The lights of different faiths
A few days ago, I was visiting people in my fifteen-storey apartment building here in Toronto, trying to get to know them and have meaningful conversations with them. It’s very strange how you can live in a building with over 1,000 people in it and not know a single soul – living in a tower of strangers. One of the apartments my friend and I visited was the home of a Nepalese family who were celebrating Diwali.
We spoke with the wonderfully warm and jovial father of the family about Diwali as a time to spend with family and friends, about how it is a festival of lights celebrating the triumph of good over evil. We also spoke about the oneness of humankind, remarking on how although he is from Nepal and I’m from Canada we are brothers all the same.
Reflecting on this powerful interaction, I think that Diwali, in what it represents and how it represents it, is a telling demonstration of humanity’s oneness. It is a festival variously celebrated across a variety of cultures, with a variety of meanings attached to it. However, the symbolism of light and darkness, of goodness illuminating and dissipating evil, spans across these celebrations (please forgive my ignorance if this isn’t actually or exactly the case – I’m new to Diwali!). And over the millennia, religion, as a system of knowledge and a catalyst for human imagination and motivation, has been a source of illumination to the world and represented as such.
This is of course true even in religions that don’t celebrate Diwali. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of His Person and His teachings, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” And CS Lewis, whose writings on Christianity are among my favourites, wrote once: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
We find a similar expression of the theme found in John 8.12 in the Holy Qur’an’s stunningly beautiful Surah An-Nur:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp—
the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star—
lit from a blessed olive tree,
neither eastern nor western,
whose oil almost lights up,
though fire should not touch it.
Light upon light.
Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes.
Allah draws parables for mankind,
and Allah has knowledge of all things.
I don’t think too many people will find this thematic consistency very surprising. Light and darkness (seeing and not seeing) is a natural way for humans to conceive of knowledge and ignorance, and good and evil.
As a Bahá'í, I also understand this consistency as a signal of the fundamental oneness of religion, of each religion variously expressing a singular, yet ever-adapting message. As a Faiths Act Fellow, it gives me great joy to see in the words and actions of my colleagues in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, India and Sierra Leone the reflected brilliance of the lights of the different faiths of the world. And I’m reminded of the following exhortations of ’Abdu’l-Bahá:
“Let each one of God's loved ones centre his attention on this: to be the Lord's mercy to man; to be the Lord's grace. Let him do some good to every person whose path he crosseth, and be of some benefit to him. Let him improve the character of each and all, and reorient the minds of men. In this way, the light of divine guidance will shine forth, and the blessings of God will cradle all mankind: for love is light, no matter in what abode it dwelleth; and hate is darkness, no matter where it may make its nest. O friends of God! That the hidden Mystery may stand revealed, and the secret essence of all things may be disclosed, strive ye to banish that darkness for ever and ever.”