, you’re not them.
Me: Dad, same question. Do you believe people are inherently good or inherently evil, or—as Mom said—neither?
Dad: My instinct, I think, in life, has been to assume that people were operating from a positive and well-meaning point of view, at least as they understand it, rather than from a bad one, unless proven otherwise. I’ve actually paid a price for that instinct. I tend to think actually that, more than likely, people come from a good place. I think people know what good is and unless there’s something wrong with an individual for whatever reason—upbringing or maybe there is such a thing as inherent and innate evil—but I think most people come from a good place. And I think that is why your mom and I, even though we don’t share exactly the same views when it comes to religion, actually come down on the same standards of conduct. I think most people—human beings—know what is right and know what is wrong. They don’t always follow the dictates of that knowledge. I don’t think those understandings of what’s right and what’s wrong come from God or religion or any place else, I don’t know where it comes from, but for whatever reason, by whatever mechanism, it is within human beings. It’s there. If you look you find it. Some people just aren’t able to heed the course of conduct that that would dictate and some do. I think more do than not though.
Me: How does each of you identify yourselves, religiously or spiritually? If you could ascribe a couple of words to what you are, what would the words be?
Dad: Mom has an easier time with that question than I do, and I don’t want to put words in her mouth—except I heard her say this a few hours ago—she considers herself a Christian and I think that makes sense. I heard her say earlier that she considers herself a Christian that she believes that the teachings of Christ are to be followed and they outline a good path for human beings to conduct their lives according to, and to me that makes perfect sense.
Me: (to Mom) Is that what you think?
Mom: That is absolutely what I think.
Dad: She will talk more about what the role of the Bible is in that, and the example that Christ sets for human beings, and frankly I can relate to that, I don’t have a problem with that at all.
Me: But for you, is there a higher power?
Dad: I can’t deny that there is a higher power, I just don’t know what it is, what its nature is, and I don’t know how to glean from the possibility that there is a higher knowledge any specific guidance to lead my life.
Me: So what is it that you feel that makes you feel that there could be a higher power?
Dad: Honestly I don’t feel anything at all that tells me there could be a higher power. It is just the knowledge that I know very little, and the knowledge that mankind knows very little. Even though we know a lot more than we did a hundred years ago, I think we’re still scratching the surface of understanding what makes our physical world go round, and until we have a full grasp of what the rules of our physical world are, I think it’s premature for us to even think about what else may be out there, absent some sort of glaring and undeniable evidence which I’m not aware of. It’s not that I think there is or may be a higher power, or whatever you want to call it, it’s just that I can’t deny that it exists simply because I don’t know. I can very easily, in my own view, deny that the higher power that is described in certain versions of almost every religion does not exist. I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that some bearded old man is sitting up there, looking at every little thing that I do, every little thought that I have, and dispenses justice and guidance accordingly. That, to me, is superstition. But is it possible that there is some source of knowledge, source of control, source of guidance, source of commonality between human beings that is intangible and undetectable through normal scientific and human means? Sure, it’s possible.
Me: Mom, for you, you are Christian, you believe in God.
Me: What is it that makes you feel that God exists? Do you get moved spiritually by your beliefs?
Mom: I do. And that’s taken different forms over my life. But I do get moved, I do believe that many people focusing on one person, whether it’s through prayer or through positive thinking, but I think that when someone is sick and people think about them, and people show them they care and all the positive thoughts can affect people. I think there’s actually some studies [that show that], and whether that’s just a psychological reaction in the person feeling cared for and feeling more positive, sort of like a placebo effect, I definitely feel spirituality is helpful. Another way is when I feel really really stressed, I know that a way for me to let go is to go “well I’ve done everything I can, if it’s meant to be it will be and if it’s not, it won’t.” I just kind of feel that it’s out of my hands and I can let go and not have to keep control. Some people say “well I put it in God’s hands”. I just have faith in mankind, and in our spirituality together and that it will be okay, and that I can’t know everything, and that it will be ok.
Me: So it sounds like you don’t really have the same traditional Christian views.
Me: Can you sum up for us what your views are?
Mom: Well, my views are that I very much believe in what Christ taught, I believe that Christ lived, I believe that He died on the cross. I believe there are other stories about Christ that are metaphors. I don’t believe that every word that is written in the Bible is exact, I think some people make too much out of that sometimes. I don’t believe there’s a bearded white man sitting up there saying “You’re going to go to Hell and you’re going to Heaven,” I don’t believe that God intervenes in our every action or is aware of every action and leads our every action, I think that’s why Christ taught what he taught, it’s about how we treat each other. If you’ve got God upstairs who’s going to discipline you every time you do something wrong, well then, why did you need Christ to come down here and teach us how to behave?
