Monday, March 17, 2008

Let Us Pray

This week I thought that I’d check out the hip and groovy religious scene and so I put some sunglasses on and sauntered meekly and mildly along to see two of the city's greatest religious buildings. The Istiqlal mosque and Jakarta's Roman Catholic cathedral are both located within a stone's throw of each other (and let's hope that those stones remain un-thrown) just to the north of the National monument.

Alas, when I arrived at the Istiqlal mosque at around half past four on a Saturday afternoon I found that the entrance was closed and locked. I was genuinely surprised by this as I thought that any house of the holy worth its salt would have been open all the time. I'm sure that the Istiqlal is a bugger to clean however and perhaps someone was flicking a Hoover around the place. A list of opening hours was pinned to the wall next to the entrance and I resolved to return another time for Metro Morgue.

That just left me with Jakarta Cathedral to check out. Well then, if the Muslims didn't want my custom then it would have to be an afternoon of Catholic love. I adjusted my boxers in anticipation and strolled the 200 yards round the corner to the cathedral, which is formally known as the Gereja Perawan Maria Diangkat Ke Surga Paroki Cathedral (The Church of the Virgin Mary of Assumption... or something along those lines). The skeletal twin spires and retro Gothic architecture of the cathedral are tremendously moody and the place was completed and consecrated in 1901.

Inside, the cathedral is as hushed and cavernous as any great house of God. Despite being baptized an atheist and being a possible convert to anti-theism, I find churches to be very serene and meditative. A lack of belief in a supreme deity doesn't, of course, preclude one from exploring and enjoying the spiritual, numinous side of existence (the arts and the natural world can carry one on equally deep journeys into spirituality and feelings of awe). Churches are great though and I only wish that there were more places about the city in which one could sit in peace away from the modern cathedrals of capital that continually chime with the deafening sound of cash registers.

Unfortunately, Indonesia's oft persecuted Christians sometimes have to put up with such sounds of commerce during their church services which probably doesn't help them much with their spiritual growth. Churches are notoriously difficult to build here, due to a prevailing Islamic bias, and thus services have to be held in far less salubrious places such as shopping centers. I even saw a prayer meeting in a branch of KFC once.

But even praying in the Church of Colonel Sanders, or even in the privacy of your own home, doesn't necessarily guarantee freedom of religious assembly. Only last week, a group calling themselves the Cooperating Bureau of Mosques and Prayer Rooms (who?) burst into a housing estate in Bekasi in order to persecute Christians who were engaged in a prayer meeting on private property. Doesn't sound very cooperative to me.

As I sat calmly in the cathedral, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a few members of the CBMPR angrily storming down the aisle and demanding to see the cathedral's permits and licenses. It certainly must be hard sometimes, being a member of a minority religion in this country. Does anything really ever inure you to violence and prejudice? Maybe such tribal bigotry and solipsism are ineradicable from our monotheistic religions. Perhaps they reside deep within their very natures.

I wandered outside and found a lovely open-air altar round the back of the cathedral. I sat there for a while. The altar was bedecked with hundreds of flowers, which are always nice to see in our urban jungle. There was also a Christian bookshop selling works ranging from serious tomes to the usual paperbacks of mawkish maxims that seem to resemble 100 greetings cards bound together.

One title did catch my attention though. It was called Pendidikan Iman Anak dalam Keluarga Kawin Campur Beda Agama (which I believe roughly translates as: Educating the Kids within a Mixed Religious Marriage). I'm not sure on the book's stance on this controversial issue but any advice would no doubt be helpful. I wonder how much heartache has been caused and how many families have been torn apart in this country over such differing supernatural beliefs. What a tragic waste of human happiness and love.

Freedom is the issue here of course. The freedom of assembly, of speech and of inquiry. There seems to be an anti Enlightenment offensive being waged by many of the world's religious at the moment. Many of faith insist that their late Bronze Age superstitions and belief systems be privileged beyond the realms of all debate. Even in the West, our free-speech secularism so often seems to be asserted in half apologetic, mumbling tones these days.

Free speech though, far from being a product of immoral Western decadence, is one of the paramount achievements of human civilization. Free speech is a step towards true enlightenment.

Religion conditions the mind away from such enlightenment. Unquestioning obedience is inculcated into the minds of the young, opening them up to a whole raft of second order, illogical and self-destructive premises such as nationalism, consumerism and racism. On the other hand, words and language and free inquiry serve to civilize the fists and are at the origin of the evolution of our morality. The less free speech there is, the more violence perhaps.

I've learnt the hard way that sticks and stones (and motorcycles in my case, and possibly busway buses if you fall off the divider bit it in the middle when you're crossing the road) may break my bones. We have another option though.