Did you hear the one about the Christian, the Rabbi and the Muslim? I did.
Frances Spufford, author of the wonderful Unapologetic, Rashad Ali and Rabbi Laura Jenner-Klausner were joined by Lancaster University's Professor of the Sociology of Religion Linda Woodhead and refereed by The Independent's (thanks for the free copy) Paul Vallely.
An hour long discussion ensued in the Guildhall at today's Bath Festival of Literature. After about five minutes it became apparent that an hour was never going to be long enough. I'd have listened to any of the panelists for an hour alone.
Introducing the topic Spufford suggested that Christianity can easily be seen as lawless because its laws are clearly seen as impossible by most people - unlimited generosity, self-sacrificial love for instance. In this climate people have ended up captioning every one-off, positive experience they have as religious and God-with-us-now.
Rabbi Janner-Klausner spoke of religion as being a mix with different ingredients - narratives, shared history, space, music and humility are necessary but so, she said, suggesting that many overlook this part, has to be having no idea you are right. For her the key words about religion are doubt and love, rather than only and certainty.
Woodhead talked about how difficult it was to label a whole faith good or bad. She cited the example of Roman Catholicism in Northern Ireland where good things were done to keep the peace by priests in an environment where bad things were done to individuals. She described her own job thus, 'Sociologists of religion spend their time looking at religion like journalists but a lot slower.'
Responding to a thought about the social dimension of religion Spufford said that it '...tends to work because it isn't people's motivation for doing it.' In other words people don't go to church for company (some might I guess) but they find it in the like-minded. He added that the C of E in particular may not be bad but it does need to escape from being seen as nice. When people discover monotheism they don't necessarily exclude all the other understandings up to that point and 'restrict God's garden to a domestic plot.' But the story is told as if they do.
Getting on to Richard Dawkins, the panel agreed with the opinion of Rashad Ali who suggested Dawkins had a particularly Christian form of atheism. That is to say his world-view is shaped by the western Christian way of talking about things although he would not admit it. He, apparently, finds it almost impossible to have his God Delusion discussion with Muslims. Ali said,' Dawkins ought to study philosophy for a while so he can be clear what sort of argument he is having - empirical or philosophical.'
It was one of those slightly lovey-dovey discussions which only rarely got excited or animated. Rabbi Laura had a delightful turn of phrase in the tradition of great rabbi story-tellers. Spufford seemed clear that his brand of Christainity worked for him but evangelism, again for him, is more take-it-or-leave-it than urgent. Professor Woodhead was interested in religion but it felt like she was an outsider looking in. She nailed no colours to anything. The white, retired audience asked predictable questions.
It was terribly nice and therefore not a little C of E.
Is there only one God? Yes I think they'd say so. Do all roads lead to God? We can't know and are not supposed to. The panel didn't reach universalist conclusions but I think the train stops there next. But nobody would say so because that would be certainty.