Whatever people do for lent and i know this is true for Baha'is and Muslims too the time of fasting is like a retreat - more awareness of God, more time for prayer, more concern for others. To help this retreat - like atmosphere the Christian Churches in Britain and Ireland produce material to be used in house groups, in Church groups or whatever. This year the material has an interfaith flavour. Each week's reflection is written by someone who has studied a particular faith and shares how that has shone light on his or her own Christian Faith. The series is called Journeying Home which reflects the belief of John Dunne, a Catholic theologian that the spiritual adventure of our day is to travel into the world of another faith and return to understand your own in a new way. This is something that those of us engaged in interfaith relations can relate to.
The first lenten study was entitled Journeying into the Wilderness and focused on Jesus' time in the desert of Judea which ended with his temptation to be a popular, powerful kind of Messaiah. The desert is a common theme in what Christians call the Old Testament but Jews call the Bible. Jesus would have known the stories of the Israelites' wandering in the desert, Moses fast in the desert and other instances in the prophets where we are told that God enticed His People into the desert to speak to their heart from the Bible, the scriptures of his people which were also his scriptures. This first week reminds us that Jesus was Jewish, that his religion was Judaism, yet it's so easy to read stories of Jesus through Christian eyes. One of the insights of this first week is to consider Jewish suggestions that Jesus trained as a Pharisee. If this is so it changes our way of understanding Jesus' relationship with the Pharisees and seeing the stories of the differences between them not as the opposition of enemies but internal disagreements about interpretations of the Law. Another insight from this first week is from a Christian evangelical who never understood the Catholic and Orthodox devotion to the Virgin Mary until he learned from Islam about it's devotion to Mary and its way of viewing Mohammed as the bearer of the Word of God. His encounter with Islam led to greater understanding with his fellow Christians.
The second week reflects on the Rememberance of God's Name with insights from Sikhism who often speak of God simply as the Name. As it says in the Sikh Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib,
Take love as your pen and with reason as scribe enquire of the Guru (God) and list his commands.
Write on that paper the Name with your praises; write of the infinite power!
They who have treasured your Name in their hearts bear the marks of your grace on their brows.
For grace is the means to obtaining the Name; all other is bluster and wind.
The idea of using what seems like a very impersonal word for God is to counteract the proliferation of names for God that would have abounded in India at the time of Guru Nanak, Sikhism's founder. To be too specific in naming God is to anthropomorphise God and limit who and what God is. For Sikhs it's love of the divine name (Naam) that brings about spiritual liberation and a daily practice is to constantly remember the Name of God and express it in praise and song. This brings about a sense of unity with God and a deep appreciation of being God's beloved, all expressed in service to the community - a good message and an inspiring one.
The lenten journey is not over yet - there are three more religions to explore and learn from. I do hope Churches have taken up the challenge, even if they find it a bit unusual. For those not used to interfaith relations it will be a revelation to find out how we can learn from other faiths. But it will also be a revelation to discover that at the heart of spirituality there is great unity and common inspiration. I hope they are inspired to engage some more.