America, I was told, is very different from Sweden. “How?” I would ask and as a response I would usually get “I don’t know exactly, but it is.” Back then, several months before I made the move to the United States, I found that terribly annoying. If it is different, obviously there are specific things that are different… right? Well, as I have now lived on the Princeton campus for three months, I very much understand the struggle that is explaining the US. When I am there, I communicate differently, meet strange customs and experience things I never would have in Europe. That is all well, but now that I actually sit down to write what exactly is different, how exactly I behave differently and what these strange customs are – I find it terribly hard. Of course, I will still give it an earnest attempt. That is why I will be writing a few posts this semester about the culture here at Princeton, but also America in a broader sense; this first post will be about one of the most specific things I can think of: namely, religion.
Sweden is obviously very secular and although I am confirmed, that definitely does not mean I believe in God. Rather, I consider myself culturally Christian but an agnostic atheist theologically. That whole layout is extremely common in Sweden and I will go as far as to write that it is actually comically typical of the Swedish stereotype that we dislike taking strong stances in just about anything. I imagine a typical Swede’s considering going something like this:
Well, I don’t want to call myself atheist, it’s too stark, too extreme. Maybe there is a god you know? I don’t actually know. Of course, I don’t actually believe there is a god, and I don’t know if I believe in the Judaic/Christian God, so I’m not Christian. Agnosticism then, the belief that we just don’t know, and we never will? Sounds like I never have to take a stance then. Perfect!
Although I am weary of my own predisposition against taking stances, something which indeed is often very important, I am more at bay with the Swedish culture of open-mindedness. As a Christian Agnostic Atheist, I can connect with most people about religion in at least some way, and naturally I have some formal education in different religions. Nevertheless, reading about religions and meeting very few, for example, Catholics and Jews in Sweden is not real exposure. It is only now that I have actually come to have real proper conversations about religion with people of said beliefs. For Christ’s sake (note my culture seeping through), even having conversations with protestants have proven extremely interesting because of the vast differences between the Church of Sweden and the American ones. In fact, I have considered taking my old Bible with me and actually give it a proper, cover to cover, read.
One of my best experiences with religion was the immense pleasure of coming to Shabbat dinner, with friends whom I consider some of my closest on campus, at Chabad. That is, the weekly Jewish Friday dinner at one of the Jewish life centers on campus. There, I had Challah in excess and Gefilte fish (surprisingly good) along with some other great dishes. The Rabbi held a short but excellent sermon about the entrapment of the Israelites in Egypt. He explained that the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mizraim, derived from the noun masor and verb sur meaning entrenchment and bind respectively. He spoke about how escaping Mizraim was not so much about escaping the geography or the slavery per se but rather about escaping the idea of slavery, the idea of one people being lesser than another. I found it not only beautiful, but oddly applicable to my own life. Although I expected nothing less, I felt very welcome at Shabbat and it was a great experience overall. I recommend all of you, on campus, to go sometime with a friend.
Finally, that which makes these experiences so great is the mutual respect and understanding that exists at Princeton. No matter any differing view, an intellectual and respectful conversation can always be had with these extraordinary people. For example, I have spoken with several about the origin and weight of the Bible. For me, it is an interesting historical artifact; for others, it is the literate word of God. Extraordinarily, that has never been an issue and I have never noticed anyone having trouble admitting their belief. In fact, I had a great walk-and-talk with a Catholic friend during which we agreed that the Bible was written in its time, for its time and that any amoral actions in the name of the Bible today is at the fault of the person in question and their incorrect amoral interpretation. He believes that it is not God’s fault, and I believe that it is not the Book’s fault. In spite of the fact that he and I believe vastly differently, we could agree on what truly matters: what we make of it and how we act as citizens of the world.