Paying tribute to other faiths does not make it relativistic
Those convinced that the West is doomed seem intent on casting King Charles III as a villain who will hasten its decline. When he delivered his Christmas speech to the nation, some were eager to read this into his words; yesterday, Gavin Ashenden, the former royal chaplain, opined in the Catholic Herald that the royal address was sure proof that the King had “sown the seeds of destruction of the House of Windsor”. All because, it seems, he made reference to faiths other than Christianity.
The King’s views on religion have always been a source of controversy. Showing sympathy for Perennialism — a school of thought which holds that there is some degree of truth in all the world’s traditional belief systems — Charles has been accused of undermining the exclusivity of Christianity and succumbing to a post-modern paradigm of cultural relativism, heralding a world in which even the monarchy is too scared to defend its own values in the face of multiculturalism.
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But on listening to the speech, it was difficult not to be taken aback by the sincerity with which he spoke about his Christian faith. To hear the head of state give an emotive account of his visit to Bethlehem, where he “stood in silent reverence by the silver star that is inlaid on the floor and marks the place of our Lord Jesus Christ’s birth” is surely a welcome surprise in 2022, the first year in history where Christians are officially a minority in England and Wales. It is certainly not something one would expect from an apparently post-modern monarch indifferent towards the disenchantment of the country.
Still, instead of celebrating this, some remain cynical — the reason being that Charles, as well as praising the social and charitable contributions of the church, also praised those of synagogues, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras. According to the former chaplain, this signifies a slip into “21st century religious relativism” and a compromise of his integrity.
Yet this is hardly convincing. Charles clearly believes that there is one Light, and one Truth; however, in-line with the Perennialist worldview, he recognises the possibility for other faith traditions to also participate in that light and, perhaps, help to overcome the greater threat of secular modernity.
This is not the liberal heresy that critics think it is. In fact, Charles’ views on religion are remarkably similar to those of European Renaissance thinkers, who defended their appreciation of other faiths on traditional theological grounds. The 15th century Italian Catholic priest Marsilio Ficino, for example, upheld the primacy of Christianity while also believing that other religions contained within them a glimmer of truth, the prisca theologia, and should be respected on this basis. For Ficino, this did not compromise his Catholicism; it simply showed that the love of God was universal, if perfected through Christ and Christ alone.
As it happens, other Renaissance thinkers saw this to be the ideal position for a monarch. For the 16th Century French political theorist Jean Bodin, the King should be the One above the Many, whose duty is to uphold the universal values shared by all people; to be the unity that transcends the multiplicity of sectarian difference. This entailed representing not only Christians of all denominations, but also Jews and Muslims. As an absolute monarchist, Bodin was deeply conservative by today’s standards, but even he saw it as perfectly acceptable for a King to honour subjects from religions other than his own.
In living up to the ideals of Ficino and Bodin, Charles III is not a post-modern king, but a Renaissance king. He defends faith in such a way that accounts for the universal and particular, all the while remaining committed to Christianity. His speech was a reminder of the eternal Light that will outlive the rise and fall of worldly civilisations; just what the nation needs to hear at Christmastime.