During this Lenten season my local church has been using a study course called 'Love one another', which seeks to explore this core Christian belief by looking at relationships in the family, the church, the community, the environment and with God.
In week 3: the Community, we were asked to discuss the question 'How do we relate to other faith communities in love without compromising our Christian faith?'
The group represents a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including United Reformed, Methodist, Moravian, Anglican, and the New Testament Church of God Pentecostal. When considering the question of relationships with other faiths, there is one troublesome biblical quote that always rears it's head: 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' - John 14: 6.
The discussion then took on a rather philosophical air, but was brought back to earth when we were asked to think about our daily interactions with people from different cultures, faiths, experiences etc.
How do we engage with different people?
Very simply, the majority of people replied that we should and do try to treat all people with respect, openness, compassion and with the ability to disagree in love.
But, now I get to the point!
I'm sure that most people do try to treat those they meet in this 'loving' way - but I am also sure that our underlying faith and belief claims do have a profound influence on how we treat each other.
- If I say that the UK is the greatest nation on the earth - this can make me believe that all other countries are lesser and even against us.
- If I say Men are better - this can make me feel negatively to Women.
- If I am told that Immigrants are taking all our jobs - how do I feel about all migrants?
We cloud our own minds, or have them clouded by the media, or faith, or upbringing - we make massive assumptions about those around us - especially when we think that we are right.
When we use truth-claims to express our belief that our own faith is the only truth and the only way to God, this most certainly does influence how we view the people we know and meet.
Obviously there are various different ways of understanding the John 14: 6 quote, but one dangerous way is to say that only certain Christians have it right and that every other faith or ideal is simply wrong. This can mean that those who espouse this way of thinking will view others with a certain arrogance, with pity for the dammed, or with a loving, if superior, desire to convert and save.
Christianity is not the only faith in which texts and dogma have been used to exclusivist ends, but there is an ever increasing number of people who are seeking to make sense of a world in which there is brilliant diversity and difference.
The question is being asked, 'Can only one faith be right?'
For me it most certainly would not.
The very fact that there are different ways of approaching and interpreting our religious texts, means that we rightly struggle to talk of 'truth' - let alone a universal truth!
John Hick's 'The Rainbow of Faiths' explores these issues and includes a picture of refracted light on its cover, visually displaying the beautiful diversity of life.
Inter-faith dialogue is, at the moment, dominated by the focus represented in the question: 'How do we relate to other faith communities in love, without compromising our own faith?.
I am sure it is possible to engage in interfaith dialogue whilst 'agreeing to disagree'. The individual faith communities can still keep hold of their own exclusivist beliefs - but I have serious questions about how helpful or loving this is.
Surely, part of the joy of our relationships and interactions with each other is that we may be changed as a result. Interfaith dialogue which persists in the individuals seeking to keep hold of exclusivist truth-claims does not allow for change.
The only reason we seek dialogue 'without compromise' is that we are somehow scared of what it might mean to experience 'change' in our faith and beliefs. This exposes our inner voice which thinks we are right and they are wrong.
Obviously there are varying degrees of this - but a persistent desire to avoid compromise with other faiths, only serves to preserve our belief that we hold truth.
Personally, I have to understand that my faith is true for me and for those with whom I share and practice my religion. It is also true that within my religion there is not one truth, but a broad spectrum of diverse beliefs. Who am I to say I hold the truth over and above my neighbour?
Some would say that God's divine revelation in Jesus the Christ gives us that right, but different faiths and ideologies give different and equally exclusive answers. How do we react to this fact? Should we just become more dogmatic and shout down the claims of others? Or should we take a risk, and ask questions of that exclusivity?
All too frequently we see those around us as 'the other' - as unacceptably different from us and as those who do not hold our truth. This inner voice, perpetuated by our exclusive and 'true' beliefs, does have an impact on how we view others. The evidence of our lack of inclusive and diverse openness is all around us and, I believe is the cause of much suffering and pain.
Put simply - I pray for the grace to allow my inner voice, my deepest beliefs - to be wrong.
Only then may I be open enough to encounter the incredible diversity of the world without seeking to make everyone in my image.