Interfaith Discernment

I recently had the opportunity to speak about discernment at an online interfaith gathering. We had readings on the topic from the Qu’ran, Talmud and New Testament, and it was fascinating to consider the similarities and differences. To see the readings I refer to, click here. 

This is the sermon:

Two things to point out before I launch into this: firstly, you will be glad to know that I’m going to keep it short, around six minutes. Secondly, I appreciate the irony in someone who is barely out of adolescence preaching to much wiser people about discernment. Bear with me.

What is discernment? It’s one of those religious buzzwords that gets thrown about all the time, and can be defined simply as the ability to make sound judgements in matters of life and faith.

In many aspects, discernment was a lot easier when I was a fundamentalist; it all boiled down to ‘the Bible says it, so I believe it’. However, this is not how the Bible is intended to be read; the Bible is a collective narrative that progresses over time, not a textbook. I am also very grateful to our Jewish and Muslim friends for sharing readings from the Talmud and Qu’ran that share a similar sentiment; please forgive my ignorance of these texts, if I misrepresent them you can correct me when we have a discussion. So, let’s briefly look at each of these texts.

Starting with the Qu’ran reading, it allows for the possibility that certain verses are allegorical and can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways. Ultimately only God knows the true interpretation, but it is possible to believe the text is divine and yet still wrestle with its meaning. The text also warns against those who will interpret verses for their own twisted purposes, a phenomenon that occurs in all religions. For example, the Bible was used to both defend and abolish slavery – perhaps when someone offers us a certain interpretation of any religious text, we should ask ourselves what they stand to gain from such an interpretation.

But what metric do we use to determine what is allegorical and what is literal, what is culturally bound and what still applies to us in the 21st century? Our Talmud reading is helpful in answering this question. It tells the story of a debate which took place between Rabbis regarding whether or not a certain oven was Kosher; like many religious arguments, the debate itself eventually became more important than the actual matter that started it. The Rabbi who believes the oven is Kosher uses supernatural signs and even the voice of God to prove his case, but ultimately it is the community discernment of the majority of Rabbis that prevails. This story has two of the most striking verses in the Tamud: “The Torah is not in heaven” and God smiling as he says “My children have triumphed over me”. Remarkably, rather than being punished for their discernment, God is pleased with them.

And then we come to the New Testament, the reading from the Gospel of John, using the metaphor of vines, branches and fruit. Again, this text emphasises that the way to discern if a certain teaching or action is correct is judging it practically rather than purely theologically. How do you tell if someone is truly abiding in the vine of Christ – you look at their fruits. The ultimate command of Jesus is simple: love each other, and that is the key to having a fulfilled existence.

I will share a brief story of a useful lesson I have learnt about discernment. I once shadowed a chaplain who worked in Leith, Scotland. She was an eccentric character who was not your typical cleric, but very good at her job. I asked her how I could ever know for sure if I was supposed to go into this line of work. She said that I am not like Samuel in the Old Testament; God is not going to audibly call me in the middle of the night and tell me what to do. Rather, our best source of discernment on matters of faith and life is other people. This is something the Jewish tradition does very well, with their history of discussion and debate.

So, if we need to discern a matter, it is wise to discuss it with others in community. After all, God’s spirit dwells in us all, a resource waiting to be tapped. However, we cannot just listen to people who tell us what we want to hear – we need to be challenged with differing opinions if we’re ever going to grow. I must admit this is something I need to improve on.

I genuinely think interfaith groups like this one are a valuable source of discernment, underneath all the surface level jokes about Anglicans and death. We have many friendly disagreements, and I always come away from our discussions feeling just a little bit wiser.

In conclusion, let’s summarise what these readings teach us about discernment:

The reading from the Qu’ran tells us that discernment requires reason, knowledge and faith.

The reading from the Talmud tells us that discernment requires a community.

The reading from the Gospels tells us that discernment should be consequentialist and grounded in love.

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