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.
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.
I wonder how many of you remember Kathryn Kuhlman. Ms. Kuhlman, who died in 1976, was a well known evangelist and faith healer. Her television program featured a now familiar mix of preaching, music (with Dino at the piano) and faith healings. Ms. Kuhlman began each of her broadcasts with these very carefully enunciated words, “I believe in miracles” or more precisely in Ms. Kuhlman’s own inimitable pronunciation, “I believe-a in miracles.”
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8; Matthew 22: 34-46
Tender is not a word that easily comes to mind when I think of Saint Paul or Leviticus. Usually Paul seems sharp or at times condescending and sometimes downright confusing. Leviticus, so concerned with purity laws is downright off putting, because I often feel that I could never make the grade, even if I wanted to. But this morning tender is the very word that springs to mind when I read them both. Listen again to Paul:
But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring
for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we
are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God
but also our own selves, because you have become very dear