Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Is Multi-Faith a Different Faith?

In Heathrow airport recently, I saw a small yellow sign, pointing to the 'Multi-Faith Chapel'. Having a little time until my flight left, I wandered in that general direction, round various corridors, through a 'Relaxation Area', with people lying on what looked like sun loungers (only there wasn't any sun), until I found the centre of religious life in the vast sea of humanity known as Terminal 4. It was a small, square, rather drab room with not much in it. A table in one corner held a number of books: various copies of the Qu'ran, some Islamic tracts, a scruffy copy of the New Testament in Polish, a Gideon Bible and a few other assorted religious texts. A small cabinet had some prayer mats, there was a sign telling you the direction of Mecca and a distinctly scratched table which looked like it had been bought from a car boot sale, with a laminated sign saying 'Table/Altar for Christian use' containing some copies of the Bible. The walls were bare except for a poster with symbols of all the major World religions on it - a cross, a crescent and the rest.

It was distinctly underwhelming. It had very little sense of 'holiness' or prayerfulness, such as you might find in a church, mosque or temple. It felt like a spare room upon which little attention had been spent. And more importantly, a room very few people would use.

I was recently told of a venture to build a large multi-faith centre in east London, and the more I heard of it, the more I wondered who on earth would ever use it. Christians go to churches, Muslims go to mosques, Jews go to synagogues and Sikhs go to Gudwaras. Who goes to a 'multi-faith centre'?

The multi-faith chapel or centre is not a church, nor a mosque, it is a temple to religious pluralism, which is a distinct religion all of its own. Religious pluralism is a product of the secularist domestication of religion.  The idea that Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc. are all examples of the general species called 'religions' is only about 150 years old. In Christian theology it stemmed from the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher who, although a Christian himself, saw Christian faith as one example of an underlying thing called religion. Defining 'religion' is notoriously difficult due to the fact that they differ so much from each other. Some believe in one God (Islam, Judaism) some in a more complicated three-in-one God (Christianity), some in many gods (Hinduism), some in no God at all (some types of Buddhism). All are systems of contested belief, but so are Satanism, Atheism and Marxism. Come to think of it, why not add those to the multi-faith Chapel?

Religious pluralism asserts the similarly contested belief that there are such things as 'religions', which are all equally valid (or invalid) and can safely be put to one side (or a drab, unwanted room in the corner or an airport), while the real business of life goes on elsewhere. No wonder real Christians, Muslims and Jews feel faintly patronized.

It reminded me of the great complex of pagan temples at Baalbek in Syria, a supermarket of pagan pluralism where one could chose who to worship - Jupiter, Bacchus, Minerva or Hermes. Ancient Paganism was effectively pluralist, which is why such a complex could be built. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are not. They each make pretty uncompromising claims to be true. That doesn't mean they have to be at each others' throats - in fact religions on the whole get on pretty well in the UK - just ask most local vicars, rabbis or imams. A belief that God will reveal truth at the end of time, breeds a healthy reluctance to force faith on others, and to converse and sometimes convert by persuasion not by pressure.

Gilbert Meilaender, the German ethicist, writes of different religious communities: “Each should help his children and friends strive for virtue as we fashion our smaller communities of belief and seek to transmit the vision which inspires us... And perhaps out of such sectarianism will arise some smaller communities whose vision is so powerful and persuasive that new moral consensus will be achieved among us.” While adding the need for good friendship and conversation between religious communities, that seems to me a much more realistic approach to inter-faith relations, that respects the particularity of each one, than forcing each into a wider secularising agenda. Any religion worth its salt claims to be true, and so cannot agree with the pluralist agenda. Religious pluralism is not a compromise between different faiths, it is a different faith.