One of the standard questions I'm asked by people who are curious about how such an otherwise apparently sane and reasonably intelligent person can be a Catholic is generally along the lines of 'But there are lots of other religions that don't believe in your god -- how can you say they're all wrong?'
The answer, when you get down to it, is that I say no such thing. I don't think the situation is polarised such that Catholics are right and everyone else is wrong. I talk of degrees of truth, and aspects of the transcendent, and intimations of the numinous in the collective imagination of mankind, and in talking of all of this I think in the language of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council's declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions. Deep down, though, I think I'm really just offering a developed, more Scriptural, and more sophisticated version of of a couple of things I read as a child, one penned by C.S. Lewis, and one in a Doctor Who novel.
Yes, I'm still talking about Doctor Who. Three days in now.
The Lewis passage is well known, of course, and comes from the end of The Last Battle, the final Narnia book, when Lewis describes Aslan meeting Emeth, Lewis' good Calormene, and welcoming him into Heaven.
'"Son, thou art welcome." But I said, "Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash." He answered, "Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me." Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, "Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?" The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, "It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites -- I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man does a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?" I said, "Lord, thou knowest how much I understand." But I said also (for the truth constrained me), "Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days." "Beloved," said the Glorious One, "unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."'
The other passage comes from a rather less well-known work, Doctor Who and the Crusaders, David Whittaker's novelisation of the 1965 story, 'The Crusade'. The book is rather more substantial than the TV programme, and features a memorable scene -- well, memorable for me, anyway -- where Ian Chesterton, one of the Doctor's companions, meets with Saladin.
'"I give you these passes," he told Ian, "because I admire your bravery and courage, Sir Ian. Secondly, the lady Barbara had believed she was under my protection and I would have that belief honoured. Lastly, El Akir has presumed upon my situation in this war, and his value to me in it, and I would have that rectified. His main army, of four thousand men, it is true, is placed with the body of my fighting men in front of Jerusalem, but he has a personal guard in Lydda of several hundred. One thing and one thing alone can bring success to your enterprise... the Will of Allah." He smiled at Ian wryly."But of course, you are a Christian, and my words mean nothing to you."
"On the contrary, Your Highness, if you will forgive my contradicting you, the names and the phrases differ but the purpose is the same in all races of intellect and culture. You say 'the Will of Allah' where we would say 'the Hand of God'."
"I see you have made some study of the subject, young man," murmured Saladin approvingly, "but surely the conflict still remains? The gulf between our separate faiths is too wide to be bridged by such a simple explanation.""I have a friend, a very wise, well-travelled man who spoke to me on the subject of religions once. In the West, three main streams dominate: Mohammedanism, Judaism and Christianity. In the East, the Hindu, the Buddhist and the Moslem rival Janism, Sikhism, Parsee and Shinto. But what is the sum total? That all people, everywhere, believe there is something mightier than themselves. Call it Brahma, Allah or God – only the name changes. The little Negro child will say his prayers and imagine his God to be in his colour. The French child hopes his prayers will be answered – in French. We are all children in this matter still, and will always be – until colours, languages, custom, rule and fashion find a meeting ground.""Then why do we fight? Throw away Life, mass great continents of men and struggle for opposing beliefs?"
Neither could provide an answer so Ian took his leave as decently as he could, although Saladin was now keen for him to Hay and hear the arguments put forward by the many wise men and philosophers who filled his court. Ian’s only regret was that he had had to speak for the Doctor and knew that his friend would eternally regret not meeting the great Sultan.'
I'm not saying that religious truth doesn't matter; on the contrary, I think it may matter more than anything, not least because what we believe dictates how we live, and I doubt there's a more important question out there than 'how should we live?', itself resting upon the deeper question of 'why are we here?'
I'm merely saying that we're all in this together, and the challenge of secularism is to be a meeting place where we can wrestle out this question in our lives. It should be an open space, where those of all faiths and none are free to live their lives in accord with their beliefs. It should be a space where the civil authorities seek neither to serve nor to suppress any religious -- or irreligious -- grouping. It should be about the separation of Church and State, but not about the separation of religion and politics, something which I believe to be neither reasonable nor pratical, neither desirable nor just.
But that's a discussion for another day.
* The others, of course, include, 'but how could a loving God have created a world like this?', 'why do you even think Jesus existed?', 'do you really believe the world was created in six days?', 'you don't really believe the Bible, do you?', 'do you think you can't be moral unless you believe in God?' and 'seriously?'