THIS short, incisive Christian reflection on interfaith dialogue and practice could well become a landmark in identifying and resourcing the next generation’s agenda for such encounter. Its author — an Anglican priest — draws on his experience as founder and director of the London School of Economics’ Faith Centre, established in 2014.
With two-thirds of the LSE student body drawn from overseas, the Faith Centre embodies a critical commitment: not to import religious conflict, but, rather, to equip its students to export peace — through the development of religious literacy, exposure to innovative inter-religious projects in conflict zones, and quarrying resources from their religious traditions to live well with religious difference.
That a secular university should support such an initiative is a surprise, indicative of the return of religion to public life worldwide. James Walters marries Christian theology with the best of social-scientific analysis. The first chapter, explored through the lens of the Good Samaritan parable, explains the resurgence of religious tribalism across all religions, as well as how to mitigate its impact. Then he reflects on the waning appeal of the Western liberal order — democracy, free market, and human rights — as illustrated, for example, in Putin’s Russia and Al-Sisi’s Egypt.
His third chapter uncovers the dynamics of the return of religion to public life. This takes the particularities of distinct religions seriously, in contrast to failed attempts either to subsume such particularities to some over-arching spiritual or ethical norm, or to privatise religion and deny it a public voice.
The title, emphasis, and some of the content of the fourth chapter — “Deeply Christian, serving the common good” — is taken from the innovative 2016 Church of England Vision of Education. This sought to combine Christian commitment with interfaith encounter and mutual flourishing. This becomes a model for other public institutions — the “hardware” of plural societies — which require the appropriate “software” if they are not to be subverted by intolerance or indifference. Such software includes the need for persuasion rather than coercion, curiosity rather than ignorance. “Becoming good neighbours”, the final chapter, expands this vision, by drawing fresh insights from the parable of the Good Samaritan.
This invigorating work could energise much theology, interfaith encounter, and religious education, as well as the teaching of politics and social sciences. Since there is no view from nowhere, this unapologetically Christian contribution encourages contributions from adherents of other religions, as they, too, address the urgent contemporary issue of how we live well together in public and civic life, engaging rather than bypassing our complex and multilayered religious traditions.
Dr Philip Lewis is Consultant on Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations to the Bishop of Leeds, and a former lecturer in Peace Studies at Bradford University.
Loving your Neighbour in an Age of Religious Conflict: A new agenda for interfaith relations
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30