The context for this outburst was a public discussion, sponsored by the TLS and the British Library, in a series of events going with the BL’s current exhibition “Sacred” – a show of “holy books” of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“Sacred” has some marvellous stuff in it: a chunk of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest surviving New Testament (the Codex Sinaiticus), the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the earliest Korans we have, The Lisbon Bible (a magnificently illuminated fifteenth-century Jewish text - on the right), and loads more. It’s definitely worth a visit -- if only because you’re never likely to get to see such an extraordinary and stunningly beautiful collection of religious book-art ever again.
If there’s a problem with the show, it’s the underlying message captured in its slogan “Discover what we share”.
You can see why they’ve done this. For a generation of kids, especially, who’ve grown up with the idea that in various parts of the world Judaism, Christianity and Islam are at war, showing the overlaps and common themes that run through them is a salutary thing to do. You certainly couldn’t go away from the exhibition without being struck by how very similar some of these different “holy books” are (even if that is just a consequence of indecipherable script and a liberal use of gold leaf).
The trouble is the “Discover what we share” line gives a very cosy view of inter-faith relations. And it tends to paper over the cracks of what is equally important -- that is, what makes them different. So there was no mention here of (for example) the Crusades, which were raging on when a number of the lovely manuscripts on show were produced? And what about anti-semitism? Never mind what horrible things the rival strands of Christianity have done to each other.
This problem came out strongly when it came to the role of women – who by and large, historically, have not done well out of any of these faiths. Apart from a couple of rich female patrons behind the manuscripts, the only place that women were really visible in the exhibition was in a trio of wedding dresses (including, bizarrely, Jemima Khan’s outfit representing Islam). The idea, I guess, was to show that women get dressed up in funny clothes to get married in all three faiths. But as one of the panellists pointed out last night, marriage is actually a very different institution in these religions: a sacrament in Christianity, for example; a contract in Judaism. You need to know that too.
I was chairing the discussion – with six learned TLS contributors and editors, and audience of 200 or so, many of whom wanted to contribute. They came from all different directions. Some wanted to talk about what is happening to Christians in Pakistan, some wanted to talk about land-grabbing or the religion of poverty; others about the digitisation of the manuscripts. (It’s at times like this that you realise what skill the brothers Dimbleby have!)
I think it went OK (at least, lots of people said they enjoyed it afterwards). But, witnessing this discussion, I found myself reflecting how double-edged even the most virtuous of virtues are, when it comes to conflicting religions. Take the attitude of “tolerance” that we all think we should admire. Isn’t “tolerance” just another side of the problem, I mused out loud. After all, you only show “tolerance” to religions you disagree with and don’t much like, but have magnanimously decided not to persecute. It is, in other words, an alternative version of power and control – capable of being withdrawn at any minute (“I’m not tolerating this any longer”) and inherently unstable for that.
You can’t build world religious peace on tolerance, when it’s practised by those who “know” that those they are tolerating are “wrong”. Conflicting ideas of truth and falsehood are what’s at issue here.
Or is tolerance, as another panellist objected, at least better than intolerance?