Now that news on Islam dominates the news, often not in a positive way, it is worth looking back to 1976 when the modern situation in which we find so much fear did not exists. In this piece, John Taylor looks at a celebration of Islam, and asks how Christianity is to see itself in a wider pluralistic world of other faiths.
April. 1976 The Monthly Journal of the Diocese of Winchester No. 157
ROSEWINDOW-No. 16 by The Bishop of Winchester (Dr. John Taylor)
THIS MONTH, at the very time when we are once again preparing ourselves to enter the mystery and face the challenge of Holy Week and Easter, a series of cultural events will be launched in London which, when its significance is understood, may deeply exercise the mind of many Christians.
Throughout April, May and June the larger museums, galleries and concert halls of London will be combining to present the "World of Islam" Festival. Although financial support, amounting to over one million pounds, comes largely from the Arab countries, it was never intended that it should be an aggressive flaunting of another faith in the capital city of a traditionally Christian country. The planners and trustees of the Festival are mainly well-known British experts and art-lovers who have felt for a long time that the great intellectual achievements of thirteen centuries of Islamic civilization have been largely unknown and unappreciated in Western Europe for far too long. They are determined to emphasise the cultural rather than the religious aspects of the Festival, and have resisted the pressure of some Muslim groups to use the Festival for proselytising.
It is certainly going to be a splendid and ambitious presentation. The Queen will open an exhibition of the Arts of Islam at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank. The British Museum will stage a comprehensive exhibition of the Qur'an throughout the centuries, and also a dazzling collection of Mughal paintings from India. In Kensington the Science Museum will demonstrate the brilliant achievements of Muslim mathematicians, surgeons, navigators, astronomers and technologists, while the Victoria and Albert Museum will display its treasures of metalwork.
Other smaller exhibitions will be shown at the Commonwealth Institute, the Horniman Museum and the Museum of Mankind. Musicians and orchestras from the Arab world and Asia will give concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, and there will be a three-day festival of folklore and dancing at the Royal Albert Hall.
A series of twenty lectures on cultural, historical and religious subjects will be given during the Festival. The first, on the Qur'an, will be given by the Rector of the al-Azhar University of Cairo, the supreme academic figure of the Muslim world. The Archbishop of Canterbury has invited him to a private reception at Lambeth Palace. An important series of illustrated books is to be published, and there will be subsidiary exhibitions at the same time at Manchester, Sheffield and Kendal.
Never before has an opportunity on such a scale been provided for the people of Britain to open their minds and hearts in a new appreciation of a great cultural heritage which hitherto has been largely a closed book to them. But it is far more than a cultural opportunity. If only we can approach it aright it will offer us a chance of strengthening our own understanding of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who now share with Christians and others in a common British citizenship within the boundaries of the United Kingdom.
As the Bishop of Guildford has said in his pamphlet, A New Threshold (British Council of Churches, 50p), which I particularly want to commend to you this month, "They work together in the same factories, shops and offices, share together in the common life of the same towns and villages, send their children to the same schools, are treated by the same Health Service, elect the same representatives to Parliament and local authorities, owe the same loyalty to the Crown." But a little later he quotes from an article written by the Director General of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, who wrote a year ago: "They want to live in Europe as Muslims, and not as a culturally uprooted people. They believe that modern society will have to be a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. Democracy in the West has primarily been a political concept. The idea of social and cultural democracy with all its implications is yet to be learned and practised."
But-and here arises the problem for us-"the blunt fact is that the Churches in Britain are ill-prepared to discuss the theological questions raised by the existence of other faiths, simply because they have hitherto paid little attention to them." So says the Bishop of Guildford. And he goes on: "Christian theology has been written by and large, and even within the Universities, as if other faiths had nothing to teach about the relationship of God with His world. It will take some years for the theologians and governing bodies of our Churches to adjust to the realities and perspectives of the pluralist society which Britain, in common with the rest of the world, is rapidly becoming."
There is so much religious truth and practice which Islam has in common with Christianity. We can sincerely thank God for Islam's heroic witness to the sovereignty of God and for the steadfast, modest, studious and devout lives of innumerable small communities of Muslims.
We can take to heart the main criticism which the Qur'an directs against Christians (apart from their inability to accept the claims of Muhammad), namely the excessive honour which they pay to their clergy in distinction from their laity, and their denominational divisions.
But the heart of the theological problem in our relations with Muslims, or with the adherents of other great faiths, is how to reconcile these two truths.
On the one hand, if we are honest with our personal knowledge of such people, we have to recognise that God is present to them in grace, and by His Spirit He breaks through into their lives to establish a living relationship with them to which they respond with repentance from sin, a trustful turning to Him, and a sense of His presence when they pray.
On the other hand, our equally undeniable relationship to the living Christ convinces us Christians that in His life, death and resurrection God acted once for all time and for all mankind by defeating evil, breaking through the alienation of sin and inaugurating a new creation.
The reconciliation of those two truths must come through the inclusion of one in the other; but at present Christian thinkers in the Western Churches are divided as to which of the two is the paramount.
Some say that what God did in Jesus Christ, though it has a unique significance to Christians, must be set within the wider context of other saving actions of God at different periods of history through the other religions. In other words, the uniqueness of Christ is relative - which is a contradiction in terms. The alternative is to say that what God did through Jesus Christ is the one act which it was necessary for Him to accomplish in time if He was to be the God who throughout time is accessible and present to human beings in judgment and mercy, grace and truth. In other words, wherever we see people experiencing a living relationship with God we are seeing the fruits of Calvary, though they may neither know nor acknowledge it.
Such a claim may be snidely condemned as "triumphalism". But we need to remember that it is not a claim which the earliest Christians invented out of arrogance, but one which, against all their religious convictions, they were compelled to make by the events of Good Friday and Easter. And that is the greater Festival which we celebrate this month. If we still believe in it, it lays on us the scandal of endorsing that claim. We can do so without offence to our Muslim neighbours if, and only if, we are ready to admit how much we on our side might learn from them.
To show what I mean let me quote from a small book, written forty-six years ago by Frank Laubach, the inventor of the famous system of spreading the skill of reading among the illiterates of the world. At that time, as a missionary among Muslim people on Mindanao, he wrote a series of letters of an intimate character later published under the title, Letters of a Modern Mystic.
"Living in the atmosphere of Islam," he wrote, "is proving thus far a tremendous spiritual stimulus. Muhammad is helping me. I have no more intention of giving up Christianity and becoming a Mohammedan than I had twenty years ago, but I find myself rich for the Islamic experience of God. Islam stresses the will of God. It is supreme.. Submission is the first and last duty of man. That is exactly what I have been needing in my Christian life. Although I have been a minister and a missionary for fifteen years, I have not lived the entire day of every day in minute by minute effort to follow the will of God... But this year I have started out trying to live all my waking moments in conscious listening to the inner voice, asking without ceasing, `What, Father, do you desire said? 'What, Father, do you desire done this minute?' "
Could it be that the infiltration of our British scene by believers in other faiths might be God's way of stimulating us Christians to a more rich and wholehearted discipleship?