Faith & Reason: A religious traffic jam in Stamford Hill

The destruction of the Tower of Babel is, in our time, a deconstruction of the literalism that dogs modern views of religion. But what if diversity is a blessing rather than a burden?
LAST WEEK the Hasidic Jewish community in my street in north-east London were fasting to commemorate the Destruction of the Temples, and other cataclysmic events in their religious history. Next week the Rastafarians in the neighbourhood will celebrate the birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie, a key figure in their belief. Some hundred yards away there is a large and popular mosque. We have Buddhists in bedsits and, dotted around, the occasional Hindu shopkeeper.

Through the eyes of a guilty bystander, taught by the Jesuits to love their neighbour, Stamford Hill seems like religious pluralism on wheels. But apart from irritating traffic jams, in which the Hasidim's Volvos become beached like a shoal of stranded whales, what is the significance of this daily experience of religious diversity? Or, to be more theological, what does God mean by having all these religions bumping into each other with claims to be true that are clearly incompatible? Initiatives like the World Faiths Development Dialogue that seeks to combat global poverty and discuss a common inter-faith vision for human development suggest one possibility. But they rather prescind from the basic theological question.

One response to the "problem" - that is now mercifully relegated to narrow fundamentalist circles - is that this variety of religions is a man-made disaster brought on by sin; other religions are simply false. Yet a God who pretends to want everyone to be saved, and then decrees that "outside the Church there is no salvation", cannot be a God of love. The decree is, for example, a little hard on folks in Saudi Arabia. And what of all the generations who lived before the birth of Christ deprived of the means? By claiming that there is only one true religion this position simply does away with the "problem" of diversity altogether. Everything else is basically idolatry or ignorance.

Another answer, often well-intentioned but mildly offensive, is that religions are all much of a muchness. This is sometimes expressed in the argument that the core of all religions is the same; only the expression of the core truth is different. The mushy relativism that flourishes around this premise is justifiably condemned by the Vatican. For example, what Christians mean by "the Mystical Body of Christ" is not the same as what Muslims mean by the Umma. These ideas about "religious community" derive from different historical traditions in which they have a contextual meaning and different resonances. Their reduction to some common - essential and abstract - proposition out of the context of a lived faith produces vacuous nonsense for Christians and Muslims alike.

The Australian Catholic philosopher Max Charlesworth, in an essay entitled "The Diversity of Revelations", points a path between such extremes. He analyses two versions of a "Third Way". The first holds that by following their own spiritual path and truths people of different religious traditions are indeed saved or achieve enlightenment "though what is valuable in those traditions can be found in a much fuller and richer and explicit way in Christianity". The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner's unfortunate phrase for such people in 1961 was "anonymous Christians". Not surprisingly this earned him some brickbats, though somewhat unfairly, since he was writing for a Christian audience, trying to move the debate forward into a fuller understanding of God's grace. He was largely successful and his views are not too distant from those of Pope John Paul II.

But Charlesworth thinks this will not do, since it measures all other religions in relation only to Christianity. It fails to acknowledge that God has "revealed aspects of `the divine' in other religious systems" and that authentic religious values, not found perhaps in Christianity, are found in other religions. The point that he wants to underline is that religious diversity has a positive meaning. The fullness of God's revelation will only be known when all the "revelations" found in the variety of the world religions "are brought together in some way and the jigsaw is completed".

The difficulty with his version of a "third way" is that it both allows the different world religions to assume their privileged status for their believers and does not allow any one revelation to claim itself as an exhaustive expression or revelation of God. So it may not satisfy anyone. It will be too radical for Rome, which fights shy of a "many paths to God" approach. And by allowing, say, Christianity or Islam to present itself for its believers as the paradigmatic way to God - though not the only way - it may also offend liberal sensibilities.

This would be a pity. Perhaps the French philosopher Jacques Derrida is right that God's "deconstruction" of the Tower of Babel is the story of the "deconstruction of the vain hope for literal and universal unity of meaning". We have to make do with fragmented stories. But in Stamford Hill we negotiate the post-modern fragments daily. It is incumbent on all religious leaders in a pluralist society to work out a simple practical model of how this might be done and thought about.

So I would be happy to recite the end of Max Charlesworth's creed: " I believe that religious diversity is in some sense willed by `God' and has its own intrinsic meaning and purpose and is not merely the result of sin and ignorance. I believe that respect for, openness to, and dialogue with, other religious traditions, must be part of any authentic religious tradition." Amen to that.