Peace, one and all…
I was recently asked to attend an inter-faith dialogue event in Cardiff, at Women Connect First (which helps ethnnic minority women find access to jobs, business and educational opportunities). So it was that yesterday, I went along. After a morning spent looking at and discussing the main concepts of four main faiths (Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and Islam), we spent the afternoon visiting local temples, etc.
I have to say that I enjoyed the event, for several reasons. Firstly, I always enjoy talking about God and faith. So it was nice to have an opportunity to talk shop as it were. Secondly, it was nice to meet with various officials from the Welsh Assembly Government. Thirdly, this was my first time visiting a Hindu Temple and Sikh Gurudwara. All in all, then, a pleasant day. And praise be to God who maketh it so…
At several points during the day, I found myself thinking about shared values. That is, about the common ground that exists between all faiths. Overall, it seems, our common ground relates to what you might call ‘an experience of the sacred’ and putting that experience into physical and moral practice. In other words, religions call to something beyond the merely human, and then explore the necessity for a moral reaction. This moral impact is often described as compassion (or in other similar terms). In Islam, we would call it `ibada (the next, long-delayed, installment of my Quranic journey will touch on this theme shortly, insha Allah; episode 1 and episode 2), or worship/service. In Hinduism and Sikhism, the concept of seva (‘service’) springs to mind. Judaism has similar notions of service. An Anglican priest who attended yesterday’s event, also touched upon this aspect in Christianity (see an earlier post of mine on this point). [For links to web sites from other faith traditions, see the Learning from Other Faiths page].
Different religious traditions do this in very different ways, and use very different language in doing so. This much was also obvious from the event. Hearing the ‘words’ of others can be very challenging. Thinking outside of our comfort zones is always a little uncomfortable. It is, however, both necessary for growth and deeply stimulating. The more I learn, the more I come to see that many religious differences are more apparent than real. That might seem a strange statement for me to make, so please allow me a moment to explain myself more fully. And a mighty helper is God.
I am not denying the many and important theological differences between the world’s faiths. This would be both foolish and dishonest. Christianity and Islam, for example, have very different understandings of the nature of God. To pretend otherwise, does a disservice to both. What I do mean, though, is that beneath the surface, all religious traditions are trying to translate their experience of the sacred, so that it might be shared with others. Moreover, once you begin to explore these experiences in depth, they are not as different as we might think.
This is why, during the past few years, I have benefitted greatly from conversations with members of other faith communities, as I have benefitted greatly from conversations within my own faith tradition. Indeed, the more I reflect on this question, the more I come to see the importance of such conversation.
I guess, in a sense, we’re dealing with the relationships between symbols and meanings (or realities, if you prefer). Symbols are significant because of the meanings attached to them, because (in some important manner) they describe a particular understanding, or truth, or orientation to the world. But, it seems, the symbol is not the reality itself. It is, at best, a metaphor, an approximation, a description – part of God’s ongoing conversation with humanity, I suppose. And, on reflection, conversations always take place within the confines of a given language, with all of its expressive power and human limitations.
In recent years, I’ve increasingly been struck by the limitations of human language (mostly through my own inability to express myself fully). Words fail when reaching towards the Divine. Upon reflection, I now begin to see that these limitations are actually an advantage. That is, because we are imperfect, the possibility of looking at these important questions from different angles opens up all sorts of new opportunities, or new directions to move in. Reflecting upon my own experience, it was when I thought the work complete that forward motion ceased (and what a fool I was)!
And my last prayer is in praise of God, the Sustainer of All the Worlds.