In a nation as diverse and multicultural as Britain, dialogue and understanding between religions are surely something to be encouraged. Nevertheless, last month saw two British cathedrals become the target of a bitter backlash over elements of their interfaith work. In Gloucester Cathedral, a local imam kicked off the city’s Faith Exhibition by performing the Muslim call to prayer within the chancel of this ancient Christian church, whilst 300 miles away in Glasgow, an Epiphany service in the city’s Anglican cathedral attracted attention for containing a reading from the Qur’an. Indeed, the latter incident caused such controversy that the leader of the Scottish Anglican Church issued a statement claiming to be “deeply distressed at the widespread offence which has been caused.”Are such episodes further proof of a dangerous liberalism that is eroding the central tenets of Western Christianity, or do they in fact point towards the possibility a more inclusive position for people of all religions and none?
I wholeheartedly take the latter view, and find it hard to understand why anyone would complain about people of different religions coming together and focusing on what they have in common rather than that which divides them. Too often we view interfaith work as a necessary evil, something that we as people of faith have to do in order to at least look like we care about promoting understanding and cohesion, but this lukewarm approach just will not cut it anymore. With each year that goes by, Britain is becoming a more diverse and pluralistic country, yet hostilities and prejudices between religious communities are rising; if we are to lead the way in promoting partnership and friendship between different religions, then we must engage in interfaith programmes which are bold and ambitious, even if we do ruffle a few feathers in the process.
Despite our diversity, Britain is not a good place to be a person of a minority faith. Islamophobia is a real phenomenon as people offload their disgust at Islamic extremism onto the vast majority of British Muslims who are peaceful patriots, whilst British Jews face a staggering increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the country. The careless use of language by many on the political left when discussing Israel has served to legitimise such hostility towards the Jewish community, with anti-Semitism being renamed ‘anti-Zionism’ in an attempt to give it some kind of academic credence, and the result has been a recreation of the problems which plague the Middle East on the streets of Britain’s largest cities. Instead of recognising one another as people of faith and fellow worshippers of the Abrahamic God, Christians, Muslims and Jews are too often locked in a seemingly endless cycle of distrust, suspicion and hatred. This is what really poses the greatest threat to the moral fabric of our pluralistic society.
As the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his wonderful book Not In God’s Name, religious violence is not limited to one particular faith or creed. In the age of Trump, it is popular to assume that the problem lies solely with radical Islam, and a glance at the headlines would seem to vindicate that view. One cannot merely dismiss the actions of ISIS and other militant groups as being unrelated to Islamic thinking; after all, this was the approach of Barack Obama, who refused to publicly refer to radical Islam in the naive hope that doing so would reduce anti-Muslim sentiments. Instead, eight years of Obama’s passivity produced President Donald Trump, a man who came to power by promising a ‘total and complete shutdown’ of Muslims entering the United States. We cannot ignore the relationship between radical and mainstream Islam – the two are not so far apart as many Western liberals would like to believe – but neither can we pretend that Islam is the only religion with a violence problem. All religions are prone to acts of unspeakable cruelty, a fact which is an inevitable by-product of belief in a higher power.
Just as every human is capable of performing acts of great love and altruism and acts of hatred and selfishness, the same is true with every major religion. At its best, faith inspires us to replicate the love of God, to become more fully human and to strive for justice here on earth, whilst also calling us towards lives of service and humility as we seek the divine and recognise the sacred in each other. These overwhelmingly positive aspects of religion represent what is good about belief in the supernatural, and they stand in stark contrast with the harshness of secular materialism which judges human life by how much one can accumulate rather than how much can be given away in the service of others. Nevertheless, there is a flip-side to religious belief, and as Rabbi Sacks points out it is one which is particularly prevalent within those monotheistic faiths that make exclusive claims about God. Instead of emphasising the common good and that shared humanity which cuts across sectarian lines, religion too often creates a divisive ‘us and them’ mentality, pitting a cleansed people against an ‘unsaved’ world whereby only the adherents of the correct doctrines will be allowed to enter the kingdom of Heaven. This is what fuels the brutal actions of ISIS, but it is also the same mindset that infects much of modern Christian discourse, grossly devaluing the sanctity of human life in the process. An exclusively Muslim phenomenon, it is certainly not.
If religion is to be a force for peace and understanding, transforming the world through the power of the sacred, we must follow the lead of Jonathan Sacks and other similarly enlightened thinkers within all of the great faiths by binning this theological dualism which creates suspicion and hatred just as much as the inflammatory rhetoric of the likes of Donald Trump. That isn’t to say that we must turn our backs on the beliefs and principles which make up the core of our faith traditions, but we must reject any attempts to define God along narrow partisan lines. One of the ways we can start this process is by engaging with people of other faiths and discovering the sacred in those traditions which are alien to us; in other words, by continuing in the steps of those cathedrals in Glasgow and Gloucester. All creeds, holy books and theological doctrines have the potential to make people turn inwards, forming closed and exclusive communities, but the God of Love calls us to a life marked by radical friendship, limitless grace and extravagant generosity. By accepting this call, we have the potential to transform our divided world and to promote a sacred unity whereby all humans are recognised as the children of God.