Dad: If I may interject a point in connection with that, one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard your Mom say, and since then I’ve heard others say it, is how ridiculous the converse of what she just said is, not just doling out punishment but interceding in mundane matters such as the outcome of a football game, and how insulting that is to a lot of people based on their view of Christianity and God. The idea that whatever that greater power, or force, or intellect is, is going to choose one football team over another or one side of whatever over another. That told me, when I heard that, that even though Mom and I do come from different traditions in terms of spirituality, in the end, we really aren’t that far apart. If you listen to what Mom just said about believing in human beings, that sounds very like humanism. I don’t know that I’m a humanist, I don’t know enough about humanism to actually apply that to myself, but that sounds like what it is, you believe in human beings with all their good and bad, and that in the end, the general direction is positive and good. Not in every instance, not every day, but in the end the overall trend is toward something that’s good for all of us. To me, that is spiritual. In my view, spirituality can be attained through religion, but there are two caveats to that. One is that religiosity not a necessary condition to spirituality, I think it’s possible to be spiritual and I think actually it’s very easy to be spiritual without being religious. And conversely I think there are people for whom religion actually interferes with their spirituality. It’s almost like not seeing the forest for the trees, getting so bogged down in the minutiae of “what does this word in the Bible or the Koran or the Talmud mean” and then just completely forgetting what the big picture is all about. And again, I’m not saying that’s true for everybody, that kind of thought is beneficial for some. But for others I think it becomes a substitute for spirituality instead of a path to it.
Me: Both of you have come down to basically talking about spirituality. Do you believe in a spirit? Do you believe in the idea of the spirit, of the soul? Does each person have something that is separate from their mind that is their spirit? I would like to hear from both of you on that.
Dad: Do you want me to go first? Aside from the general rubric that I know I don’t know everything, and therefore I can’t rule out by any of the means that are at my disposal the possibility that there is a part of us that’s independent of our physical existence, aside from that, I have seen no evidence, I have not detected anything nor seen anything that suggests to me that any part of us that survives our physical demise.
Me: What about you, Mom?
Mom: I do, I do believe there is something in each of us that survives after we die. I can’t tell you what it is. I think one of the biggest differences between your Baba and I is that I can believe in something that I can’t see, that I can’t understand, but I just have an instinct, and maybe that just came from being brought up in a Christian household and hearing that, but there’s a connection between people, and some people say it’s your memories, but there’s a connection with people who have passed. I think that there’s a greater consciousness, and I think in some form that exists after you die. I don’t understand how, but I think that it exists. I think somehow that carries on. It’s just something greater than we can understand, but I think there is some piece of us that carries on.
Me: We’re going to have to wrap up in a minute, but I have one final question for you. You both have identified over the course of this interview your spiritual self and that part of your identity. What do you think is more important, your spiritual identity or your national identity? (to Mom) If you had to identify yourself as American and Christian, which one stands out more to you?
Mom: Well to me, it would be as a Christian. To me, because of my belief in what Christianity is, the belief of how you treat others—as a spiritual person who believes that it is very important how you treat others, that comes first. I mean the fact that I’m an American, great. Concern, and caring, and trying not to judge when you want to judge, trying to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, that speaks more to the spiritual side of me. I mean, nationality, I’m fortunate to be born here, I’ve had a lot of advantages that other people have not had, and I have to be grateful for that. I also have to understand, with that comes a responsibility to not hold people that live in other places, that don’t have the same capabilities, not to judge them by our lens.
Me: So for you, Dad, it’s a little different. I guess a similar kind of question is, would you place your moral identity—kind of combined with your spiritual identity—before your identity as an Iranian-American? What exactly stands out to you the most about yourself?
Dad: That’s a very difficult question for me to answer. I don’t know that I can come up with a clear answer, partially because of the inherent nature of my belief system, in the sense that when it comes to matters spiritual, at least that portion of spirituality that’s generally associated with religion, what I’m holding on to is actually a vacuum as opposed to an alternative. But I do consider myself a spiritual person, and I consider myself a product of both my Iranian heritage and my American education and transformation, a product of my American experience. The combination of all of that, my spirituality, my Iranian culture, and my American culture, creates a belief system within me that rules everything I do. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s where it comes from. In my case perhaps all of that is very much fused, as parts of a total. None of it is more important than the rest, nationalism in itself for any country doesn’t hold a lot of appeal to me, but with or without nationalism, you are a product of your environment, you are molded by what you see and the people that you live with, so that is the strongest force in my life, most prominently manifested by my views toward family, my views toward work, my views toward and with regard to ethics and professionalism which are very important to my job as a lawyer. Those are really the things that I have to look to every day, and every step that I take to make decisions.