Month: July 2020

Sharing Scripture – a Bahai and a Christian encounter the Gospel of John

A Guest Blog by Allan Forsyth

If you want to build understanding between faiths then you have to build understanding
between hearts. I’ve often thought that the best way to describe faith is as a love affair.
Beyond their own particular theology, people of faith, it seems to me, are primarily motivated
by a deep love for something which is ultimately transcendent and indescribable. Over the
past few weeks I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to share in a dialogue with someone from
a different faith background to explore this.

Margaret is a neighbour of mine who moved in across the road a few years ago. As we got
to know each other better we discovered that we had a shared interest in the Divine and our
friendship has flourished. Margaret’s faith background is Christian and mine is Baha’i. It
became apparent to me that Margaret was an independent thinker with a deep knowledge of
and love for the Bible and she described her relationship with Christ in a way that intrigued
me. I had some knowledge of the Bible but had never studied it. I was conscious that if there
was one book that speaks directly to the meaning of Jesus’ life, it was probably the Gospel
of John and so I asked Margaret if we could study it together. She was delighted to do so
and so for the past 7 or 8 weeks we have been meeting together for an hour on
Wednesdays and Saturdays. The first few weeks were on Skype but then we were able to
move to the garden (on good days and with social distancing).

The experience of reading sacred scripture and then reflecting together on it has been very
powerful for both of us. Progress through the book has been slow but I now realise that that
was unavoidable as we have no deadline and almost every verse of the text generates
substantial comment. The study is largely led by Margaret because she has a much more
extensive knowledge of the text and the context of the whole Bible. After reading 2 or 3
verses she will generally make comments and I will then ask questions and contribute
comment. The conversation then often develops in exploring the implications of what we
have read in our understanding and our reading of the world today.

So what have I learned and what questions are still unfolding? I have learned that John is
direct and unambiguous about who Jesus is – his uniqueness, divinity and his eternal nature
;that his call to his contemporaries was rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and that he points
towards a fulfilment yet to come. An example of this and a passage that really struck me is
John 3:14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be
lifted up..”. I was fascinated to learn that this is both a reference to Numbers 21:9 and a
pointer to Jesus’ crucifixion and the healing and new life to humanity that that would bring. I
would not have been able to glean this from a study by myself. A profound moment during
the study occurred when we shared the well-known verse from Matthew – “For where two or
three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – and realised that that was exactly what we
were doing.

My own perspective on the text is greatly influenced by the Baha’i commentaries on the
Bible which are unequivocal in their recognition of Jesus but which point to a more spiritual
rather than literal interpretation of many key passages. This has presented a challenge to us
reaching a common understanding at times. However, our dialogue is based on a strong
friendship and a mutual respect for each other’s faiths and this has allowed both of us to
gain new insights. It seems we have reached a stage beyond “agreeing to differ” into
“agreeing to continue to explore”.

Currently in the middle of chapter 7, I find our studies refreshing, challenging and
invigorating and I look forward to every meeting. We have tentatively planned to move next
to the Revelation of St. John which probably shows a confidence verging on the foolhardy. It
has stimulated my own wish to deepen more on the sacred scriptures of all faiths. However
rather than just picking up the Qu’ran or the Guru Granth Sahib, I now might seek out a
Muslim or Sikh to study it with.

In over 27 years of stimulating and varied interfaith activity, this has been the most profound
and exciting experience I have taken part in. I think it points to the next stage that is required
if faith communities are to fulfil their potential to contribute to the real peace that humanity
cries out for – to work together to understand each other and find the common threads that
can be woven together in common purpose.

Solitude

From the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

arrupe-at-prayer_origThis week I went to an online interfaith meeting on solitude, something that has been a reality for some people during the self- isolation of this coronavirus period.  For everyone it’s been a difficult time. For some it’s been the separation from friends and family that’s been hard while for others it’s the juggling of working from home with home schooling and entertaining children that’s been stressful and exhausting. For others it’s been keeping alive their businesses and organisations. That has been true of the interfaith world. There have been so many possibilities to join in interfaith dialogues, not just at home but all over the world.  Sometimes it has felt that there have been just too many invitations and I’ve resisted a lot of them because I’ve appreciated the space and time for solitude away from diaries and meetings. I’ve resisted filling up my time with too much busyness. Of course there have been zoom and skype contacts so that I’ve not been at all lonely.

Solitude has a place in the Christian tradition. The celibate life of nuns and priests is seen as a legitimate calling which frees a person from the responsibilities of family to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation as well as service to the community. Being without a lifelong partner means there is a certain solitude about religious life, an aloneness even when living in community though that doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. We have probably all experienced a feeling of loneliness in the middle of a crowd and a feeling of connectedness when alone by ourselves. But not all faiths value solitude.

Judaism is a religion that focuses very strongly on the family and community. Private, individual prayer is not as important as community prayer or living according to a tradition that re-members the past and reinforces membership of a people in a particular relationship with God. The text chosen for our recent scriptural reasoning event on solitude was the story from the book of Exodus of Moses spending 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai in conversation with God and in preparation for the gift of the Torah. The interpreter on the passage asked: was Moses truly alone if he were in the presence of God and since this time of solitude was a preparation for the giving of Torah then it was directed towards community which is at the heart of Judaism.

The Muslim presenter talked about three kinds of solitude in Islam which connects well with the Jewish view: preparatory solitude, whispering solitude and forbidden solitude. All the prophets including Mohammed, Moses, Jesus spent some time in solitude, in prayer and fasting, as a preparation for revelation. For Moses this revelation was the giving of the Torah, for Mohammed it was the revelation of the Qur’an and for Jesus it was the revelation of his mission to preach the presence of the Kingdom of God amongst us.  Prophets are spokespersons, mirrors that reflect the greatness of God. To be effective they need to be purified, emptied of self and totally open to God’s voice and for this, a time of intense prayer and solitude is necessary. Whispering solitude occurs at moments when we can withdraw and disconnect from all around us to enter into the inner silence of our hearts to pray, listen to God, to remember that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. Forbidden solitude is the kind of solitude that leads us to withdraw totally from family, community or society responsibilities. It’s the kind of solitude that stops us engaging with the reality of the world around us, rather than preparing us to enter into it and serve it.

The Christian presenter was from the reformed tradition which, he pointed out, didn’t, until recently, value solitude in the way that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions did. The text he commented on was the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the desert after his baptism in the River Jordan.  We are told in Mark that is was the Holy Spirit, the One who is said to have descended on Jesus at his baptism who drove him into the desert where he remained for 40 days and 40 nights without eating, living among the wild beasts and ministered to by angels. In the other gospels there is an account of how Jesus was tempted during that time as to his identity and mission. This side of solitude shows the reality of having to face ourselves, our fears, compromises, our masks, our desire for ease and approval. Solitude is not just about communing with God or discerning His will. It is also about facing the wild beasts within all of us – wild beasts that we happily ignore or suppress in the busyness of life. But wild beasts that we need to face and even befriend if we are to be free and loving human beings.

For people of faith solitude is important but it has to be understood correctly. We’re never alone because we are in the presence of God and interconnected to all of creation; it’s good for us to face up to and be honest with ourselves; it’s important that our solitude does not lead us to disregard the world in which we live but becomes a preparation for honest and loving service, even if that be mainly through prayer. It’s an opportunity to see things afresh. Coronavirus has offered us that opportunity. I hope we haven’t squandered it.

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