It was an American clergyman who introduced me to the importance of valuing other faiths besides my own. He was ahead of his time in appreciating that you did not need to water down what you believed in order to find unity. He was never slow to share his own source of power, but as a Christian respected the way God's spirit could work through any other person.
His name was Frank Buchman and I worked with him for more than ten years before he died in 1961. He was the initiator of Moral Re-Armament, now Initiatives of Change, and one of the inspirers of Alcoholics Anonymous.
'Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianist,' he said in a speech in 1948, 'all find they can change where needed and travel along the good road together.' Interestingly, he also believed that the Muslim nations, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, could be a 'girder of unity' for the world. He was sensitive, too, to those who rejected the idea of God. On one occasion, at a dinner he gave for an atheist, he dispensed with saying grace, asking all to sing, 'For he's a jolly good fellow'.
That broad attitude was a big development in the thinking of a small-town American brought up in a fundamentalist Christian faith. Over the years it often involved him in controversy as some Christian bodies, felt that his approach was a watering down of faith. In the same way, I suppose, that Prince Charles gets attacked for describing himself as 'defender of faith' rather than as 'defender of the faith'. Now this breadth of approach is becoming more accepted in British society. It is faith itself that is now under attack, a development which underlines the increasing acceptance by people of all faiths that they need to work together.
I am struck by some words written by a rabbi and a monsignor in a book for children How do you Spell God? They write, 'We have no problem with people who believe that their religion is right. We have no problem with folks who believe that their religion is more right than any other religion. We do have a problem with people who believe that they have the only right religion and then go out and hurt other people because of it.' They add, 'If you hurt people because of what you think your religion teaches, it just proves that you never learned what your religion really teaches.' They also were of the view that the way to show that your religion is true is not to yell and scream about it. 'The way to show that your religion is true is to live it.'
I am sure Buchman would have approved of that sentiment.
Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan tells the story of the Prophet standing in respect as a funeral process passed through the streets of Medina. A companion remarked, 'Oh, Prophet, that was the funeral of a Jew, not a Muslim, and yet you stood up in respect.' The Prophet answered, 'Was he not a human being?'
I am currently reading The Saint and the Sultan a 2009 book subtitled 'The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace, by Paul Moses. In 1219 as the Fifth Crusade was being fought, Francis crossed enemy lines to gain an audience with Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt.
The two talked of war and peace and faith and made a profound impression each other. When Francis returned home, he proposed that members of his order live peaceably among the followers of Islam.
Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, says that the book reminds us that the true agents of dialogue and constructive encounter must be courageous enough to talk as well as to listen, even opposing their own people in the name of justice, dignity and love: 'Such religious voices are very much needed today to help us follow the demanding path of peace while avoiding the traps of undignified wars.'