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Faith & Reason: Why the other lights of the world are not fakes

The Christ-child brings light to the darkness. But the same metaphor is crucial to Judaism and Islam. Adherents of the three faiths cannot afford to ignore each other, argues the Rev Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Rather each light must reflect the brightness of those that surround it.

"Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising."

A common theme in the religious mythologies of the world is the cosmic battle between light and darkness, between beauty and chaos. The first creation story in the book of Genesis - which is held to be holy by Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike - speaks of the formless sea of chaos, over which swept the breath of God, bringing ordered complexity, beauty and life into being in successive waves of creative power.

But the first divine act was the manifestation of light. This is the light of divine glory, or beauty, which exists before sun, stars or moon, and which will remain in that new creation at the end of history in which there is no more sea. Human life now - between the beginning in chaos and the end in glory - is an interweaving of light and darkness, in which the material is being transfigured to become a vehicle for spirit.

The three great Abrahamic faiths tell different but related stories of the unfolding of this sacred cosmology.

Isaiah, from whom the opening quotation is taken, sees the people of Israel as called by God to be the vehicle of divine light in a world of oppression and cruelty. They are to be the priests of the earth, their land is to be a sanctuary of justice and peace, and they are to be the exemplars of the marriage of creator and creature.

Islam opens up the law of divine wisdom, the shari'ah, to all people. One of the best loved verses of the Koran (xxiv, 35) says, "God is the Light . . . God doth guide whom He will to His light." By joyful submission to the law of God, darkness is dispelled by the presence of the Lord of light.

The Christian way finds the creative Word of God embodied in the person of Jesus, who becomes himself the liberator from darkness and the light of the world. His human personality becomes, for his disciples, the transparent vehicle of the divine light. United inseparably with the glory of God, his risen life is the source of the light which his body, the church, is called to manifest to the world. The church is called to follow its Lord in serving the world in healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

These three ways - the way of the people of the covenant, the community of the divine law, and the way of the "body of Christ"- are all ways of mediating light in darkness, of building beauty from chaos, of incarnating justice and loving-kindness in the world. If they strive with one another, they should do so in goodness. If they disagree, as they inevitably will, they should do so in love and respect.

A resolution for the faithful for this new year might be never to say, "My light is the only light, all others are fakes", but to say instead, "God is the only light, and He makes His light shine where He wills". We in the Abrahamic traditions respond to the light that we have seen, by the grace of the one true God. We ourselves obscure that light, by our greed, hatred and ignorance. We must learn to discern the light wherever it shines, to encourage and cherish it.

It is even possible that the light we have will shine with its true brightness only when it reflects the lights that surround us. These lights of faith can lead us from the often wilful ignorance which breeds misunderstanding and intolerance towards knowledge of the one reality of supreme goodness, whose true and uncreated light they dimly reflect.

In the words of the Second Vatican Council's constitution of the church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, "Since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery." And, one must add, in the Mosaic covenant and the community of true Muslims, those who submit their lives to God. Are our eyes, in this new year, prepared for such a light?