I have long been unhappy with the standard paradigm on “Christianity and other faiths”: exclusivism, pluralism, and inclusivism. Exclusivism, in its ideological hostility to other faiths, so privileges Christianity that it rules out dialogue in principle: truth hectoring error is a rant, not a conversation. Pluralism, bless, in its we-all-worship-the-same-God tolerance, so relativises truth, or reduces it to some numinous-experience-lite, that it allows for no more than an anodyne co-existence between faiths. Inclusivism righly dismisses the absurd and scurrilous notion that all non-Christians are damned, and it takes the question of truth seriously, but, frankly, it is rather patronising, tastefully picking out the acceptable theological meat in other faiths and delicately throwing away the bones.
In his important book Theology and the Dialogue of Religions (2002), Michael Barnes writes: “If there is an alternative to a theology of ‘other religions’, it will emerge from a reflection on ‘the other’, not on ‘religion’,” on “the providential mystery of otherness … revealing possible ’seeds of the Word’.”
At last night’s Swansea University Theological Society lecture that Richard mentions (below), Saif Ahmad certainly sowed some seeds. He referred in his talk to a famous story about a disciple of another faith known as the Good Samaritan, whose person and work Muslim Aid demonstrably embodies.
During the evening, two sayings from Eastern Orthodox theologians occurred to me. I thought of the first during question-time, when someone asked whether Muslim Aid meets the spiritual as well as the material needs of the poor. Sergius Bulgakov said: “Bread for myself is a material quesion; bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question.”
The second saying occurred to me as I was trying to sense the unspoken reactions of those attending the lecture. The majority, I think, were Muslims, and I suspected that not all of them were happy with Saif Ahmad’s apparent lack of Islamic evangelical zeal. At the same time I suspected, ironically, that members of Swansea’s evangelical Christian churches were largely conspicuous by their absence. Paul Evdokimov, however, said: “We know where the church is; it is not for us to judge where the church is not.”
After the lecture, Richard and I shared in a meal at the campus mosque. As discipleship surely entails an expectation of dispossession and an openness for Christ in unexpected places - like at a table on a floor, with strangers left and right - it was, I dare say, a holy communion, and the perfect climax to a wonderful evening.