“Who’s next?” exclaimed the man at the counter. I couldn’t help but notice his stoic expression.
I was standing in line for the chocolate mousse donuts at the bakery in the Amish Farmer’s Market at Mullica Hill. The Amish man at the counter had a long beard but no mustache (perhaps because mustaches are historically associated with the military and the Amish are against violence of any kind); his hair was blunt cut and combed front in bangs. He wore a white apron, had a humble bearing and a modest look. Although there were a dozen people ahead of me, the line moved swiftly and I was at the counter in just a few minutes.
The Amish Farmer’s Market is an impressive display of good home grown food, hard work, strong discipline and a great attitude of sharing nature’s wealth. The Amish are some of the world’s best farmers and their food is absolutely fantastic. They are tradition bound people who generally do not use electricity or the automotive and they try to avoid all “progressive” new technologies, for fear that this might make one less dependent on the community.
Where did these Amish people come from?
In the midst of religious upheaval in sixteenth century Europe, there were many challengers to the Roman Church, one group preached the Bible in the language of the peasants and spread the notion that faith is all you need to receive the graces of God. This group was called the Anabaptists (meaning “rebaptizers”) and after their leader Menno Simons, they were nicknamed “Mennonites”. In 1693, a young Mennonite called Jacob Amman who felt the church was losing its purity formed a new Christian fellowship. His followers were nicknamed “Amish”. The Amish began migrating to North America around the 18th century as a consequence of religious wars, poverty and persecution.
For over 450 years the Amish have refused to go to war. They have sometimes gone to prison rather than kill a human being. The Amish strongly believe in simple living and the satisfaction brought by hard work. They believe in the importance of community and deference to others. This is certainly the opposite of the mainstream American culture of individualism. In fact, the Amish church forbids posing for photos, as it might lead to personal vanity!
I wonder what has held the Amish together for so long. How does a group of people stick to its beliefs and forego the convenient lifestyle ushered in by new technology?
The Amish strongly believe that God has chosen them to lead a serious life of faith, humility and service. Although many are affluent, they see wealth as an allure for over-indulgence that can make them greedy, lazy and unfit to serve God. It is this core belief in hard work that has kept them close to their farming roots.
There are of course challenges to the Amish way of living. It is not easy for an individual to stay inside the group and yet lead his own individual lifestyle. Following the religion forces one to conform to the practices of the community. In this sense it could be stifling for the nonconformist and the ambitious. But on the other hand it is imperative to take advantage of the advancements in science, to eradicate disease and to protect the farms and the environment. However getting a higher education is not easy without embracing the modern mainstream society. Is there then an inherent conflict between Religion and Science?
How does one let go of the deeply religious Amish life with the peace of mind driven from a strong sense of meaningfulness in life, and adopt the world around that seems to be getting lost in its own madness, spinning dangerously without faith and without family values?
Einstein once said that he was a deeply religious man, although not in the naïve sense. According to him, Science and Religion do not have to be in conflict. Here is an excerpt from his address to the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1939: “..the scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capable…yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what “is” does not open the door directly to what “should be”. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what “is”, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the “goal” of our human aspirations…the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source…”
Einstein goes on to explain that the “ultimate goal” of our human aspirations does not come from Science; this comes from “powerful traditions” in a society. These traditions influence the conduct and judgment of the individuals in a society. They are just there; there is no need to justify their existence. He cautions that one must not attempt to justify these traditions, but rather sense their nature simply and clearly.
What powerful traditions exist in our society that influences our conduct? In other words, what do we ultimately believe in?! I believe that hard work guided by strong family values leads to fulfillment in life, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs. This is the real joy of an Amish lifestyle.