We live in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-ideological, multi-faith society. ‘Religious pluralism’ is not only here to stay, it is a hot topic that stirs strong opinions and emotions. How should we respond to the new multi-cultural, globalised world on our doorstep? Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, offers some ways in.
On Monday, 10 June, 2002, the Queen chose to celebrate the diversity of the UK’s different faiths by inviting eight hundred guests from what the BBC referred to as ‘Britain's nine historic faiths – the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian traditions’ to a reception ‘as a signal of [her] respect for all religions in Britain, not just the Church of England, of which she is head.’
Of course, how you approach this topic depends a lot on where you live. I’m writing this article in a beautiful half-timbered hotel in rural Sussex. Walk down the main street here and you won’t see many Muslims or Sikhs in recognisable dress. Nor, indeed, will there be many folk of Asian or African origin waiting for the bus. But come with me to north-west London, where I live and work, and you’ll find yourself in a context where the majority population in three of our Boroughs is non-white, where 300 different languages are spoken, and where each of those ‘nine historic faiths’ is well represented. One of my parishes, in Southall, is 36% Sikh, 21% Hindu, 20% Muslim and 20% Christian. Welcome to the most cosmopolitan place on earth!
Living in such a context changes the way you think about the place of Christianity in our society. From being the dominant faith that shaped the upbringing of my generation – back in the 1960s, when school assemblies were Christian acts of worship, Scouts went to ‘church parade’, and everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer – Christianity now has to take its place alongside the rest. And that’s true even in areas of the country where there aren’t the huge numbers of devotees of the other World Faiths that we find in London and our other major cities. What are Christians to make of this? Let me offer you ten hints for living as followers of the Universal God in a diverse world of faith.
1. Don’t lose the Big Story
Just because our experience of the context of the Christian faith is changing, it doesn’t make Christianity any less true. At Spring Harvest this year, our theme is the ‘Big Story’ of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and through the pages of scripture. A key text from the Jewish scriptures, which are also our scriptures, is the Shema “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), This simple prayer, said by devout Jews twice a day, affirms the identity of God – that Yahweh is the one and only true God, without equal and without competition. The prophets asserted the same truth, but universalised their understanding of the scope of God’s salvation (read Isaiah 55-66, for example). It’s an affirmation learned the hard way, and then owned, by the early Church in its preaching in the early chapters of Acts. God was not a tribal god. He wasn’t just the God of the Jews. In Jesus, he has come to proclaim his kingdom rule over the whole earth. That’s our Big Story, in the face of all other truth claims, and it’s why we can speak of a Universal God.
2. Understand the difference between diversity and pluralism
One of the slippery words that come into the picture when we talk about Christianity’s relationship to other faiths is pluralism. It’s a word defined in a number of ways, but tends to carry the connotation that religious experience is diverse (true); that there is a multiplicity of great world religions (also true); and that no religion can claim to have ultimate truth, because it would be wrong to privilege one expression of faith above others. And that’s where I’d want to take issue. Jesus’ own claim to be the way, the truth and the life, and the apostles’ preaching in the face of Greek religions, together with the stance the Church has taken throughout the centuries, point to a Christian stance that embraces gladly the diversity of culture and faith but insists that faith in Jesus Christ brooks no rivals.
3. Be aware of the different approaches Christians take
Not all Christians would agree with this stance. There are Christian pluralists around. John Hick, a Presbyterian theologian, has argued that “the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of… the Real.”  He’s doesn’t want Christians to give up their allegiance, but wants to give weight to the truth claims of other religions. Thus he comes to argue that God has revealed himself in a multiplicity of ways. Where Hick’s argument really comes unstuck (and it’s a pretty complex argument) is around the doctrine of the incarnation. If God really did become a human being in Jesus Christ, as Christians believe he did, then that makes the Christian understanding unique, and pluralism very hard to sustain.
Two other words that are bandied around in the debate about Christianity and other faiths are
· particularism – the traditional view that the Bible is God’s unique word which sets it apart from other scriptures, and that the incarnation and the story of God’s grace in Jesus make Christianity’s truth claims absolute. That doesn’t mean that particularists see nothing of value in other faiths, nor that Christians can’t learn anything from those faiths.
· inclusivism – another word with a confusing number of meanings. For some inclusivist Christians, people who follow other world faiths can be saved without knowing it (“anonymous Christians”, in the phrase of Karl Rahner, the Catholic theologian). Others use the word “inclusive” as a way of indicating that people in other faiths may in God’s purposes be drawn to faith in Jesus because God reveals himself within those religions.
