by Bob Lupton
Sitting in the airport waiting on a delayed flight, I was fascinated by the assortment of religious head-coverings worn by travelers who passed along the busy concourse.
A Sikh man in a business suit wore a large blue turban, undoubtedly in conformance to the instructions of his holy book.
An innocent-faced Mennonite girl covered her head with a plain white bonnet, as required by her holy book.
A bearded Amish man wore a flat, brimmed, straw hat, as required by his holy book.
A Muslim woman covered her entire head and shoulders with a black shawl, as taught in her holy book.
An orthodox Jew with dangling sideburn curls wore a black domed felt hat, as his holy book instructed.
A hefty holiness woman in a long dress covered her head with a large bun of her own natural, uncut hair, in obedience to her holy book.
I could not help wondering how each of these unique head-dresses became established as a sacred practice for devout believers in these various religious traditions. I assume that somewhere along the line, a holy man who ascended to a position of authority interpreted the holy book of his sect and defined for followers the head-covering most pleasing to God. Quite a weighty responsibility, I would think – to define the personal tastes of the Creator of the Universe?
In the church I grew up in, the holy men many years ago deciphered a passage in our holy book to govern how women should cover their heads. Women’s hair should never be shorn, they said, and it should be worn “up on” the head, braided or in a bun. Hats were permitted, but not necessary, since long hair was a sufficient covering. “Thus sayeth the Lord.” My devout sister who is five years my senior has never cut her hair.
As I watched all these devout people parade past, I pondered how anyone could know which covering is really most pleasing to the Divine. Some traditions, like Muslims for instance, require men to put on a cap when entering their place of worship as a sign of reverence. Western Christian males remove their hats when entering their place of worship as a sign of reverence. Who’s got it right?
We might simply call these religious practices “traditions” – human expressions of our devotion to the God we worship. The problem, of course, is that when such customs are reduced down from divine revelation to mere human tradition, they lose the power of the sacred. Better to make them divinely mandated rituals that reassure the devout of God’s pleasure. So say the holy men.
I suppose there is nothing wrong with wearing visible symbols that identify us with our religious family. White collars identify Catholic priests, black burkas identify Muslim women, shaved heads and yellow robes identify Buddhist monks. Each garment, each head-covering, has spiritual significance to the wearer. And maybe that’s the real value of all these varied and unique symbols – maybe they reflect a deep desire of the human heart to please their Creator. How can you argue with that?
But beware the holy men who speak on behalf of the divine!