Monday, October 28, 2013

A New Paradigm for Interfaith Respect and Cooperation

By Cynthia Edwards
Speech delivered at the Bahá’í World Religion Day Festival
Irving, Texas USA, January 18, 2003
Theme: A Spiritual Solution to Violence in the Name of Religion

Once upon a time, there were two farmers who were friends. They owned adjacent fields that were separated by a road. All day long they worked in their fields and made friendly conversation across the road.

Now in that town lived an imp by the name of Eshu. Eshu loved to cause confusion, and one day he decided to upset the state of peace between the two farmers. He rubbed one side of his body with white chalk and the other with black charcoal and walked up the road with considerable flourish.

As soon as he passed beyond earshot, the two men jumped from their work at the same time.

One said: “Did you notice that extraordinary white man who just went up the road?” In the same breath the other asked: “Did you see that incredible black man I have just seen?” In no time at all their friendly questions had turned into a violent quarrel and finally into a fight. As they fought they screamed, “He was white,” or “He was black.”

Finally, exhausted, they returned to their fields in hostile silence. No sooner had they settled down than Eshu came back up the road going the other way.

Immediately the two men sprang up again. “I am sorry, my good friend. You were right; the fellow is white.” And in the same instant the other was saying: “I do apologize for my blindness. The man is indeed black, just as you said.” And in no time the two were quarreling and fighting again. As they fought they shouted, “I was wrong!” and “No, I was wrong!”

How much are we like those two friends in the field? When you and I look at God, who is much bigger and more complex than Eshu, we see Him from different perspectives. So, naturally, we see different things about Him.

And when twenty or two hundred or two million people have looked in their own way at God and formed twenty or two hundred or two million different impressions of what they saw, what do we have?

We have … the state of our world today.

It’s a sad fact that alternative views of God, and the different religions that have formed around these views, have often resulted in hatred and prejudice among people who should be friends.

Instead of allowing our different views to divide us, we should celebrate the central thread of God’s deep love for us … and His willingness to work within our limitations. The fact that we see God at all, with our limited eyes, is a miracle in itself!

I have often wondered why, in matters religious, we become so welded to one point of view. Perhaps, when we have a personal encounter with the divine, the experience is so precious, we feel we must protect it at any cost. Or, the experience is so ephemeral, we feel we must define it to make it more tangible.

The problem with too much definition is, as Kahlil Gibran said, “doctrine is like a window pane – it allows us to see truth yet separates us from it.”

Other people’s experiences of God do not need to be a threat to our own experience. And they would never be a threat, if it were not for our limited and flawed perceptions both of God and of each other.

I’ll go further and say we might be amazed … that in spite of humanity’s almost universal lack of fine spiritual awareness … God has managed to bless our world with knowledge of Himself anyway … through a rich tapestry of religions.

On the personal level, God, spurred by his great love, deals with each us … by working through our peculiarities of thought and understanding.

The Eternal, Immutable Spirit charitably presents Himself to us in finite ways that we mere human beings can both recognize and accept.

This is one reason that people who have near-death experiences report encounters with figures from their own religion or culture. God gives us what we can use. He is “every thing to every one.” Or … she is.

It can’t be easy for the vastness of God to relate to the tiny-ness of a human mind on the best of days.

The task gets harder still when He has to find a passageway through our constricted concepts … our doubt and disbelief … the lies and confusion we have bought into … our blindness from sin … and a million other deficiencies. No wonder the message gets a little garbled along the way.

In my life, I’ve noticed that when God wants to talk to me, He does it through symbols I have come to associate with him.

For instance God often moves my heart with thoughts about Jesus, angels, the Bible, and hymns I learned in my youth. God also communicates with me through the things I love, especially music and nature.

Were God to speak to me in Arabic I would not understand his message. You might, but I wouldn’t.

If he approached me in the guise of Lord Ganesh (the elephant-headed Hindu god) I probably would not recognize him. Note that my response is conditioned by, and reflects, my culture. But that’s no reflection on God.

