Pope prays with Grand Mufti in Mosque

We all know that we ought to respect other people’s religious beliefs.

The principle of modern inter-faith movements is that all religions, whether worldwide or local, should be respected by those who profess other religions or none. This is considered essential for societal and international peace, as well as being a good discipline in itself.

Of course there are advantages in people of different religious beliefs sharing a sense of mutual trust which in turn helps build up multicultural communities. It is also good to have a peaceful basis for learning about other religions from those who actually practice them. Hans Kung, a noted Roman Catholic theologian, put his calling at risk to study other faiths from the standpoint of his own, and reached the conclusion that “there will be no peace amongst nations until there is peace amongst religions.”

There are critics who argue that the goal of multicultural community is both unrealistic and self-defeating in that most people have limited tolerance for the unfamiliar; and anyway what’s good about religions, if anything, is their distinctiveness. Often these critics are defending prejudice or advocating so-called Christian privilege, as for example in Orban’s Hungary.

Just occasionally, however, I find myself utterly opposed to the beliefs and/or practice of a particular faith-group, and am unwilling to stifle my opposition. Often this has been with regard to other Christian groups. For example the arse-licking policies of the Orthodox Church is Russia towards President Putin, as of many Hungarian churches towards Victor Orban, as of fundamentalist churches in the USA towards Donald Trump, are offensive to me, and in my opinion, unchristian. The calm assurance of many Moslem friends that we’d all be better under an Islamic Caliphate also gets up my nose, especially if it comes from those whose liberal behaviours would have led to them missing a number of bodily parts, under any Moslem regime. I assume that people who do not share my beliefs have similar complaints about me.

So what am I saying here? That mutual respect across boundaries of faith is impossible or maybe not even desirable? Not at all, but I consider that our duty of respect is towards religious people rather than their religions. We ought to be able to cherish each other and live in peace, while holding each other’s faith or practice in frank disrespect, if that is our conviction. So, Boris’s remark about Moslem women looking like postboxes was guilty of contempt of persons, whereas (some) protestant criticism of the Pope is directed to an office in a religious hierarchy rather than to Francis as a person.

Given that most religions put forward their faith as a set of profound truths it seems unreasonable to demand respect for what others see as nonsense. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity seems to Moslems pernicious nonsense because it insults Allah who is one. On the other hand, out of respect for me, their brother, they may choose not to mention this to my face. When St.Francis preached to the Moslem Sheikh and began to express his celibate disgust of the bodies of women, the Sheikh interrupted him and warned that if he continued to insult his wives and daughters he would be obliged with regret to cut off his head. Respect is for persons rather than doctrines and when religious doctrines show disrespect for people, we should be able to say so.

The respect we ought to have for our brothers and sisters of other faiths includes a requirement that at least with regard to the faiths of our neighbours, we spend time knowing their beliefs and customs, including such study in the curriculum of our schools. We may find within the stories of other faiths signs of respect which match stories in our own. Jesus was faced up by a Canaanite woman whom he had disrespected, and he immediately praised her faith. The prophet Mohammed, seeing a funeral in the street, stood up in respect. The bystanders looked at him in surprise, saying, “It’s only a Jew.” The Prophet, peace be upon him, answered, “Is it not a soul?”

Respect of persons should not preclude respect for the truth. Even if we practice a wise scepticism towards our possession of the truth, and especially towards the words in which our faith has expressed it, we should not lose our commitment to it. If we say that the truth possesses us rather than vice versa, we are still obliged to witness to it, as best we may. When we do so, we must expect those of other faiths to do so as well. I think this kind of robust friendship between people of differing belief will help the growth of communities which are colourful, rich, disputatious and humorous. It is my experience that those who were happiest with their own faith, were full of broad humour about it, and ready to offer me, if not my faith, their respect.

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