Today I had a lovely day at an interfaith training workshop for an organisation I am going to be working with. The organisation (I’m not entirely sure if I allowed to name it so I will keep it vague) invites speakers from different faith/non faiths to go into schools and discuss their worldviews with children. This is so that the children can have a safe space to ask important questions that will help them to build up their own world views.
We had a chance to go round to each individual and hear a bit about their story and their background and their beliefs. How they came to their beliefs and the journeys life had taken them on. There was such a range! People from Iran, Ghana, Lithuania, the UK. People identified as Muslim, Christian (various denominations), Quaker, Bahai, Humanist/Atheist and we had a Indian guy who identified as a ex-Hindu human being of all faiths.
I was so in awe and humbled by the way that God works so differently in peoples lives. It amazed me the way in which people can come to understand God and themselves so differently, and yet all get to the same point. All of us, had different life stories, different beliefs, different experiences, were different ages, and yet all of us ended up in that room with the same purpose.
There was a moment in the middle of it where God really opened my eyes to some truths. I had been talking to the Bahai guys about how they believe different prophets from various faiths had come to bring us back to God, in the same way that Jesus had come to reconcile us to God.
This idea isn’t something I have trouble with, it is a view that I also share, that you get a messenger for your people for your particular time. It had always seemed self evident to me that God would relate to different people differently as and according to where you are from. In the case of Christianity for example, God relates primarily to the Jewish people through Jesus in reference to Jewish scripture as that was appropriate for the time and context.
My own journey to God has taken me through Hinduism, Buddhism, Pantheism, many -isms. I owned a Qu’ran before I ever owned a bible, so I have always accepted that you can find your way to God through various faiths and from listening to what different people have to say. Jesus says you should first and foremost seek the Kingdom of God and if you are really looking for Him, you will find Him regardless of where you start.
Even so, I had been struggling with this whole idea recently while trying to reconcile what I had learnt about Krshna with what I knew about Jesus. I had asked a Christian friend about this and he agreed that while there are similarities between them and there are some truths in all religions, Jesus is the ultimate truth.
Talking to the Bahai and the people of other faiths at this workshop brought me back to that discussion. It also brought me back to earlier in the day when I was reading from the book of Hebrews on the bus. I highlighted this passage in my bible:
‘But this is the new covenant I will make
with the people of Israel on that day,[c] says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 And they will not need to teach their neighbors,
nor will they need to teach their relatives,[d]
saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’
For everyone, from the least to the greatest,
will know me already.
(Hebrews 8:10 NLT)
It stood out to me that yes, what my Christian friend had said was true. I do believe that Jesus’s message is the truth and the way to the God, but there are many different ways to Jesus and his message of repentance and love.
When I stripped down what some of the other people in the room were saying and the truths they had come to about God just through soul searching and searching their own faiths and others this really stuck out to me. God really had put himself inside peoples hearts and there were people there that didn’t know that what they thought was exactly what Jesus preached. As I thought about all of this and considered everyone’s faiths one thought in particular stayed in my mind: religions are like flowers.
A way to illustrate what I mean by this is to imagine you’re walking along a path.
At the beginning, you see a rose. You admire the rose and you think to yourself ‘wow this is so beautiful, what an amazing earth, what an amazing maker we have’. As you walk along on this path, through time, you remember this rose but over time your attention is distracted. Now you’re looking at skyscrapers and and clothes and gadgets etc and you see another rose on your path but this time it doesn’t excite you and you pass over it. As you continuing walking you come across a lavender bush and your reaction is ‘wow, what wonderful flowers! What a wonderful scent! The earth is so beautiful’ and you admire it for a while and then you continue on and then you later forget about that oh so lovely lavender bush too and give your appreciation to other material things. As you walk along you come across various flowers, each time stopping to admiring them, then getting distracted by a new gadget, then losing interest in the flower, then becoming excited by a different one, until at one point you see a flower, And this one, you pick it up and you take it with you.
My question is, is this flower any different from the others?
Is there any difference other than the fact that this is the one you chose to pick up, the one that you chose to relate to, and to admire and to carry with you so that you could remember the goodness of the earth for the rest of your walk?
Some people don’t pick one, some people end up with a bouquet! Some end up with no flowers at all!
This is how I began to understand religion while sitting in that room as I listened to the different stories. There are various types of flowers, but they all come from the same earth. You will learn different things about the earth, and plants and growth depending on what you pick. In the same way, there are many different religions, faiths and belief systems but they are all meant to bring you to the same God. You may learn different things on the surface, but there are fundamental truths that you will be made to recognize. These are truths you forget once the world has gotten in and distorted them. Sometimes we forget the beauty of particular flowers, and we lean towards others. Sometimes once beautiful flowers get trampled, and what was good about them gets trodden down and new ones need to be planted, the plant needs reviving. But at the end of the day, they all come from the earth, they all grow to bring glory to the earth in their own ways. And sometimes the truth is that we need ‘new’ conceptions of things because as human beings we are built to respond to novelty. Our brains love new things. We love new sensations, new experiences etc but we need to remember that ultimately there is nothing new under the sun. We are living on the same earth that our ancestors lived on. We are living under the same sun that Jesus lived under, that Mohammed lived under, and as we walk through this life, they come as messengers to give us a message that will remind us of the simple truths we know. They come to remind us to bring our attention back to God. Some of us choose to hold on to these messages and dismiss others, but just because someone comes with a different message for a different time for different people, it doesn’t mean we must dismiss the message as ultimately meaningless.
A good way to think of this is to put into the context of the wider creation. We live under the same sun as pigeons, as eagles, as sharks, as plankton, but the way that each of these beings relate to and experience the world is incredibly different because their environments and their experiences are different. If we lived in a reality where we could talk to shark and you asked it about God, I’m sure the answer would be different to the answer you would get if you asked a pigeon.
A rose and a petunia, whether they are in different locations, grow by virtue of the same sun. They may not have the same coloring, the same shape, the same scent. We do not have to be the same flowers. Some people are not called to be Christians, some people are not called to be Muslims. Sometimes, during your period of blooming you may think you are one type of flower and then realize, actually, no. I’m something else. The beauty of free will is that you are free to choose. You choose your label. You are free to choose how you identify, how you are going to live your life, you are able to choose what kind of flower you want to be, what kind of scent you want to produce and whether you will choose a scent that is based in goodness, that you know will be a pleasing offering to God and a blessing to others.
There is only one sun that gives all the various plants life, similarly there is only one God that gives us life, that gives us grace, and mercies that we can all recognize and love in truth and spirit – although we may recognize and honor that love through different avenues.
As someone said in our meeting, a garden with only one flower would be quite boring.