Over the years, I have been given the honor of officiating the weddings of former students, family members and friends. Somewhere in that history the “unity candle” became a part of the ceremony – a beautiful symbol of two lives becoming one in marriage.
The early practice I remember had the bride and groom using the two candles representing their individual lives to light the candle that symbolized their new life together, then extinguishing the two individual candles, now replaced by their “union.”
Somewhere along the way, someone suggested that an additional level of meaning for this symbol would be to leave the two individual candles lit, for the new community of marriage does not extinguish or diminish the integrity and uniqueness of the individuals who commit to it. Instead, it creates a new expression of humanity with creative possibilities beyond those of the individuals alone. That part of the symbol is a beautiful statement, too.
This image of a simple yet profound part of a wedding ceremony has come to mind recently as I have observed and pondered three things that are part of the current religious neighborhood.
One is a project of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia and the Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee. The project was aimed at promoting fellowship, learning about the respective traditions, working through false stereotypes and prejudices and (as our unofficial “motto” puts it) “restoring the neighborhood” too often broken by lack of knowledge and unnecessary separation.
The result of this has been a spirit of cooperation, respect and friendship among an increasing number of Baptists and Jews across the larger metro Atlanta area.
The second is the impact of participating in this project on a local Baptist congregation. Many of the church members have begun a journey (not easy for traditional Baptists) toward understanding and appreciating people of another religious tradition – not just as people to learn about but as fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith.
A frequent surprise is some find they have more in common with their new friends of a different faith than they so with some of their Baptist friends. Our church has recently offered space and help to some Jewish neighbors exploring the possibility of a new synagogue in the area.
The third item in this scenario is the current issue of the proposal for the Muslim community center/mosque in Manhattan. What is evident from all the commentary and posturing in this discussion is how great is the need, how pervasive is the fear, how large are the obstacles and how profound are the possibilities for genuine interfaith communication and community.
On a national scale, and even an international scale, this issue has brought interfaith concern from the quiet comfort of discussion groups to the center of our public life.
A legitimate concern often expressed in the context of interfaith thinking is, “Won’t we be compromising or giving up part of our faith if we join too closely with people who believe differently than we do about God, about Jesus, about salvation and so on? How can we be Christian and do that, without trying to convert them?”
Preserving the integrity of the faith to which one is committed is a natural and appropriate expression of that faith. Otherwise, we would have a generic mix where distinctive faiths would lose their identity in a quest for community.
But the unity candle of the wedding ceremony keeps coming back to my mind as I realize that we do not lose our identity when we become part of a new community. Instead, we both enrich it and are enriched by it, even as we experience a new level of our humanity in its context.
Is it possible that just as a marriage creates a new generation in the human family for those who embark on its uncertain journey into the future, might interfaith friendship create a new generation in the family of God for those who are willing to embark on its journey?
The Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, whose work “I and Thou” affirmed that trust and dialogue are the avenues to true relationship and community, was keenly aware of the significant differences between the Jewish and Christian faiths. But he saw in the trust in God inherent in both the basis for community and for a future not yet disclosed.
“Whenever we both, Christian and Jew, care more about God himself than for our images of God, we are united in the feeling that our Father’s house is differently constructed than our human models take it to be,” he wrote.
Is a new generation in the family of God that is neither exclusively Jewish or Christian or Muslim (or …) too much to hope for from a God who long ago said, “Behold, I make all things new!”?
An excellent starting point for individuals and groups interested in interfaith dialogue would be the two Baptist Center for Ethics DVD resources: Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships with Jews and Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies in Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.