On a recent flight to India I had the privilege of sitting next to a man from Canada who was traveling to his hometown in Punjabi. He had immigrated to Canada when he was in high school 20 years ago. He has a business in one of the British Columbia/USA border towns and was doing quite well. In casual conversation we hit it off. He is a rabid hockey fan, so we had lots of banter about teams and players. He was a Sikh.
So I asked him about Sikhism, something of which I was unfamiliar. I knew it was neither Hinduism nor Islam, but not much more than that. For the next hour he patiently endured my questions as I asked him to explain his beliefs. He admitted to being a bit of a cultural Sikh rather than a devoted follower, but nonetheless considered himself Sikh. He certainly knew the history of his faith and the foundational tenants. I asked him what it is about Sikhism that makes him retain his Sikh identity even though it is more traditional than spiritual. He said it is the sense of morality and justice.
I learned that Sikhs are monotheistic. They believe that the spiritual life cannot be separated from the secular life. They value sharing, hospitality and the equality of all people, rejecting discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, or gender. They believe that honest work honors the divine one – that a creative and practical life of truthfulness, faithfulness, self-control and purity is more holy than a purely contemplative one. They abhor the destructive influence of The Five Thieves – ego, anger, greed, attachment, and lust.
Sikhism had its start at the dawn of the 16th century by the teaching of a man named Guru (Teacher) Nanak, the first of 10 successive teachers who have shaped the religion. His concept of God is that he is the shapeless, timeless, sightless creator who spoke the world into existence. He is omnipotent. They believe that though he is beyond human understanding, God is knowable. They believe that through meditation God reveals himself and communicates with his people. They believe they can be in spiritual union with God. They believe in a kind of karma, but also believe grace is the means to salvation. They believe all paths lead to God, so they are pluralistic regarding their acceptance of other faiths.
I thanked him for helping me understand Sikhism and he in turn asked me what I believed. I said I was a Christian and he asked me why I believed in it. I asked him to first tell me what he knew of Christianity. The only thing he knew was that Christians were the ones who made his life a living hell when he first arrived in Canada as a high school immigrant. I asked him if that is what he thought all Christians were like and he said he never had any interest in finding out more. I assured him that I knew many Christians that would have been appalled at their behavior and would have treated him with respect. I also said that we would do so because we share many of the values he said were important to him. He then began to ask me questions.
In Trustworthy Rivals: On an Alternative Path to Multi-Faith Discourse, Paul Metzger warns…
“Interfaith or multi-faith discourse can easily fall prey to agreeing to agree on everything, even where there are significant differences. Such agreement and affirmation may come across as disingenuous at worst, naïve and exaggerated at best. As I have had to tell various people of non-Christian faith communities over the years when engaged in such discourse, we are not saying the same thing.”
I was able to talk to him about points of agreement regarding our beliefs, but also about irreconcilable differences. He was fascinated with the Triune God who invites us into relationship, something God Himself has already known eternally in the Trinity – that love was not something created later with which to communicate with His creatures. He thought it answered something missing in Sikhism. We talked about forgiveness a lot, which moved him. We talked about Jesus, who revealed the love of the Father. He thanked me for letting him ask so many questions. He said he was touched by the Gospel as I shared it.
We will never be heard unless we listen – and do so with genuine interest. You may be surprised at the points of agreement that lead to greater discussion. Then when we discuss the differences as trustworthy rivals we are not simply refuting their beliefs, but clarifying our own.