FALL SERIES: Welcoming Doubt…Building Faith
“A Place for Interfaith in the Christian Faith?”
Proverbs 8:1-13 & Romans 4:13-17
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ November 12, 2017
I am going to invite you to imagine with me. Close your eyes and imagine…a place…a city…where Wisdom is ever-present. Not in the sense of wisdom being contained in a person or in a community. But Wisdom is omni-present ~ everywhere. Wisdom is located on the heights and in the streets; wisdom is located at the city gates; it is everywhere…surrounding your activities…guiding your actions. Wisdom is in the air you breathe and in the beings that each of us are. Wisdom speaks and is available to those who have ears to hear. As we come to our final topic in our fall reflection series which has explored the various faith ponderings and doubts that were lifted up, we conclude with the topic of the place interfaith has in the Christian faith. Is Christianity the ‘only way?’ Should we be trying to ‘convert’ people of other faiths? Is God bigger than our various world religions? And so this morning we ask, what is the place for Interfaith dialogue in the Christian faith?
I began with an exercise in imagining the text from Proverbs 8. Wisdom ~ in the Greek ‘Sophia’ ~ is personified, is fully present in this city. This is the vision that King Solomon presents of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom…a permeating essence available to all who seek her. Available at the heights and depths, in the streets and the gutters, at the crossroads and even at the gates…Wisdom ~ she is everywhere. King Solomon was quite unique in presenting an understanding of Wisdom in the female because in the past, religious teachings, of course, presented elements of the divine in the male gender. This makes sense because these teachings originated from a patriarchal time. However, in this text we look at this reference to wisdom in the female. I wonder what Solomon was trying to lift up? My suspicion…is a call towards unity…a call towards community…a call towards mutuality. That is where Wisdom is to be found. Consider the earlier times: men went out to hunt while the women gathered. The men fought in the wars while the women cared for the wounded and nurtured the family. I think Solomon was trying to lift up something quite profound in presenting Wisdom in the female. I think that he was lifting up a movement away from wisdom being found in the ways of power and dominance and hierarchy and pointing us towards the way of community, love and peace. For Solomon, Wisdom is omnipresent, found on the heights and the streets and the crossroads and the gates. This was a call away from the warring ways of different religions and cultures and towards a way of mutuality, respect and peace.
This topic of interfaith dialogue is a relatively recent one in religious circles. While King Solomon likely wrote those words 3 millenia ago, the generations have not seemed to follow his wisdom. It really hasn’t been until the 60’s when the word “interfaith” came into common usage. Interfaith relates to activities and relationships that are occurring between people with differing beliefs and faith identities. I feel lucky to have studied with one of the pioneers in this movement in Canada, Dr. David Lochead, who had been promoting this movement throughout much of his career. Interestingly, there has been quite an evolution over the past 45-50 years within interfaith dialogue. There was a period of interfaith dialogue when it seemed that much of the conversation centred around conversion. Dialogue was almost a jousting match between different religions, each vying for supremacy, each seeking to convert the other side. There has also been a period of interfaith dialogue when it seemed that much of the conversation centred around finding harmonious points of convergence. Focusing on those similar areas among the religious traditions, such as a shared understanding of ‘the Golden Rule’, conversation would often conclude, ‘see we are all the same’. More recently, there has been a growing trend towards dialogue based in a curiosity and respect of the different practices, beliefs, and cultural underpinnings behind each religious tradition. The movement, back in 2010, by the United Nations of declaring the first week in February as being “World Interfaith Harmony Week” with the objective of “reaffirming that mutual understanding of interreligious dialogue constitutes important dimensions of a culture of peace”. Our work here with the Surrey Interfaith Council is another such example. This recent shift is a dialogue of not trying to prove religious supremacy, or of how we are all similar, but of trying to deeply understand the beauty and pervasive wisdom in our neighbour’s religion. This is truly a unique time in history.
I think that this is the kind of thinking that Paul’s letter to Rome was based in. At the time, of course, the concern for Paul’s community was over the inclusion of Gentile believers into the Hebrew community. The question among the Jewish community, and to those gentile converts was over their inclusion as also being ‘children of God’. Were the non-Jews / the Gentiles to also be included alongside the faithful Jews / the Children of Israel? Paul argues that it is a matter of faith saying: “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith”. It is one’s faith, that brings them into a deep relationship with the Holy. It allows us to sense God’s presence, to have God shape our journey, and calls us to walk in ways of faith and righteousness. Every once in a while, I am surprised that not all Christians are aware of our common roots, roots that go all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. Our three monotheistic faiths – Christianity, Islam and Judaism all have a common origin. The book of Genesis reminds us that Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael grows up to become the father of the Arabs who will later found Islam, and Abraham’s second-born son Isaac becomes the father of the Israelites who will continue in the Jewish stream. The Jewish and Muslim roots have common origins back to Abraham. We Christians, of course, come through the Jewish tradition with Jesus who was, of course, a Jew who sought to reform his very own faith tradition. When I chose to place a tattoo on my back, I chose a cross that was encircled by the symbols of Judaism and Islam. I did it to name who I am: a follower of Jesus’ Way ~ A Christian. It is one of the ways that I subtly witness who I am. But also to acknowledge our brotherhood / sisterhood as fellow children of Isaac with our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters.
