Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Today was the Ramadan dinner hosted by Pacifica Institute Utah Branch. The food, of course, is always wonderful, and we were able to visit with several friends from Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable and a Muslim family who just moved from Philadelphia. Wednesday the Roundtable helped to organize a beautiful candlelit vigil at the Taylorsville, Utah Sikh Temple to show support for those suffering from recent tragic events in Wisconsin.
Ramadan is a time to remember gratitude, to show compassion for those less fortunate, and to rededicate oneself to the highest ideals of faith. President Ibrahim Barlas of Pacifica Institute was visiting Utah, and shared his thoughts about practical applications of these ideals, and was a pleasure to hear. My friend Coskun Kariparduc, President of the Utah Branch of Pacifica Institute, asked me to speak a bit to my own thoughts about the process of understanding different cultural values and commonalities between religions, and the following was related.
All Are Human Underneath
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other))…
Earlier this year, Arun Gandhi spoke at the Salt Lake City Public Library about his experiences living for a period with his grandfather. He related that many times his grandfather Mohandas was asked his religion, and the answer (Arun said) was always the same. “I may be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, or Buddhist, but I can be none of these without first and foremost being human.” Regardless of the many gulfs which divide us, the simple reality is that all of us share our common bond of humanity.
As a glass artist I have noticed two things in particular about glass art from around the world. First, there is a mind-boggling variety of work done by men and women, from every faith tradition and corner of the globe, with every color and technique, size and shape of work imaginable. The second observation is that with this staggering amount of rich diversity, these works are united in the magical transformation which occurs only through the infusion of light.
In this setting, there comes to mind an obvious comparison. People come in many shapes and sizes, cultures, countries, and religions. Just like glass work, the array of diversity is astounding. Also just like glass work, the person becomes truly transformed through the infusion of light. At the risk of being tiresome, please consider some further observations about glass art.
The reason glass exists as a medium is because of its necessary relationship with light. Every piece of glass art is only truly completed when united with light and appreciated. And with such a beautiful medium–if all the glass work ever done was exactly the same, the beauty would ring hollow and feel of no use at all; each piece holds its beauty, both potential and realized, because of its uniqueness.
These observations ring true with people, as well. We are beings bearing, as St. Augustine wrote, the thumbprint of our Creator and feel complete when we give place to that Divine light. A Sufi poet expounded on this when he declared that, of all the animals in the world, birds are closest to us–only our wings are wings of spirit rather than flesh. And the world would be a profoundly boring place if it was filled with identical clones–just like a field of wildflowers, variety gives strength to beauty.
Thankfully, people are different. The Qur’an states that if He had wanted to, God would have created all the world as one nation–but He chose not to. We are made different so we can draw together through our differences. It is no coincidence that every faith tradition teaches caring for the stranger. We are all of us different–we were made to be–but beneath it all we remain brothers and sisters, made by the same Divine hand.
So, if we are made to be different, what do we do when confronted by that difference? The Qur’an teaches that we are meant to explore these differences, and use this as a means to strengthen our commonalities. I am Christian, not Muslim. There are profound differences in our doctrines and practices, but we are united by desire. Yet despite–and because–of these differences, my own beliefs are opened for reflection, clarification, and deepened understanding. I am forced to see beyond surface details into what is truly important: this person is a fellow being, a creature of my Creator, and my brother or sister. Mysteriously, the unfamiliar things I learn from this different faith transforms and strengthens my own. Instead of a dilution of belief, my faith is deepened and becomes more profound.
In my own faith tradition, we are taught that the Creator gives His truth to all who earnestly and honestly seek it, in the language and to the understanding of the seeker. We are also taught that these truths presented in so many languages and forms, are gems from Heaven and must be treasured whenever they are found. As people of faith, regardless of the traditions to which we belong, we are united by our desires–to build a better world, make a better future, and become fully the beings we are created to be. We are different because our Creator made us to be different–who are we to challenge Him? And we are together because He wishes us to be together. By celebrating our differences and rejoicing in the things we share, our lives are made richer and more worth living.
Whether we call Him Eloi, Allah, or God, He is the Creator of us all, and we are all of us His children.
Pacifica Utah Ramadan Dinner, 10 August 2012