Often religious people decry the growing materialism of the secular age but there’s a lot to be said for a secular society and I don’t think I would like to live in a religious society. I would find it rather constricting I think. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want society to be more religious in the sense of expressing religious values of respect and concern for others but I wouldn’t want one religion to be so intertwined with the state that it was difficult to disentangle one’s religious and civic identity, as happened in the early days of the Roman Empire and still continues in many ways into our own time. It’s not so long ago since I stood beside a Jewish friend of mine at a Christian service for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the congregation was asked to proclaim its faith ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty…’ This was a religious service because the Queen of England is a committed Christian but it was also a civic service because it was honouring her service to her country. The organisers had gone to great lengths to include in the opening procession representatives from all sectors of society, including the religious leaders of Scotland. There they were standing at the front of the Cathedral, being asked to say the Christian creed and there was I beside my Jewish friend very aware of the awkwardness of this. What did it say about her identity as a citizen?
There are some religious people who would happily live in a society governed by their faith. I know some Jewish friends who love to go to Israel and would perhaps like to live there permanently because it’s the only place in the world where they can be openly Jewish and feel totally at home in a society organised around Jewish customs and practices. Many Muslims would see a Muslim society as the ideal one to live in though often the reality is that they can live out their faith better in a non-Muslim society than a Muslim one. Living as a minority in society has been a question recently debated within Islam. In any society, dominated by a particular religion or philosophy the question needs to be asked about those who don’t fit in, those who are different, those with other beliefs and practices. As Jonathan Sacks says in his book ‘The Dignity of Difference’
“We need to search…. for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of those who are not of our faith. Can we make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?”
These are great questions and important ones if we are to live peacefully together. According to some historians there was a time in Spain when Jews and Christians not only lived together in a Spain which was under Muslim rule but contributed to the flourishing of literature, poetry, philosophy and other aspects of culture. Some historians are a bit skeptical about calling this a Golden Age and even those who do acknowledge that while their religions were respected and there was freedom to practise their religion, Jews and Christians were not give full citizenship rights. They lived under what was called dhimmitude ie they were regarded as second class subjects. They had to pay a special tax, certain occupations were closed to them, they could not publicly display their faith, build places of worship, marry Muslim women or exercise authority over Muslims – many of the restrictions which had been imposed by the early Church on the Jewish community. Unfortunately the Christian reconquest of Spain and its unification under Isabelle and Ferdinand did not have this level of tolerance and Jews and Muslims were expelled and even persecuted as were many Christians under the Inquisition which originated as a civil court to ensure unity rather than orthodoxy. This was the worst of religion at the service of the State. No wonder there was a desire and movement for the separation of Church and State which probably had its culmination in the French Revolution.
Spain is full of all these memories I think- its glorious conquests, its art and philosophy, its heritage of tolerance and acceptance of the other, its intolerance and hatred of the other, particularly the Jews. They are memories not to be forgotten but to be honoured and internalized and used as we in Europe seek for new ways of living with and acknowledging the integrity of those not of our faith. Can we indeed “make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?” Our destiny could depend on our answers.