Three of the more recent people who have been doing some good interfaith work call themselves: “The Three Amigos”. Just over the border in Seattle, these three religious leaders: Imam Jamal Rahman ~ a Muslim, Pastor Don Mackenzie ~ a Christian, and Rabbi Ted Falcom ~ a Jew. These three religious leaders began connecting after the events of 9/11 knowing that they needing to foster and further create religious understanding and tolerance. They have since written three books together, spoken across North America, produced ‘Ted Talks’, and have led religious immersion tours in their shared Holy Land. In their book: “Getting to the Heart of Interfaith”, they suggest that there are five stages on the interfaith journey that we must move through. Firstly, we must move beyond separation and suspicion. We must begin by recognizing that there are issues that have the potential to divide people into different camps, and even polarize interfaith work, if allowed to take over. I heard the Amigos speak several years ago in Vancouver and they shared a story of Imam Rahman speaking at a university chapel. To make the Imam ‘comfortable’ to speak in the chapel, they had removed the Bible and scroll and the Qur’an was placed on the table. This was very symbolic to the Imam and an indication that there was much work to do if they were to come together in dialogue. The essence of this first step, they suggest, is to get beyond our separations and find ways to coexist, and don’t you love that beautifully inspired graphic of the different faiths represented on the letters of the word ‘coexist’. How do we ‘coexist’ with one another?
After getting beyond separation and suspicion, we need to find the place and space to trust one another in order that we might inquire more deeply into one another’s approaches about God, their ways of worship, and their sacred rituals of celebration. Mahatma Ghandi once said that it is the sacred duty of every individual to have an appreciation of other’s traditions. When asked if he was a Hindu, Ghandi replied: “Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” When we come together, it is inspiring to realize how God’s Spirit moves in our many traditions. In a previous congregation, the Burnaby Mosque ~ Masjid Al Salaam and Education Centre was built directly across the street. One of my first learnings was how Muslims held Jesus in a special place as a prophet in their own tradition. As we became friends with one another, we hosted events for one another, and even shared parking lots on our differently occuring holy days. After inquiring more deeply, we get down to the nitty gritty and begin to find a place to share not just the easy parts, but also the difficult ones as well. Every religion has their parts which must be unpacked and properly understood: Rabbi Falcom laments the violence in the Hebrew Bible; Pastor Mackenzie laments the anti-Semitic aspects in the Christian tradition; and Imam Rahman speaks of the violence in the Islamic teachings related to Jihad. Good scholarship and dialogue must prevail in order for the historical-critical context to be understood, and we must not take a fundamentalist view of these texts. My own experience in this area was with the Burnaby Mosque following 9/11. It was important for us to come together and have Christian-Muslim dialogue at that time. We broke bread together; we worshipped together; and we hosted dialogue evenings on what the nature of jihad – truly was. I almost found that the more I came to understand a different faith more, the more I understood my own.
After examining these difficult parts of our religious traditions, we move even further and deeper and expand our points of view. The experience for a Christian to visit the Yad Vashem ~ the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem is to be confronted with the perpetration of evil committed in the name of religion. While we are appalled, yet we also identify with the perpetrators of unthinkable horrors and we pray for a day when the cross is not identified as a symbol of dominance and violence but rather one of love and compassion. It is important to take this painful step as history is doomed to repeat itself unless we learn from the horrors of our past. As we witness the increasing rise of fundamentalism in our culture, it seems we still have much work to do. Finally, they encourage the exploration of the spiritual practices of other traditions. The goal here is not to judge or compare one another’s practices, but rather to explore and experience the beauty of the same Spirit that pervades all religious practices. Our religious practices, our religious symbols cultivate an inner spaciousness that allow us to discover the universals ~ the wisdom ~ that we all share. There was an interesting development that occurred after 9/11 during the Muslim season of Ramadan. Much like our period of Lent and Advent, Ramadan is a preparatory time where Muslims observe a fast from sunrise until sunset as they commemorate the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhamad. At dusk, Muslims would gather for ‘Iftar’ to break their fast and would eat. What was interesting in the year follow 9/11, was that the Muslim communities began inviting others to join them. And other non-Muslim communities, like our church, began inviting them to come and eat with us. With the Surrey Interfaith Committee, some of us have attended sweat-lodges, and Mosques, temples and experienced people’s places of worship, their rituals, and their ways of being first hand.
And what happened as a result of my attendance at other communities of faith? Dining with them …experiencing their ways. I did not convert, I think what happened, is that I became a better Christian. Because I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation into the depth and diversity of the way God works throughout the world. The apostle Paul, wrote to the Corinthian community: “for now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known”. Music is a profound part of our worship, isn’t it? St. Augustine observed “when you sing, you pray twice”. I wonder, in the cosmic sense if each of the great religions of the world is like the strings on Gina’s piano ~ each is necessary, beautiful and wonderful in their expression and longing for the divine. Would it be authentic and pleasing to God to only have one key played? Each of the great religions has a distinctive note. In Judaism it is an exodus from bondage: the covenant of responsibility in freedom. In Islam it is the note of submission: “Our God and your God is one, to whom we are self-surrendered.” In Hinduism, it is the note of the spirit: a universe throbbing with divine energy and meaning. In Buddhism it is the wisdom of self-discipline: quenching the fires of desire in the cool water of meditation. In Christianity it is Jesus’ teaching that all may become one: “This is my body broken for you.” “In as much as you have done it to one of the least of these.” May we hear with delight, the beautiful sounds of God; may they delight our soul and may they move us into a deeper relationship with the God who was revealed to us in Jesus and calls us to move towards a world where ‘all may be one’.