Abraham for brunch: four world religions at our table

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 22, 2011

Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is, in spite of their many differences, have something very important in common: they all trace their monotheistic (belief in one God) roots back four millennia to the Middle East patriarch Abraham.

Over the past ten months, four Cochrane Christian couples, including my wife and me, met monthly over weekend brunches at each other’s homes to learn more about the other three Abrahamic religions. Some of the time, we made use of background videos and readings.

But then there were those very special occasions when we had as our brunch guests one or two adherents to each of the other three traditions, one tradition at a time. These were the times when we came to appreciate the real secret to our oneness.

Abraham’s name means “father of many nations.” Many nations? There can be no doubt about that, considering that his religious descendants make up well over half the world’s population today.

Our first brunch guests were a young Jewish couple. Judaism (and thus Christianity) traces its ties back to Abraham through his son Isaac by wife Sarah.

In song and story they shared with us the joy of their religious tradition in ways that would have made Tevye and the fiddler on the roof want to dance. They also paid tribute to the wise guidance of rabbis at critical moments in their lives, especially that of one rabbi who spoke an affirming blessing to the husband during his formative youth.

Deeply concerned for the welfare of Earth – and particularly for the human and environmental impact of mineral exploitation in the Amazon – they inspired us to be good stewards of this fragile planet on which God has placed us.

Our second brunch guest three months later was a young Muslim woman, an Iraqi refugee from the Gulf War.

Islam traces its ties to Abraham (Ibrahim in Islam) through his son Ishmael by the slave girl Hagar who was banished when Ishmael was a lad, only to experience God’s (Allah’s) amazing mercy.

Like Hagar, our guest spoke as one who has walked the way of submission to merciful Allah through terrible trials and difficulties. She has refused to play the victim, even when facing the ordeals of life in a refugee camp, eventually immigrating to Canada, and encountering rude remarks from passers-by in Alberta to go back home where she “belonged.” But this is her new home, she said with gratitude, and this is where she belongs now.

Our Baha’i brunch guests were a semi-retired couple originally from Iran, where their religion, the most recent of the four Abrahamic traditions, was founded in the mid-19th century.

The Baha’i trace their genealogical link to Abraham through a son of his wife Keturah.

The couple noted how their religion emphasized unity among all the world’s major religions, and that their founder, Baha’u’llah, is just the latest in a series of God’s manifestations down through history, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.

Although members of their Baha’i religion back in Iran, including their own family, have suffered terrible persecution over the years, the couple spoke with forgiveness toward their persecutors and left us an example of grace under fire.

The four couples in our host group, as I already mentioned, are Christian. As such, we hold one view, in particular, that is in marked conflict with the other three Abrahamic traditions of monotheism: we are Trinitarian.

That is, we hold to one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This has often been misunderstood as polytheism (belief in many gods) by adherents to the other three traditions.

But our intention in hosting the brunches was not to debate our differences, no matter how important, but to learn about the others’ lived experience of their faith. And this we did, and through this approach, all of us – Jew, Christian, Muslim and Baha’i alike – rose from the table at the end of our meal with a shared insight into the mysterious oneness we experienced together.

Clearly, the secret was not a oneness found in our doctrines and dogmas, as if the fundamentals of the four Abrahamic faiths were the same. As scholar Stephen Prothero so convincingly argues in his 2010 book, God Is Not One, this popular bit of wishful thinking “is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.”

No, the secret to our oneness lay elsewhere. What we found in our brunches with these passionate and compassionate folks from the other three Abrahamic religions was the oneness of humble, longing hearts and the willingness to embrace each other in the bond of civility and respect for our common creatureliness under one Creator.

The real secret to our oneness? In one word, Love.

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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