Friends across faiths? Justice, Islam and Christianity

Talk for the Isaiah Community
St John, Waterloo
17 April 2012

Readings:                              John 20 19-end;    Isaiah 53 6-12


First, I’d like to thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. Justice is a hugely important issue so I’m delighted to be here to reflect and pray with you and to support the work of the Isaiah Community.

My own concern for justice goes back to my teenage years and a growing awareness of the importance of the care of our planet and the need for a fairer distribution of its resources. Earlier today I was at Christian Aid, taking part in a consultation about their “Trace the tax” campaign which seeks to stop unscrupulous firms dodging tax and thus depriving poor countries of more than $160bn every year.

Justice was also an important consideration as I started to develop an interest in inter faith issues. There was very little interaction between faiths when I was at school but in the 1990s, when I was a vicar in Luton, it was clear that one of the most important things we could do was to support the development of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding among people of all faiths and cultures. Several of us with the same idea supported an ecumenical initiative called “Grassroots” to enable the community and churches in getting a better understanding between people of different faiths and building a plural society in Luton. Grassroots still exists today but it also spawned Luton Council of Faiths, which brings together members of different faiths for deeper dialogue and cooperation. Such conversations are vital in building trust between people with different perspectives and can take place at any level: next week Muslim and Christian scholars from across the world will be meeting in Canterbury to study texts together as part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “Building Bridges” initiative.

More recently I have been privileged to be the Christian Co-Chair of the Christian Muslim Forum, another organisation founded to enable members of the two communities to meet together in a structured way. The Forum aims to support the development of open, honest and committed relationships between Christians and Muslims, to provide a platform from which we can work together for the common good and to develop channels of communication which enable us to respond together to events which test our relationship. I have recently handed over the role of Co-Chair to Bishop Paul Hendricks from the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark but I continue to work with the Forum as its Anglican President.

Bringing things completely uptodate, I went in February on a pilgrimage in Jerusalem. Called “Pilgrimage and Spirituality” this gave me the opportunity to reflect on the Holy Land as the cradle of the three great monotheistic faiths – a vibrant, but also disturbing experience. I hope to be able to take a party of Jewish, Muslim and Christian students to the Holy Land next year on a pilgrimage to the places which have meaning for all three faiths.

Fear and friendship – twin aspects of our contemporary world

The post-9/11 world has complex roots – in the great religious expeditionary wars which made up the Crusades, in the colonialism pursued by Britain, Spain, Portugal and France for over 400 years, in justice and poverty issues, and in the Western focus on materialism and markets. All these things have conspired to create both fear and friendship. Today we see the fear in the shape of court cases challenging the place of religion in modern society, in debates about the place of Sharia law in relation to the UK’s established law, in the development of parties like the English Defence League – which explicitly opposes the spread of Islam – and in the growth of a general antipathy towards all religions. Yet at the same time friendships are also growing – in local interfaith groups, in organisations like the Christian Muslim Forum, in the growing understanding of the value of diversity, and in initiatives like “A Common Word”. In this, Muslim scholars, intellectuals and clerics came together, for the first time in centuries, to declare common ground between Islam and Christianity, to confirm their respect for the Christian faith and to acknowledge that, despite their differences, the two faiths not only share the same divine origin and Abrahamic heritage but also the same two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbour.

The Olympics mirror both sides of this coin – alongside a real desire for common enterprise there are preparations for massive security arrangements.

This is now turning into one of the major issues for the 21st Century: how to live well together in a plural society without collapsing into “anything goes” relativism or an autocratic theocracy. Or, as Miroslav Volf put it in his book, “A public faith”, how to find a way between “secular excusion” and “totalitarian saturation” by religion. The problem is evident at every level: social, political, economic, moral, theological and philosophical.

My theology / spirituality of pluralism / orthodoxy is based in

1. The understanding that there is one God, one reality behind and in all things. And that all humanity is made in God’s image.

2. The way that God makes himself known his Jesus, his death and resurrection. This gives us a yardstick against which we can measure our understanding of God.

  • In today’s reading John told us, in describing the Resurrection, how Jesus appears to the frightened disciples. But then even doubting Thomas is convinced. His words, “My Lord and my God”, represent the highest Christology in the New Testament, and encapsulate the importance of believing in Jesus.
  • We also heard, in Isaiah, how the early Christians trawled through the Old Testament to find a way of understanding the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection – and finding the redemptive power of suffering love.

3. The fact that God is also known in Creation and in other religions. The Holy Spirit is at work in all reality, and “rays of truth” and “seeds of the word” are present and active in all religions. This is recognised in “Meeting God in friend and stranger”, published in 2010 by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference as a teaching document on inter-religious dialogue to encourage understanding of the religious dimension of multicultural life.

4. The Holy Trinity: the heart of God is love, and a fulfilled life is one in which love of God and neighbour are paramount. In 2008, “Generous Love”, a report from the Anglican Communion’s Network for Inter Faith Concerns, sought to find an Anglican theology of inter-faith relations based on a Trinitarian understanding of God.

So the challenge is how to “square the circle” of firm commitment to God’s revelation in Christ with an equally firm commitment to dialogue without collapsing into relativism or strident authoritarianism?

We need to find ways of expressing the Christian faith and of living in dialogue, with the aim of developing new ways of understanding.

So what? How should we live?

“Orthopraxis” is a theological approach which raises questions about whether our actions as Christians are consistent with the faith we profess. “Dialogue” can be understood as a frame of mind or attitude which can be expressed in several ways:

1. “Relational Theology” is a way of doing theology which emphasises the need to get to know the people with whom we are in dialogue – their background and characteristics – and only then engaging in our discussions and dialogue. The patient building up of real friendship and trust enables much richer and deeper conversations.

2. Spirituality and prayer are central. We need to attend to those parts of our own liturgy (eg some Victorian hymns) which sound imperialistic in their attitude to other faiths. And we need to develop civic services which are genuinely hospitable to all, but do not simply “water down” each faith.

3. Action.   We need to work together with those of other faiths to restore justice in a broken and divided world. There are important insights from Christian and Islamic moral and social thinking which can inform how we work for a fairer, more just world.

The issue of how we can become real friends across faiths is one of the biggest questions we face in the 21st Century. It goes far beyond words and calls for action, for reflection, and for prayer – to which we now turn.