Learning from a Christian-Muslim debate on religious literacy
YOU may find this reassuring, or disturbing, or something in between. Earlier this week, one of the most eminent scholar-prelates in the Christian world, and one of Britain’s leading Muslim scholars, held a kind of public debate in London on the role of religion in society, and they agreed on almost everything. One participant was Rowan Williams, who until recently was Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the global Anglican Communion; the other (pictured) was Mona Siddiqui, a professor of religion at Edinburgh University and prolific writer on her faith.
They have known each other well since an exercise in high-level religious diplomacy that was launched with backing from Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister, soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Then, prominent Christians and Muslims met behind closed doors and probed each others’ understanding of religious concepts like scripture, salvation and prophecy. The whole initiative, entitled Building Bridges was a reflection of a hopeful spirit which pervaded the atmosphere after September 2001; if only Christians and Muslims knew each other better, all would be well. Such optimism is less common now but participants, who continued meeting for about a decade, insist that lasting good was achieved.
Some of the points of convergence in this week’s debate were the ones you might anticipate. Both broadly agreed that “religious literacy” (in other words, basic knowledge about what people of faith do, believe and revere) was both in dangerous decline and yet more urgently needed than ever. Asked to imagine Western society in 30 years’ time, Lord Williams said he expected an ever-wider range of religions and other deeply held beliefs to be lived out with unfading passion. But unless something changed, these fired-up communities could be living in a state of deep ignorance of one another’s values and mental worlds. In other words, there would be a new kind of Babel where society’s internal communication barriers were insuperable.
Both speakers at the event organised this week by Ekklesia, a religious think-tank, saw an urgent need for more and better religious education; they are, after all, distinguished religious educators so that too might be expected. Lord Williams, who is now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, wanted a more experiential kind of religious instruction: not just imparting facts about history and culture, but somehow conveying to people “what it feels like” to practise a particular kind of faith and worship.
More contentiously, both luminaries confessed to being exasperated at times by the general view that religion was a separate, optional and fenced-off part of human life. For many people, noted Ms Siddiqui, “belief in God is part of their culture, so they cannot think of their culture without belief in God.” Lord Williams likewise observed that for much of human history, religion had been as integral to society as cooking or making music. People living with that mindset simply could not imagine a community without a sense of the sacred.
That point is certainly true as far as it goes, but for better or worse, it also brings home a difference between the worlds inhabited by almost all religious professionals and the secular space in which most citizens of contemporary, liberal societies make their dwelling.
As people with a deep knowledge of the way their creeds evolved over the centuries, the archbishop and the professor have a natural proximity to cultures in which faith was baked into every moment of life. But in Britain and most other parts of western Europe, such proximity is now the exception, not the rule. The two have something else in common: they are followers of “revealed religions” which hold that great primordial truths were conveyed to mankind at a moment in history, and then refined by later generations of scholars and theologians. In a sense they are invested in the past, in a way that most modern people are not. Indeed, if most modern people contemplate the religious past at all, they probably think of it with a spasm of horror, as a time when heretics were tortured or burned because they disagreed on subtle points of doctrine.
Of course, there is much more to the religious past than that. As Lord Williams pointed out, three of the most powerful minds of the European Middle Ages were Maimonides, who was a Jew, Thomas Aquinas, one of the fathers of Catholic philosophy, and the Muslim thinker known in the West as Averroes. Although they were not precise contemporaries, they were part of a single, trans-national dialogue whose participants took one another’s ideas seriously and respectfully. That is an inspiring and encouraging thought. It would also be news to most practitioners of those faiths, let alone people who practise none of them.
It is worth saying that among most people in human history, and perhaps most alive today, religion has been so something so fundamental to every moment of life that they could not imagine living without it. But the hard fact is that increasing numbers of people in Western societies do live without faith, or, if they practise a faith, reserve it for a fenced-off segment of their lives.
So the Babel feared by Archbishop Williams may turn out to be even more challenging than he suggested. It is not simply that, say, Christians and Muslims will have to explain to each other what they mean by concepts like repentance, revelation or divine judgement. That will be hard enough: people who live deep inside a religious culture or value system aren’t often much good at explaining it to third parties. But something harder still is required. Religious people will have to try describing to non-religious people what it means to live according to a text or a narrative that was formed many centuries ago; and to explain that for them, texts written in the distant past can be of decisive importance to life in the year 2017, because these eternally significant words are perpetually gaining new meanings. That’s a tough concept for a youngster whose relationship with the written word is confined to social-media messages penned by friends in the last few hours. So let the language lessons begin.