Responding to Islam and Religious Pluralism
By Andrew Symes, Church of England Newspaper.
Christian Concern’s Wilberforce Institute hosted the second ‘Cultural Leadership Symposium’ on 7-8 February. The 2016 conference discussed the biblical mandate to create a Christian ‘culture’ rather than submit to the prevailing secular humanism and accept its values in public life. Last week’s event dealt with the challenge to the church of religious pluralism in general, and the growing influence of Islam in particular.
The first three speakers, Dr Joe Boot, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, Rev Dr Dan Strange Acting Principal of Oak Hill College, and former Islamic jurist turned Christian apologist Dr Sam Solomon, all made the same central point: in the West most Christians have been conditioned to view ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ as a compartment of life.
We tend to see our cultural and religious differences as a small element of who we are, part of our ‘diversity’. Because of this misunderstanding, many Christians are either ‘pluralists’ (believing that all religions contain a component of the truth and lead to the same divine goal), or ‘inclusivists’, holding to their own faith in Christ, but accepting that salvation can be found in other faith traditions. The main task of the church, then, according to this view, is not to try to change the small ‘faith’ aspect of the stranger to align with ours, but instead to build understanding and partnership through what we share in our common humanity.
But Muslims or Hindus, for example, do not see things this way. Here, the life of the individual is a part of a much bigger whole. Islam is not a ‘faith’ in the sense of a private belief or a set of activities of worship and good works; rather it is a whole social and political system, the ‘deen’, in which the life of the individual is a small part.
This has enormous implications. When a well-meaning local authority grants permission for the building of a mosque and school, or a Cathedral invites a reading from the Qu’ran in one of its services, the Western view sees it as an act of humanity and bridge-building to those who are different culturally. But according to a classical Muslim perspective, this may be viewed rather as an act of political and religious submission to Islam.
The conference speakers advocated a robust biblical theology of world religions, based on confidence in Christ as the only Lord and Saviour, to be recovered and proclaimed in the churches of the West.
Apologist and evangelist Beth Grove showed how orthodox Christians have answered difficult critical questions about the historicity and coherence of the biblical accounts. However this process has not happened in Islam with the Qu’ran and the other texts about Mohammad. So many Muslims have a romanticised and hazy understanding of their own faith which has never been challenged, while uncritically accepting myths about what Christians believe.
So it really is possible in Britain today to engage Muslims with love and respect, sharing clearly the hope that we have in Christ, and explaining his role in history and his rule over all nations, ultimately fulfilling the desires of all religions. But how can we do this, given the febrile atmosphere of the conversation about immigrants, and the desire to avoid controversy? “Yahweh is the only God, and God is Trinity; Allah is not God, and to follow him is idolatry” – is it possible to believe and communicate this without appearing ‘bigoted’? Such questions produced lively discussion among the participants.
According to Tim Dieppe of Christian Concern, we can no longer pretend that there are only minor differences between the religions, that Islam is entirely benign, and that ‘Islamophobia’ is the main problem we face. Even secular human rights analysts Trevor Phillips and Louise Casey have admitted, in high profile reports, that our nation faces a challenge with segregated Muslim communities. They have pointed out that informal Sharia courts oppress women, schools keep children ignorant of key aspects of British culture and history, a small but significant number of young people are being radicalised. In response, Christians can be involved in local or national politics, to ensure principles of justice and democracy are applied in all communities without fear or favour, and that we do not see ‘no-go areas’ for the Gospel.
But ultimately, according to Joe Boot, the fundamental challenges we face as a society are primarily religious and philosophical, not technical, legal or political. Christians in the West have allowed their faith to be boxed into the private sphere, while the public space is dominated by secularism and increasingly, Islam. Could God use a faithful remnant, gripped by the truth of his word, to once again transform society, based on sacrificial witness to Christ motivated by love of neighbour?