God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and He works in mysterious ways. There was a memorable occasion when God stepped outside of my ordinary religious symbolism to bring me an extraordinary experience of his profound love.

Once, during an unhappy period of my life, I dreamed of Gandhi. He appeared as the archetypal small brown man in a loin cloth and spectacles … just standing there, emanating heavenly love for me. The love engulfed me, and attracted me irresistibly, as though I had fallen into a deep river and was being carried along by a strong current.

Although I have always admired Gandhi I never would have expected to meet God using Gandhi’s form as a divine avatar.

Whatever God’s reasons were, his method certainly worked. I knew that he still loved and cared for me amid my pain. I was reassured.

Perhaps it is not coincidence that Gandhi was once famously quoted as saying, “I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Moslem and a Jew.”

What did Gandhi see that we don’t see?

It makes sense to believe that God may work in a similar manner everywhere.

Throughout history He has been gracious enough to reveal himself to individuals through their culture, and language, and at their current level of spiritual understanding. He gives us — as they say in school — “age-appropriate lessons.”

We often judge people of other religions in terrible ways, branding them as being inferior in understanding to ourselves or even as being deluded.

While admitting that a range of depth and maturity exists on both the individual and institutional levels, we mustn’t feel comfortable writing off entire religions based our own limited understanding. Remember the tricks of Eshu!

Even if we don’t see what others see, experience shows … that the more perfect one’s interior connection with God … the less likely one is to sit in judgment on others.

Instead of going around telling other people how wrong they are … and how right we are … shouldn’t we just feel happy that God shows Himself to all his children — no matter what state we’re in?

There is a concept in metaphysics that can help us shift into a more holistic viewpoint about the plurality of religions. A hologram is a pattern in which any part contains information about the whole. DNA is similar.

It seems that many small things contain the seed of very big things.

Now, none of us small humans can possibly grasp ALL of God, yet when we get in touch with SOME of God the experience can fill us up to overflowing.

A small brush with the Eternal can even have a radically life-changing effect.

Let’s imagine that to each religion on earth, God has given whatever experience of Himself those people could grasp … even if it’s only a part.

But … can any part of God be less than divine or perfect? No! So there we have a solid basis on which to respect the godliness at the center of every true religion.

Now let’s consider that every individual has a spirit which comes from God. Can each of us be a slice of the hologram of God because we have a spirit? I believe so.

I am not suggesting that we are perfect, not by a long shot. But bear with the image just for a moment.

What would the world be like if we all really recognized the presence of God in other people and stood humbly before one another, ready to learn more by opening our hearts and minds?

In India the chance to look into the face of a spiritual master is called a darshan. But everyone you look at already has a perfect little part of God in them. When we are able to greet and honor the God within everyone then we can have a darshan with God himself every day.

You may have heard the greeting Namaste – it means “I bow to the divine in you.”

Now if this is all sounding too Eastern … too New Age for you … let me give you a Western example.

Mother Teresa – like St. Francis before her – showed the way for Christians. Her mission to the poorest of the poor was founded on her ability to recognize Jesus within every person she met, however distressing the “disguise” in which he presented himself.

Her compassion stemmed not merely from pity at the condition of poverty, hunger, illness, and neglect of a person – which is something most of us can feel – but from her burning desire to serve the portion of God within him or her.

The difference between being sorry for a person in distress … and being able to treat every person with the same respect accorded to God … makes the difference between a humanist and a saint.

We are all called to be saints. To respect God’s handiwork with our brothers and sisters in all cultures and races. To respect God’s presence and purpose in all true religions.

So instead of fighting — like those two friends who were so easily tricked by Eshu — let us thank God for working hard to reveal Himself to us … wherever we are on our journey.

And let us commit — on this World Religion Day — to work with God to bring light, truth and love to every corner of our dark and fallen world.


  1. Brilliant speech, Cynthia. It must be published, perhaps, on World Religion Day in papers everywhere. The Dallas Morning News may be a good start.

    1. Thanks, Luisa! I was so pleased I found this. Wasn't sure I still had this speech in my files.