Faith and Reason: The supreme value of courtesy in theological argument: In the sixth article in our series on warring faiths, Rabbi David J. Goldberg, of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London, argues against monotheistic triumphalism.

IT WAS, I suppose, inevitable, that at least one article in a series designed to reconcile warring faiths would raise the hackles of readers of those other faiths to whom it was addressed. That, certainly, was the effect that Dr Shabbir Akhtar's piece in this column had on me as a Jew, and I dare say on many Christians as well.

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?