Thursday, January 6, 2011

One God

"How many gods are there?"

The question seemed to come out of nowhere, but really, it just sort of followed on a bit of a tangent. We'd been talking about different religions, and I was saying that they seemed to have more in common than they did that was different.

How many gods are there? How do you go about answering that? There is obviously a hidden question within that, so just saying "one" doesn't quite seem to do it.

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that he seemed to believe that each religion came from a different god,  and he was going to try to claim that his religion was best, due to some sort of convoluted argument that would follow. It felt like it would be a grown up version of "My Dad can beat up your Dad".

As I was thinking of how to answer the real question, and curtail the upcoming argument, I said a quick prayer in my heart. You know the one, I'm sure. I often refer to it as one of my favorites, one of the few I've actually been able to commit to memory. It goes, "Oh God, help!"

It always seems to work, too.

As soon as I said it, the first thing that came to my mind was an image of 'Abdu'l-Baha in a church in the West. There are many instances in churches, or synagogues, or even in people's homes, when giving His talks, he would refer to some object that was right there. In the one church I was thinking of, He said, in the middle of His talk, "The incandescent lamps here are many, yet the light is one." I could just picture Him lovingly pointing to those lamps.

Other times He would refer to a flower, or a mirror, or some other object that the people could actually see.

Ruhiyyih Khanum often did the same thing. There was a time when she was in India giving a talk to a crowd of people who were predominantly farmers. When asked to describe the Baha'i Faith in relation to past religions, she pointed to a wheel on a nearby cart and said, "For generations you have built this powerful wheel, and you know where its strength lies. But if you ask someone who does not know anything about wheels, and never made one, where lies its strength, he may say it is in the rim. But you know that is not true. He may then say that it is in the spokes. But you know that is also not true; the strength of the wheel lies in the hub." And she proceeded to describe how each past faith fits into the hub of the Baha'i Faith, gaining in strength and applicability to today's problems.

But I didn't have a nearby cart that was handy, and I didn't see how it would help answer this man's question.

No, what I had was an apple. I knew the answer to his real question had to lie within that apple, but how? The seeds of apple being like the different faiths, and God being the apple itself? Too obscure. Besides, I didn't have a knife with which to cut the apple.

As you may know by now, my wife is from Quebec, and my son is going to a French school, so I've been learning a bit of that language (Shoghi's teaching me). And as I stared at that apple, the word "pomme" came to mind. The French word for apple. And then "tuffah", the Arabic (don't ask how I know that one).

There was my answer.

I looked at it, sitting there in my hand, with a bit of wonder, surprised that the idea was so simple. I'd never thought of it before, and am fairly sure I didn't think of it then, either. But the answer was there, and I was happy to share it.

"What is this?" I said, holding out the apple in my palm.

All right. His expression was a bit amusing. I mean, he had no idea what was going on in my head. Talk about non-sequitors: "How many gods are there?" "What is this?" (Said while holding an apple.) (I guess you had to be there.)

Anyways, he looked at me like I was a bit nuts and said, as if I were a child that he was trying to educate, "An apple."

"Yes," I agreed, "and how would you call it in French?"

Now he knew I was going somewhere with this. "Pomme?"

"Yup. Do you happen to know the Arabic for it? No? Tuffah."


"Close enough. So, how many objects am I holding?"


"Only one? But I'm holding an apple, a pomme and a tuffah."
He grinned in appreciation. I guess he was going to try and use the argument that "Muslims don't worship God, they worship Allah." I usually respond to that with "Yes, and the French worship Dieu, and the Spanish Dios." Same thing, different language.

I didn't even need to go there. He got it.

So I took a bite, and then offered it to him. He took a bite, too, and we continued on our merry way.


  1. This sort of reminds me of a Hindu proverb, where a student asks his teacher how many Gods are there, and the teacher says something like 1,000. Then the student says, yes but how many gods are there for real? The teacher says something like 700. Yes, the student exclaims, but how many are there for real? There are 500. How many for real? 300. How many for real? 100. How many for real? 40. How many for real? 10. How many for real? 4. Yes, but how many for real? 1.

    I always liked that story.

  2. simple-simply brilliant. Thank you.-Ronnie