Mainstream contemporary discourse represents a relativist worldview, wherein there is no truth, only ideas and arguments; all beliefs are generally valid, although some are more valid than others. For people of faith this has major implications.
A few years ago, one of the discussions of the Church of England’s General Synod concerned Christian witness in a plural society. Writing in the Church Times at the time, David Banting noted that Muslims expect Christians to have convictions as clear as their own. He was right. 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.
In my own case, as a convert, it is impossible to ignore the fact that my belief in Islam causes deep unhappiness within my family. While I am not a good believer and my practice is hugely wanting, I do believe sincerely. It is not something that I take lightly, nor is it something that I took on as a choice of fashion. I came down this path because I believe that it is the correct way to worship God. For this reason I cannot turn my back on it for the reason of bringing ease in my personal relationships.
Most people who are sincere in their faith hold a position similar to this, whether they are Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Buddhist, Baha’i or Jewish. I have been told that my family and friends continually pray that I may be guided back to the truth. They worry about me, fear that I have taken the wrong path and that, on the Day of Judgement, I will be amongst the losers. This situation is just one of the things which come with the territory of believing there to be a definitive truth and a reason for our existence. On both sides we believe that we have a hold of the truth.
Yet our relationship does not end there. Indeed there need be no conflict 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. Periods of Islamic history attest to the fact that pluralism can coexist with a one-way faith, however much today’s religious puritans and secular fundamentalists may wish to prove otherwise.
A survey of all the counties touched by Islam will reveal the existence of local and diverse culture. Just look at the mosques of Turkey, India, Mali or China: each of the designs manifest something of an indigenous tradition. Consider the mastery of the Urdu poets, the literature of the Arabs or the growing body of modern self-expression in blogistan and cyberspace. Jewish writers have noted that many of their forefathers flourished as scholars under Muslim rule in Spain. Srebrenica was once a glowing example of coexistence in the midst of Europe. It is true to say that our history was not all light, but for every instance of shame we can find another to be proud about.
Muslim tradition teaches that Islam was the religion of all the Prophets. At the same time it stresses that there is one path to God: that affirmed by all of them, that none should be worshipped except the one true God, the Creator of all things. The fact that I believe this does not negate my contribution to a pluralist society. We do not need to pretend that we cannot understand another person’s point of view because we maintain firm beliefs. Muslims believe in God as the Creator of all things and therefore as the God worshipped by Jews and Christians. A Christian, however, might well argue that this is not the case in view of their Trinitarian theology; since Islam rejects the idea that anything in creation can also be the Creator, the demarcation is clear. We may hold completely different beliefs, but we are not incapable of understanding one another. The argument for the resurrection in the Christian worldview is that humans are irreparably corrupt and so our only salvation is through the blood of Christ. Islam, however, denies the concept of fallen humanity and original sin. Does this mean we cannot talk to each other?
I believe 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.
Unfortunately, this alternative view of pluralism has become dominant today. Conviction is aligned with intolerance, while those who reject the relativist worldview are accused of promoting cultural ghettos. Since the massacres in London last summer we have heard much about the failure of multiculturalism from politicians, journalists and commentators alike. This is nothing new. Over the past thirty years there has been a growing body of theologians determined to frame religion in relativist terms. One William Cantwell Smith argues that it is a form of idolatry for Christians to believe that Christianity alone is true. This suggests that they worship Christianity. 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. For the majority of followers the religion is merely the transport towards an end; they do not worship it, but use it to worship.
Yet again I insist that the concept of pluralism need not pose difficulties for our mere existence as believers of different faiths. The question is how it affects our ability to share our faith. This is the crux of the matter for me as a convert. To believe in a path as the one authentic way to worship God and yet withhold that from my loved ones is a form of hypocrisy. In life it is easier to hide — fearing to cause offence by saying that you believe this to be the way — than to invite others to believe in what you believe. Because the dominant argument of our age insists that there is no single truth and that while some views may be more valid than others, all beliefs are nevertheless legitimate, we can feel uncomfortable when it comes to sharing our beliefs with others. We avoid being a nuisance or causing resentment at all costs.
Even as this dominates, however, with belief there is always an uncomfortable feeling inside: one day, when our meeting with our Lord finally comes, will my family and friends not hold me to account for failing to adequately explain this belief to them? The uncomfortable voice within says that though you fear their anger now, there is something worse along the line if you are silent.
For believers of whatever faith, it is the central dilemma of our age.