Pluralism is not the problem

An article in the Church Times some time ago had David Banting saying, in relation to the General Synod discussion on Christian witness in a plural society, that Muslims expect Christians to have convictions as clear as their own. While diversity of opinion is of course to be welcomed, the meandering, self-conscious spirit amongst many does not promote confidence in the process of dialogue. Representatives of the two faiths need to define clearly what it is that they believe, not wavering because they fear causing offence. Honesty must crown any efforts at dialogue and this means addressing issues even if they cause discomfort.

While Muslims believe in God as the Creator of all things and therefore as the God worshipped by Jews and Christians, I understand the argument that there is no continuity, for by believing in the divinity of Jesus you cannot then accept those who say that he is absent from the so called Godhead. Since Islam rejects the idea that anything in creation can also be the Creator, the demarcation is clear. Islam also denies the concept of fallen man, original sin and the irreparable – except through Christ – depravity of human beings.

There need be no conflict, however, between the idea a faith’s uniqueness and pluralism. We do not need to be totalitarian about our faith (whatever that may be) because we believe in its uniqueness; it is perfectly possible to live peaceably with people of other faith traditions whilst maintaining our own convictions. Muslim tradition teaches that Islam is the religion of the Prophets, going back to Adam. In that sense it is inclusive, yet at the same time it stresses that there is one path to God: that affirmed by all the Prophets, that none should be worshipped except the one true God, the Creator of all things. Islamic history attests to the fact that pluralism can coexist with a one way faith, however much today’s Muslim puritans may wish to prove otherwise.

The vast landmass touched by Islam, for example, is characterised by provincial culture. The famous mosque of Timbuktu reflects the beauty of its own particular culture, like the mosques of Istanbul or India. Abdal-Hakim Murad writes that ‘classical Islam has always been able and willing to see at least fragments of an authentic divine message in the faiths and cultures of non-Muslim peoples. If God has assured us that every nation has received divine guidance, then we can look with some favour on the Other’ (Lecture British and Muslim? 17 September, 1997). He goes on:

Those who believe that Muslim communities can only flourish if they ghettoise themselves and refuse to interact with majority communities would do well to look at Chinese history. Many of the leading mandarins of Ming China were in fact Muslims. … In China, mosques look very like traditional Chinese garden-temples, except that there is a prayer hall without idols, and the calligraphy is Koranic. (ibid.)

William Cantwell Smith’s accusation that to believe that Christianity alone is true is a form of idolatry suggests that Christians worship Christianity. Surely for the majority of followers the religion is merely the transport towards an end; they do not worship it, but use it to worship. It is true that a religion itself can become an object of worship, but that is not what believers are doing by insisting on its truth. It is a mistake for Christians to renounce their faith – to deny previously established beliefs – simply because they are now encountering people of other faiths. Indeed, people of other faiths expect Christians to hold their ground; the real source of discomfort is not religious pluralism but effective secularism. It is the latter which demands that there is no absolute truth (except this one), not adherents to other religions. In truth we are really talking about secularist theology, with the notion of pluralism a mere fig leaf.

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