Faith & Reason: Let the Aztecs wipe the smugness off your face

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THE CHIEF Rabbi once told me (and I've been waiting 47 years to say that) that if you wanted a definition of Judaism then you could do worse than think of it as the language God uses to talk to Jews. I thought that was rather neat at the time, simple, self-effacing and deceptively wise.

I was reminded of it again this week as a new film opened in London dealing with the largely forgotten role in the First World War of Hindu soldiers from the British Empire - men from the Indian sub- continent who fought alongside the English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish and who died thousands of miles from home on the Western Front. The Dance of Shiva focuses on the relationship between the Christian padre, Captain Greville, and one of his Hindu flock before tackling, by association, the conflicting claims to truth of what seem mutually exclusive world faiths.

The year 1915, when the action is set, is a time of certainties. Christianity is true; the rest are false. But on the battlefield things are not so clear-cut and even an Anglican chaplain in His Majesty's Armed Forces is forced to conclude that in extremis the philosophy contained in Hinduism's eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth might offer some sort of solace to soldiers aware that their next few minutes would, more than likely, be their last (for now) on earth.

But Captain Greville has to confront the much more troubling possibility that this philosophy - despite its pantheon of implausible gods - might have a lot in common with the Christian philosophy; worse still, the Christian truth a.k.a. THE Christian truth. Both cannot be right. Can they?

By coincidence I, too, have been faced with similar thoughts this week, though thankfully from the comfort of a study chair. After nine months of research I have just finished a children's book on world religions ("I'm a very slow reader," the late Frank Muir once remarked). After nine months of research my head is packed with gurus and prophets and saviours and buddhas; it is full of spirits and kamis and huacas and totems; of proverbs and koans and sutras and suras; of Creation, Destruction, of Dreamtime, of End Time; of Sky Gods and Rain Gods and no God and One God. And it makes you think that quintessentially post-modern thought: can they all be right - or have most of these competing religions got it wrong?

All this "comparative religion", as it used to be called, is a problem for those claiming any one religious tradition has a monopoly on truth. Which is rather upsetting to a middle-of-the-road Anglican like me who has been taught that salvation and entry into God's presence are through Christ alone.

But is it right to dismiss Judaism as only half of the story or Islam as a needless embellishment of a matter which was settled once and for all in AD 30 odd? Is the world-view of Hinduism simply flawed? Are the insights of Buddhism quaint but essentially misguided? To put it more directly; are the millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Taoists and the rest simply barking up the wrong tree?

It is not enough to be content with the line about all beliefs being equally valid. Exposure to ancient Aztec belief is enough to wipe the relativist smugness off your face. The implicit tolerance of all religions as essentially different paths towards the same goal rather breaks down in the face of human sacrifice and the religious injunction to slaughter a dozen or more prisoners a day to satisfy the blood lust of the sun god. Confronted with such "alien gods" you can quite easily imagine, indeed actually feel, the jaded disillusion of Eliot's magi as they stood in the presence of "Truth" in the form of the Infant Jesus and prepared to make their weary way back to a homeland hopelessly in error.

So what is one to make of the polarisation inherent in the "this is right/that is wrong" school of thinking? Those disinclined to a religious world view have a ready answer: they are all wrong. They argue that all religion is an essentially human projection of self- validating "truths" which are nothing more than elaborate, often infantile, fictions. And dangerous fictions at that. After all, they say, it was a Christian country we have to thank for this week's other anniversary, Kristalnacht, the night of broken glass when Nazis destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues in an orgy of destructive hatred that signalled the waking nightmare of the Holocaust had begun.

Those of a religious disposition cannot argue with that and, however splendid the achievements of religion, all it takes is one Crusade or armed Jihad to put them on the back foot. And yet, for those devout Hindus and Christians who went to their fate before the Armistice was signed 80 years ago this week, there was more to religion than that. They have a different story to tell and a different understanding of the power of faith at that terrible moment in their lives.

In all conscience all they could do was listen to the voice of the divine in whatever language it chose and conclude, with Eliot once again, that "the rest is not our business".