I found inspiration recently, in of all things, The Edicts of Ashoka, ancient inscriptions written by Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century before the common era. They represent some of the oldest examples we have of what today we might call interfaith dialogue. For the most part, Emperor Ashoka is waxing eloquent on a newly arrived faith tradition called “Buddhism.” However, he also spends some time speaking about other religious traditions. Here’s some of what he wrote:
“The beloved of the gods… [he referred to himself in the third person that way] values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause… it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others… The beloved of the gods… desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions… And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows…”
With these words, Emperor Ashoka provides one of our first references to religious pluralism, suggesting a relationship beyond peaceful coexistence, towards finding essential wisdom in traditions not one’s own, and perhaps finding an underlying truth common to all traditions. Whatever his precise intention, the relationship between diverse faith traditions and their various truth claims has remained an important issue throughout our history.
a sermon for the Feast of the First Book of Common Prayer
I’m thinking today of our friend, Dick Mahaffy, as we celebrate the feast that marks the publication of the first Book of Common Prayerin the Church of England in the year 1549. Dick is an Episcopal priest, a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Fellowship of Saint John. He is also profoundly Deaf, and has been since birth. He currently serves as the President of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf (E.C.D.), an association of Episcopal churches that minister to and with Deaf people throughout the United States. I’m reminded of him today because I think this feast would be one that he would especially value.
The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was the first book of services written in English, the language of the people. As such it was a powerful sign that the liturgy belonged to the people and not just to the educated priests who could read and speak Latin. It was an invitation for all to participate in the worship of the Church with full comprehension of what was being said, for all to join in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” of the Eucharist in their own tongue, for all to be not merely spectators but actual participants in the Church’s worship. The publication of the Book of Common Prayer in the English language in 1549 was an act of inclusion.
Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
As I read the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, I often imagine seeing an enormous tent being painstakingly erected, like those that are used for outdoor weddings. With the introduction of each significant character – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna – another stake or peg is fixed in the earth, with its own cord attached. These cords begin to cross and intersect at just the right angles, as if by the arrangement of some mysterious, divine geometry, held taut by the weight of poles and the canvas now unfurling from the ground into a recognizable structure. Into the particularity of time and space there unfolds a tabernacle, a tent or dwelling for Christ Emmanuel, God-with-Us. A web of divinely inspired, interpersonal encounters prepares the ground and provides a sheltering roof.
It may be tempting today, looking around at the multitude of different denominations and churches, with all their varied practices and beliefs to wistfully look back at the first century of Christianity as simpler times, when we were all at least a bit more unified. It’s in this sort of spirit that we have a yearly week of prayer for Christian unity helping to remind us of our common heritage as followers of Christ, although not all Christians observe the occasion. Of course, there will likely be differences among us for as long as there is an “us,” and there have been differences and divisions among Christians from the beginning, with the very idea of what it meant to be a Christian often not well agreed upon.
When Paul was writing his letter to the Romans in the middle of the first century there probably weren’t anyone even calling themselves “Christians.” Paul himself never uses the term “Christian,” instead he using general terms like “brothers and sisters,” “assembly,” “church,” “congregation” or “saints”. The church in Rome, like many of the churches Paul had contact with, would have been a community composed of people with a variety of religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds, including both Gentile and Jew.