In one of Germany’s most prized pieces of cultural heritage, Goethe’s monumental drama Faust, there is a phrase that has become proverbial in the German language as the Gretchenfrage, or Gretchen’s question. This now refers to any question that is very hard to answer, but crucial for the inquirer; a question whose answer has so far been deliberately withheld or even avoided. You know that moment in a fresh relationship when you come across something that might be a deal breaker and you are reluctant to ask about it – or be asked about it – because it might drive the whole thing with this new person to an untimely end? Yes. A classic case of Gretchenfrage at stake.
The original question that Gretchen asks Faust in the drama is if he believes in God, or actually „Say, as regards religion, how you feel.“ Faust tries to wriggle out of it, prompting Gretchen to be certain of his atheism. Many travellers visit St Peter’s Basilica in Rome or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and many travel bloggers have written about places of worship – I myself have done posts about St Paul’s in London or the Cologne Cathedral. Yet the question of faith or religion is hardly ever addressed. I wonder if this is because less and less of us believe in God or if it is just a topic that people try to avoid out of fear of stepping on someone’s toes.
My one explicit travel experience related to this was when I got into a very strange discussion with a girl I met in Croatia. I wear a cross on a necklace – a bit of a superstition really, but also a small commitment to my faith. The girl saw it and asked me if I believed in God. I said: „Yes.“ She asked: „Hardcore?“ I didn’t even really know what she meant by that, but since I don’t fanatically run to church every Sunday, I said: „No, not really.“ She said: „Good.“ And then she went on to explain to me how every person in the world who believed in God wanted her to go to hell because she was a lesbian. I tried to tell her that this wasn’t true, that I have a lot of gay friends and don’t want to see any of them in hell (a concept I do not even believe in). She wouldn’t have it and we didn’t exactly part on excellent terms.
Personally I find my own faith to be a bit of a conglomerate of different ideas from various religious backgrounds. I was baptized Lutheran as a baby and had my confirmation aged 14. I went to a catholic primary school. I hung out in college with people who were into Hinduism. I have long had an inexplicable fascination with Islam. One of the reasons I loved the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is that the protagonist calls himself a believing and practicing Christian, Hindu and Muslim. How cool is that, really.
What’s more important to me, though, is that I have always put the values of humanity before the values of any religion. I actually think they should be the same thing anyway. I don’t believe it to be important what your God is called, as long as he gives you a few ideas as to how to live a good life. Anything destructive that religions do doesn’t go with the general idea in my book. The Oatmeal has really said it all in his brilliant comic How to suck at your Religion.
Now the beauty of travel is that it puts forward all the ideas of humanity that ideally religion should enhance as well, and more than that – travel can help you learn about what you believe in. And I don’t just mean that in terms of denomination – but that too. I learned so much about Islam when I was in Bosnia and Turkey, and it helped me understand certain debates that I only knew from the media so much better. I went to services in England, in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia and many times in Poland and it’s taught me about the way that people celebrate their own beliefs.
It is hard to argue that in many cultures religion contributes immensely to the belief system of the people. Because of this, I think we should ask about religion more and learn as much about it as we can while we travel. Things are only ever scary as long as we don’t understand them. That goes especially for the weird fear-respect-scepticism mixture that I sense in many Westerners toward Islam – a beautiful and peaceful religion full of wisdom and love, from all I can say about it.
When I had my preparatory classes for my confirmation 15 years ago (OMG did I just really write that…?), we discussed the concept of sin. I never liked it much, it had the whole guilt trip thing about it. My pastor explained to us that the German word for it, Sünde, is related to the word Sund – in English sound, a strait of water in an ocean between two landmasses. When we sin, we put a sound between us and another person (or, if you will, between us and God), we divide ourselves from others, we cease to be whole. In that explanation, the concept of sin made sense to me for the first time. And if we accept that this is so, then forgiveness means to build a bridge over the sound that has been created so that we can come together again. And once again the bridge is the symbol that, for me, sets everything right.
What do you think? Do you believe in God? Have you been confronted with questions of faith when you travelled? Do you talk to people about religion when you travel?