This year commemorates the centenary of the World's Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, as part of the Columbian Exposition.
Some 400 men and women, representing 41 different religious traditions, attended. Of all the Exposition's many congresses, the Parliament of Religions was by far the most popular with public and press alike, attracting audiences of over 4,000 people to its daily sessions. An editorial in the New York Times concluded that the parliament had proved 'the supreme value of courtesy in all theological argument'.
Judged by that yardstick, it must be said that Dr Akhtar's article signally failed to advance the cause of inter-faith dialogue. Dialogue requires that the participants are ready to shake hands, but as the Dalai Lama once observed, you cannot shake hands with a fist. To refer to Jews and Christians as 'errant monotheists', many of whom are 'unfaithful to their own . . . traditions' and merely 'secularised humane capitalists'; to castigate Christians for allowing their faith to become 'just a reactionary defence against secular science or . . . a religious legitimation of Western racial pride'; to dismiss Judaism as now being 'polluted with the secular heresy of Zionism' while repeating the unhistorical fantasy that Muslim conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and beyond was a benign venture and 'no crude colonialism' - is to use language and ideas that do not incline me to unclench my own fist in reciprocity.
Any impartial historian of the three great monotheistic faiths would be forced to recognise that a tone of jarring triumphalism permeates their original theology. The Jewish doctrine of the Chosen People; Christianity's assertion that there is no Salvation outside the Church; and Islam's dogma that there is no God but Allah with Muhammad as the last and greatest of His prophets: all three presuppose a special divine favour denied to the less fortunate adherents of other religions.
It is easy enough to trace the religious and geopolitical reasons why the followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam should have emphasised their own election. In the West there has been a long record of contact, borrowings, mutual enrichment and savage conflict between the three monotheistic faiths. Medieval history was largely a narrative of the struggle for survival, or ascendancy, between the descendants of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.
Nowadays, one of the most heartening features of inter-faith dialogue has been the willingness, except where the State of Israel and Middle East politics are concerned, to explore and learn from our differences, as well as to acknowledge the similarities. Broadly speaking, and looking at the European situation since the end of the Second World War, one can safely generalise that Jewish-Christian relations have acquired a previously unparalleled depth of mutual understanding, as Christians of every denomination have concentrated their studies on the Jewish background of Jesus, whilst acknowledging that erstwhile ecclesiastical teachings encouraged the persecution of the Jews, and for their part Jews have slowly emerged from the trauma, horror, and suspicion of dialogue engendered by the Nazi Holocaust. In recent years, Islam has increasingly become part of this dialogue, as more and more Muslims have emigrated to Europe.
As Dr Akhtar suggested, the format of Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue has become almost too cosily institutionalised, like a vicarage tea-party. Nevertheless, those of us involved in the process have learned to play by the rules of the game, one of which is not to push too hard in evangelising or stressing the superiority of our own particular faith, whatever our private convictions. On the whole, the supreme value of courtesy has prevailed.
But these advances in mutual understanding have recently been threatened by the rise of religious fundamentalism, often allied to nationalism. The tone adopted by evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews or Shia zealots is the same. It is a hectoring self-righteousness which derides the values of post-Enlightenment liberal humanism and rejects the notion of closer contact with wider society and other faiths. 'Authentic' is the adjective most frequently used by religious extremists to describe their version of the truth.
One of the speakers at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, a Protestant bishop, declared that 'The clergymen are responsible for the bigotry of the laity.' That is as relevant today as a hundred years ago. At a time when the old political order has collapsed and ethnic tensions and nationalist rivalries have resurfaced, the responsibility of religious leaders to be judicious and irenic in their statements is obvious.
Instead, Dean Jonathan Swift's observation that 'We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another' is borne out daily around the world.
Far from allowing religious extremism to set the agenda, there is an urgent need for the mainstream followers of the world's religions to syncretise a set of shared moral and ethical values which all of us endorse and seek to apply in daily life. The nature of our theologies depends upon different upbringing, different experiences and histories, different geography. It is a subjective inheritance of birth and environment. Where we are all similar is in our hopes and fears about life and its purpose.
My late father, a rabbi in Manchester and pioneer of inter-faith dialogue, liked to say that Judaism was the best religion for him just as his mother was the best mother for him. What suits one person does not necessarily suit all, but with so many paths leading to an ultimate goal, it would be strange if any soul should miss them all.
That, ultimately, is an acknowledgement about humanity that every truly religious person, of whatever faith, has to make. Without it, our teachings have no claim to be universally applicable, but remain self-centred, competing ideologies. And just as surely, without it, the world and all of us in it will remain in our present unredeemed state.Reuse content