THE words “theophany” or “epiphany” generally refers to the manifestation of a divine or supernatural being. In Christian world history, “The Epiphany” marks a visit to the baby Jesus by the Magi, (three kings, or wise men). For Christians, it celebrates “the revelation of God in his Son as a human in Jesus Christ”.

In the West, Christians began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century, associating it with the wise men’s visit to Jesus.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the three kings found baby Jesus by following a star across the desert to Bethlehem.

The three kings; Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, followed the star of Bethlehem to meet the baby, Jesus. The three kings represented Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively.

According to Matthew 2:11, they offered symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gifts were symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth; the gold representing his royal standing, frank incense his divine birth, and myrrh his mortality.

Epiphany was celebrated last Friday, January 6, 12 days after Christmas. The ancient Christian feast day is significant as a celebration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, as well as a more general celebration of his birth. The six Sundays which follow Epiphany are known as the time of manifestation.

As I reflected on the manifestation of the Christ-light in this world, during my Epiphany meditation, I read the January 2017, “First Friday” letter from the World Methodist Council. It included a message from the chair of the council’s Inter-Religious Standing Committee, on which I serve as one of two Fijian Methodist members on the World Methodist Council.

In his Epiphany greeting, Reverend Dr RF Leão Neto shared a photograph of a painting from the collection of art in Wesley’s Chapel in London dated 1820 of Reverend Dr Adam Clarke as he is engaging in inter-religious relationships with two “priests of Buddha” from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Mosses, Alexander; Adam Clarke and Two Former Buddhists; John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism;

Peter Forsaith describes Clarke, who served as president of the Wesleyan/Methodist conference in Britain on three occasions, thus: “Yet in some lights, he seems to have remained an outsider, partly because of his intellectual (and financial) independence. Although based in London during a key part of his ministry, he preferred the periphery, serving in circuits in the Channel Islands, Cornwall and Shetland (where he was the founder of the Methodist work). He championed mission with the poor and marginalised, supported the abolition of African slavery, and helped to found Strangers’ Friend Societies. His theological views verged on the heterodox, partly influenced by his extensive reading of Eastern texts in the original tongues. Yet he steered a middle course between being sympathetic to radicals and loyal to the Wesleyanism where he had found his salvation.”

According to Forsaith: “Clarke comprehended Wesley. He shared Wesley’s emphasis on the primacy of religious experience, over and above dogma, churchmanship, education. Moreover, he shared some of Wesley’s ambiguities, a complex personality with a depth of learning yet adhering to simplicity. Clarke’s ‘Wesleyanism’ was a continuation of the man’s mission, forward-looking and flexible, not the defence of an institution.”

The painting mentioned above shows Clarke in an interreligious dialogue with two Buddhist monks. In the background of the painting hangs a picture which depicts the Buddha, alluding to Clarke’s knowledge of Eastern spirituality and philosophy.

The event depicted in the painting took place in 1818, when the returning Chief Justice of “Ceylon” (Sri Lanka), Sir Alexander Johnston (1775-1849), brought with him the two monks who had come at their own request to be instructed in Christianity. Forsaith identifies these two young men in their mid-20s as members of the Buddhist monastic order, the Sangha.

According to Forsaith, during this period Buddhism in Ceylon was in transition, and the position of the Sangha, in particular, was under some threat. The conciliatory nature of Buddhism, with its capacity to understand other religions peaceably, meant that it absorbed some of the features of Christianity. Further, the relative peace and prosperity which the island experienced led to the emergence of a middle class which, like free churches in Britain, tended to generate a stronger role for the laity.

By contrast, the incoming missionaries brought an implicit conversationist approach, with a negative view of the beliefs and culture they encountered.

Elizabeth Harris discusses how “the early British visitors” considered the Buddhism they experienced. Much hinged upon the (perceived) rationality of their religious beliefs and customs; not infrequently there was thought to be little reason for them. Clarke differed.

In his eyes, referring to the two “priests”, he said: “These men cannot be treated as common heathens. They are both philosophers — men of profound erudition in their way; with as far as I can judge, a powerful command of eloquence. They are deeply read in the most speculative, most refined and purest ethics of the Braham and Budhoo systems. In these respects their acquirements are immense.”

In his 1820 Clavis Biblica, which set out the Christian principles he had taught the two monks, he “affirmed that the Holy Spirit was present in the hearts of all people … an inclusivist stance rooted in natural theology, reinforced, perhaps, by his dialogue with the two monks”.

Clarke stood in contrast to the “hard”, anti-democratic and dogmatic Methodism of his era. Like Wesley, he was more concerned with experiential faith than right doctrine or church loyalty.

Wesley himself had addressed the issue of religious intolerance and prejudice in a sermon entitled, “A Caution Against Bigotry”.

He had said then: “What, if I were to see a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian, casting out devils? If I did, I could not forbid even him, without convicting myself of bigotry. Yea, if it could be supposed that I should see a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk, doing the same, were I to forbid him either directly or indirectly, I should be no better than a bigot still.

“O stand clear of this! But be not content with not forbidding any that casts out devils. It is well to go thus far, but do not stop here. If you will avoid all bigotry, go on. In every instance of this kind, whatever the instrument be, acknowledge the finger of God. And not only acknowledge, but rejoice in His work, and praise His name with thanksgiving. Encourage whomsoever God is pleased to employ, to give himself wholly up thereto. Speak well of him wheresoever you are; defend his character and his mission. Enlarge, as far as you can, his sphere of action; show him all kindness in word and deed, and cease not to cry to God in his behalf, that he may save both himself and them that hear him.”

People of a faith that is based on the unconditional love of God, need to remember that it is not with a heart of stone, but a heart of love alone that we must engage in the world around us, the world in which we live.

There are lessons on life, love and peace that we can learn from each other, which will not only make us better adherents of our faith but better children of God.

“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.”

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. This article was published in the Fiji Times Online on Wednesday, January 11, 2017. To view this, Click here!!