“Spirituality is about seeing—seeing things in their wholeness, which can only be done through the lens of our own wholeness.” Richard Rohr
At a recent free event sponsored by the Intercultural Dialogue Institute of Calgary, a Rabbi, a Pastor and an Imam walked into a room.
We’re pretty conditioned to expect a joke when we hear a statement like that, but this was definitely not a joke, and there wasn’t a punch line. In fact, I’m happy to report there was no punching at all.
A very diverse crowd gathered on Dec. 1, 2016 at the University of Calgary’s downtown campus to take part in this unique interfaith gathering. After munching on appetizers and getting acquainted with some of the interesting folks in attendance, who represented wildly different backgrounds, cultures, ages and beliefs, we all took our seats for the second treat of the night.
Community leaders from three faith traditions – Rabbi Mark Glickman of Temple B’nai Tikvah, Pastor Anthony Greco of Calgary Life Church and Imam Navaid Aziz of the Islamic Information Society of Calgary – shared lessons from the life of Abraham, drawing from their own Scriptures and faith perspectives. It was a night rich in connection and discovery, with many long-held assumptions overturned.
For me personally, as a Jewish convert to Christianity, the event shed new light on Abraham, a Bible character I thought I knew well. I also became more aware of the importance and joy of true dialogue.
As we all know, stirrings of mistrust, anger and conflict between people of different faiths fill our airwaves and screens. And so, to be honest, it is fear – a projection of our anxiety – that discourages us from coming together and seeking to understand one another. Which is exactly why an event such as this one is so vital. All three of the speakers emphasized the centrality of Abraham to their faith, and yet it was like seeing three unique reflections cast from different sides of a prism. Together, they gave us a fuller, deeper understanding of Abraham’s experiences.
This was not a celebration of how “alike” we are; it was a celebration of how we can learn so much from exploring our differences, by actually engaging with each other in a spirit of mutual esteem and curiosity. Seeing the presenters listen to each other, and then speak with eagerness about the insights and wisdom they were discovering that night in one another’s traditions, was a great pleasure to witness.
Rabbi Mark Glickman read from the sacred text in Genesis 22:1-24, recalling the test that God had for Abraham. “Take your son, your favoured one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which I will point out to you.”
According to the text, Abraham was prepared to obey, to sacrifice his only son. But an angel suddenly appeared, telling Abraham to stop, even as he stood with knife raised. “But the angel of Y-HWH called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
We heard from the Rabbi how the Jewish people revere Abraham because, facing the worst imaginable test, he trusted God. For that reason above all, God blessed Abraham and his descendants, and through them, all nations of the earth.
And yet everyone can relate to Abraham, his struggles, his difficult decisions, his desires and his blessings. But this story that so dramatically portrays Abraham’s faith is not a simple one. Rabbis have studied and debated stories and passages like this for centuries, mining the Torah for hidden meaning in words and phrases. For example, Rabbi Glickman wondered aloud about the significance of the angel saying, “Abraham, Abraham” – repeating his name twice. There remain many mysteries and recurring arguments about what it all means, and what to take away from the text. In fact, Abraham himself modeled this way of wrestling with words, digging deep into their limits and nuances, when he pleaded and argued with God in Genesis 18 about saving Sodom: “What if only twenty righteous people are found there?”…“What if there are only ten?”
The Jewish perspective is a complicated and messy affair, echoing millennia of struggles and blessings. Through Abraham, we are reminded of the perennial trials that the Jewish people – and by extension, all of us – must go through, and the great good that often comes of them.
Pastor Anthony Greco of Calgary Life Church was next. He spoke enthusiastically about Abraham, the Father of faith to so many people around the globe, and the very personal impact of the story of Abraham’s trials. Pastor Greco also focused on our God, who made and kept great promises – and who did not stop doing miracles thousands of years ago. He continues to intervene on our behalf in miraculous ways even today. He is a God who inspires, who gives us hope and walks with us in our struggles.
Rather than focusing solely on the Old Testament, the Pastor led us into the New. He described the many ways that the story of Abraham, as Christians throughout history have believed, is a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. He pointed out details of the story that attest to this, such as how Abraham’s son was restored to him after a three day trip to Mt. Moriah, just as Jesus prophesized that He would arise form the dead on the third day. This approach places Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promises and upon whom we can look for guidance and direction.
Last to speak was Imam Navaid Aziz, the first Muslim Chaplain to the Calgary Police and Director of Religious and Social Services for the Islamic Information Society. He spoke of a story from Muslim holy texts that tells of Abraham as a young man smashing his father’s idols, in a bid to convince him to worship the one true God. Most Christians have never heard this story before, but Rabbi Glickman pointed out a very similar story in sacred Jewish texts that tells of Abram asking his father why he worshiped idols if they had no life or power, and then smashing the idols to show that Yahweh was the one God to worship.
Imam Aziz went one step further. Without neglecting Abraham, or forgetting Jesus as the penultimate prophet and messenger of Allah (God), he spoke of how Islam is a continuation of God’s love story for mankind. The telling of the story of Abraham and the unfolding of the history of his descendants cannot be fully understood without filling in the picture presented by prophets who followed him. He explained that Muslims around the world look to Mohammed’s coming in the 14th century as a further revelation of God’s love for his creation.
Imam Aziz, like many Muslims around the world, emphasizes a side of Islam that we don’t hear enough about in the news. Rather than focusing on justice or law, or Islam as a nation, he spoke passionately about the trustworthy God of Abraham and the life-giving qualities that He offers to us today. He described God as One who is merciful, wise and nurturing, the source of all provision, emanating compassion.
With humility and gentle humour, Imam Aziz described the need to strip ourselves of ego and focus on serving the needs of others. This is a great spiritual opportunity that we mustn’t miss, he explained, and we also must not forget that one day we will die and meet God. Then we will discover a God of true radiance and beauty, who knows each of us personally.
As I was listening to each of these speakers describe Abraham, I was reminded of Citizen Kane, the classic 1941 movie about the late Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper magnate as seen through various eyes. This was a complicated man, a passionate man, who was focused on getting what he wanted. Kane’s business manager tells the story about how Kane hired the best journalists to manipulate public opinion. Kane’s best friend focuses on his personal life and tells tales of Kane’s affairs. Kane’s butler describes his anger and the gaps in his character. Everyone who knew him looked at him from a different angle, and contributed pieces that added up to a much greater whole. Even though their stories were so different, they all shone a light on the man in question. Yet in the end, there still remained a mystery surrounding the man.
The event on Dec. 1 also revealed different facets of one man. As we reflected together on Abraham’s life and his impact as the father of these three faith traditions, we were all joined by a deeper appreciation of our own stories, and the richness of each other’s stories. And there is also another, greater narrative being told by such events and dialogues. I believe it is the gradual healing of the human family. It is the path towards peace.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add one last delightful detail about the evening. A young Muslim woman was sitting beside my wife and I, and at the break we had a very enjoyable and lively chat together. Later, as the event wrapped up, she slipped a piece of paper into our hands. On it was written her address, and with a shy smile, she invited us to join her, her husband and children for brunch at their house the following weekend. Which we very happily did…but that’s another story.
The Intercultural Dialogue Institute has chapters in ten major cities in Canada. For more information and to find out about upcoming events, visit www.interculturaldialog.com