October 21, 2021

When Rod Liddle was the editor of the Today programme he had the bright idea of encouraging much more religiously conservative voices onto Thought for the Day. Perhaps even what we euphemistically call “radical” ones. What did the higher-ups at the BBC think of this? Tune into Radio 4 at ten to eight to hear… someone telling us that we might be going to hell for being gay?  Inevitably, the idea came to nothing.

But you can also see Liddle’s point. If “radicals” are excluded from the public conversation, how are they ever to be drawn into dialogue – that apparently magical crucible in which hate and suspicion is transformed into understanding. Yet isn’t that precisely the promise held out by interfaith encounter?

The murder of Sir David Amess, a committed Roman Catholic, apparently by an Islamic radical, once again raises the question of whether the interfaith encounter works.

For centuries human beings of different faith perspectives have met together to try and … well, try and what exactly? When Nachmanides met with Dominican and Franciscan theologians in 1263 for a formal disputation on the fundamentals of faith, the purpose seemed to be to persuade the “other side” that they were wrong. Accounts of the famous Disputation of Barcelona vary, but both sides did their polemical best to say why the other was mistaken. It was tense — of course it was. And the Christian account tells of Nachmanides fleeing from the scene.

These days, interfaith dialogue — on the ground at least — rarely allows itself to visit areas of controversy. In primary school, religious studies classes are, more often than not, existentially anaemic encounters. Different faith traditions are presented alongside each other without the tension created by wondering which one may be true. Lesson plans emphasise things like food traditions among religions, where you liking Halal lamb curry and me liking Jollof rice (definitely a religious tradition in my parish) describes differences without the need to introduce conflict over who is right. After all, what is more subjective than our taste buds. It’s all perfectly understandable. Who wants to import the tensions of the world into a classroom?

But that’s the dilemma: either interfaith discussion directly addresses the issues that divide people of faith, including the more conservative ones (who globally speaking, are in the majority) and accepts that quite a lot of friction and heat will be created — offence, shouting, walk outs — or it avoids the real tensions between people of faith, in which case it is deathly dull and, therefore, useless.

Most people don’t want to give up their precious evenings for shouting matches in an atmosphere of extreme tensionWho would? Most religious conservatives already think they’re right anyway. They don’t want to open up an audience to potentially liberalising speakers either. So interfaith groups tend to be dominated by those who don’t really need them: well-meaning people; keen to stress the common denominators amongst people of faith.

There’s a view that suggests secularism uses these meetings between the faiths to muscle into their territory. Not as an impartial umpire, but something more. One way of describing the rise of a secular society is that it was driven by the need to provide a public space free from religious sectarianism — open to all, not dominated by any.

But secularism is itself divided on a continuum between those who want to offer a level playing field for all — including religious people — to flourish, and those who, frankly, seek the elimination of the religious perspective from public life entirely. (This is the difference between American and French secularism.)

The involvement of secularists within interfaith discussion is doubly complicated by the suspicion that secularism has an interest in keeping religious tension going. Historically speaking at least, religious tension is the reason that secularism has justified its existence.

Ironically perhaps, secularism also unites those of faith. Especially the conservatives. They see a common enemy, who they regard as seeking to silence them.

The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory, who went to a Church of England primary school, was of the view that one of the vocations of the Church of England was to provide all people of faith with a platform in the public realm. He also thought that this required something sacrificial from the Church of England, downplaying its proselytising instincts in favour of this more inclusive mission. All people in my parish, regardless of faith, are somehow my spiritual responsibility. It is also true that the current mood in the Church of England for mission and evangelism does create a certain tension with Sacks’s way of understanding its role.

I wonder if interfaith dialogue can be truly revived. Disagreement, even full-blown dispute, will have to be part of any resurrection of this great tradition. Breaking bread and making friends is one — important — aspect of such talks. But we must beware of such groups avoiding the difficult points of disagreement between us and indeed limiting themselves to liberal believers. This means that interfaith groups must accept that they will always be poised in an uncomfortable place between solidarity and disagreement, the greater the former always allowing for more of the latter.

It can happen. Last week, I addressed a local meeting of the Council for Christians and Jews (CCJ). That night, as trust was  established, more difficult questions could be asked — about the Messiah (same issue in Barcelona in the 13th century), about Christian anti-Semitism, about Zionism.

This fragile dynamic between trust and challenge is easily damaged. My own feeling is that we are still not there in our conversations between Christianity and Islam, or between Judaism and Islam for that matter. There continue to be many perils in such encounters. Danger one is subjectivism: your truth is just as good as my truth. No one really thinks that anyway, it’s just a convenient way of not coming to blows. Danger two is coming to blows, or the verbal equivalent with encounters collapsing into acrimony and insult.

I called up Rod Liddle to confirm the story about Thought for the Day. It’s true. He explains that when he said he wanted Abu Hamza doing the slot it was a joke. But he did think it was a real problem “having people from very different faith traditions constantly saying the same thing.” — as if there was no real disagreement.

I totally agree. We need to be braver in exploring our divisions. And dig deeper into our resources of kindness and patient listening to one another as we do so. I suspect that people who are confident in their own faith are better able to achieve this. Which is why we need to be less frightened of division if we seek to become more united in our understanding. Even if it means we all end up running away like Nachmanides did.