(The Zaki Badawi Memorial Lecture, Lambeth Palace, London, 26 April 2007. Published in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol 19, No. 3, 339-347, July 2008)
It feels like I’ve been beating myself about the head trying to understand french philosophers and postmodern hermeneutics in the first couple of units of my ‘Truth and Knowing in Theology’ course! However, the importance of it all hits home when I read such subtle and superb wisdom from Rowan Williams on an incredibly intricate matter – the question of pluralism in peace-striving multi-cultural society. There has been much heated media over questions about sharia law in the UK and Europe and complexity is not often honored or understood in debate. Within the complexity, Williams draws our attention to the question: How can people of religious integrity live together respectfully?
Williams discusses three definitions of pluralism in which each of the three might hold different possibilities for Muslims and Christians sharing society. The first definition is that of religious pluralism in which there is three possible positions – exclusivist (ours is the only right way), inclusivist (all ways are subsumed into our way), and pluralist (there are many different ways, full stop.) I agree with Williams that to deny that there are unique elements to Muslim and Christian faiths is reductionistic and offensive. Divergence of opinion between different religions must be honoured if there is to be any integrity in the dialogue.
The second way that the word pluralism applies is to a socio-economic system in which no one group has formal preference or priority over another. Loyalty is an issue Williams spends some time on which I valued being drawn into. How does a society manage the question of loyalty – for religious people country, government, and civil duty all come secondarily to our loyalty to God as our tradition defines it. There are elements to Islam and Christianity which encourage a pursuit of a particular expression of law and society based on the particulars of their religion. These are challenges which are not so easily resolved and require careful thought, particularly from theologians.
The third understanding of pluralism Williams explores is that political philosophy in which authority and social activity are dispersed from a central location into multiple centers. The State and the Individual cannot be forced into a single identity and here perhaps is the area of greatest potential for agreement. Muslims and Christians can happily work together in our shared interest in the spiritual aspects of human life, peace and justice. Religious Christians and Muslims do have a kind of obligation to model how loyalty to one’s own heart (beliefs, commitments, experience of God) does not irrevocably draw one into conflict with others. This is where I stand up in my seat and applaud:
We are, I think quite rightly, working together as religious communities to resist the idea that the default setting for every mature human society has got to be non-religious—non-religious not simply in the sense of not committed to one religion, but in the sense of scrupulously keeping out of view any sign of religious commitment or any explicit reference to the religious roots of moral and social vision. That kind of secularism is, I believe, very bad for us corporately and it is a battle that is, at the moment, much in the public eye. When we argue for the visibility of faith in the public sphere, we do not do so in order to impose a theocracy, a religiously sanctioned system imposed upon everybody; we do it because we believe that the real health of a society comes from bringing to light the deepest moral motivations of human beings—and that if people are encouraged to leave the roots of their vision out of sight, the results are not healthy and not as fruitful as they might be.