What’s most important in all this debate among Christians is the need to respect and understand what other faiths teach and what our Hindu and Muslim neighbours believe – and where those beliefs are similar to, or differ from, the Christian revelation.4. When they show Jesus the red card, cry foul!
Every Christmas, there’ll be stories about how some petty bureaucrat has decreed that we have to say “Happy holidays” for fear of offending Muslims, or that we’re going to rename it ‘Winterva’, or that there can’t be a nativity play because the Jews wouldn’t like it. Such reports usually come from the nasty end of the tabloid press, so check their veracity. But such things do happen, usually because some well-meaning non-religious person thinks that overt Christian celebrations and observances are offensive to the minority faiths in this country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Muslims, Jews and Hindus are glad that there are people of true faith among the many nominal Christians of the UK. They want us to be authentically Christian. In Ealing, we march through the streets in acts of Christian witness, and are applauded by our Sikh neighbours, who themselves do a pretty good line in parades!
We mustn’t allow Jesus to be given the red card, sent off from the public arena on the grounds that “you can follow all of the faiths (or none), but whatever you do, you can’t be publicly Christian.”
5. Beware fundamentalism – whatever form it takes
The difficult and potent ingredient in the faith mix in the UK at present is fundamentalism. The London attacks last July were carried out by misguided followers of Islam who had so distorted the teachings of that faith that they believed they were martyrs. As Christians, we need to be aware that there are those who claim the name of Christ but believe that followers of the other world faiths are so evil and deluded that they should be opposed by whatever means possible. Contemporary fundamentalism (which is there in most belief systems) is an easy and comfortable position that sees the rest of the world as its enemy and ends up demonising our neighbour for whom Christ died.
6. Learn wisdom from the world Church
One of the greatest joys of living in NW London is that many of the folk from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in my locality are Christians – Nigerians, Sri Lankans, first and second generation Caribbeans. Many of them, particularly in Africa and Asia, have first-hand experience of living alongside Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in a different cultural context. Talking to them about how they coped with a majority Muslim population, or from a place where Christians are persecuted, can be salutary in being real about the challenges we face now and in the future. They can also help us with our witness to our other faith friends.
7. Expect God to be at work in other religions
Baptising people who’ve come to faith from Islam is an awesome privilege. Hearing their stories – of the cost to them, of their ostracism by their family, and sometimes of the martyrdom of their brother or sister – is heart-rending. But an interesting common thread is their perception that Jesus was calling them in the midst of their adherence to Islam; that he wasn’t without his witnesses in the midst of another religion. The same can be said for Messianic Jews, converted Hindus, and so many others.
8. Be open to dialogue
Which of course is why dialogue is so important: meeting my neighbour in respect and mutuality, and allowing them to share their faith with me as I with them. Working with those of other faith for the good of our communities, but not falling into the Government trap of treating ‘faith’ as a portmanteau word for everyone. Dialogue and co-operation doesn’t mean setting aside our distinctiveness. But it will change you, as you get to know the other faiths as people, and not just as an entity. It will also mean encounter and visit.
10. Know your boundaries
When I visit a Sikh gurdwara, I need to know something about what’s expected of me (covering my head and taking off my shoes), and what I might or might not be prepared to do. Sikhs place their holy book at the centre of the temple, and reverence the book as guru by kneeling before it. As a Christian, I don’t feel I can do that, but I mark respect for the book by making a slight bow. You’re also offered holy food at the gurdwara. Do you take and eat it, knowing it’s part of Sikh worship, or do you decline it and perhaps cause offence. What might Christians from a Sikh/Punjabi background have to say to you? Does 1 Corinthians 8 help you in how you decide what you do? In a multi-faith society, we (and our children on school visits to places of worship) face these sorts of questions all the time.
Don’t be afraid to share Jesus, sensitively and humbly
Of course, because we believe that Jesus is the only way to God, we want to tell others about him. Living in this changed and changing context might well make us feel that we can’t talk about him to our Hindu neighbour. But that didn’t stop the first Christians. Paul in Athens (Acts 17) engaged with the other religions that were around. He dialogued with them. He discussed with them. He engaged with their literature and culture. And on that basis he is able to share the message of Jesus. If we serve and follow the universal God, we shall want his name to be known in all the world of faiths.
Pete Broadbent is the Bishop of Willesden, London and a member of the Spring Harvest leadership Team.
 John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (1989), p240