On Friday 25th May, the Centre Director, Revd Dr Tom Wilson, was one of a number of guests invited to make a short contribution at the iftar held by the Dialogue Society in Leicester's African Caribbean Centre. The theme was "Dialogue, Friendship and Tolerance." The text of his talk is below:

In an essay discussing the way in which Indian civilisation negotiates difference, the scholar Parasher-Sen remarks that, “Nobody can demand for respect or toleration or, aggressively claim it politically. It has to organically grow out of the practical concerns of life and those moral issues that society has collectively inherited.”

To put it another way, the process of learning to live well together is a complex, messy, organic one, which takes time and will involve many false starts or mistakes. Although it should not be characterised as a linear progression, there are notable stages. In this process of learning to live well together, tolerance is more of a foothill than a mountain peak. It is a good place to begin. I understand tolerance to mean, “I have to power to get rid of you, but I will not bother, at least not for the moment. I am content for you to exist.”

If you have tolerance, then you can move forward. You can begin dialogue. By dialogue, I mean a two-way conversation. It may well be carefully choreographed, formally structured. It may well be completely chaotic, with no boundaries or purpose. But as you dialogue, you develop trust. And trust is the basis of friendship. Dialogue begins when we chose to be hospitable to one another, allowing ourselves to be inconvenienced by others in order that all might benefit from our cooperation. The best-case scenario is where each community embeds the religious virtue of hospitality with the civic virtue of presumptive generosity into how relations are conducted, both within the community and between communities.

This might lead to what I would call pro-system behaviour, living well together for the good of all. Pro-system behaviour has three characteristics. First, these groups and individuals will be confident and secure in their own identity. My experience of interfaith engagement suggests that those who are secure and confident in their own identity are most able to encounter and engage with those who are very different from them. They would not engage in coercive or militant behaviour, not making unrealistic demands that others compromise to their worldview, as such behaviour would be detrimental to the system as a whole.

Second, groups would operate with nuance. They would not view the world in entirely binary or sectarian terms. Those groups who withdraw, who find engagement with civil society difficult, are those who find themselves adopting an anti-system attitude. Pro-system behaviour both understands the complexity of real life, and remains loyal to foundational religious assumptions. 

Third, pro-system behaviour is, by definition done for the good of all. The “system” as defined here is not the narrow social web of an individual or group, but society as a whole. All groups will have a limited sphere of operations. A madrassah, for example, has the primary purpose of teaching Islam to children. But it can do so in a way that is open to and engaged with wider civil society, or it can do so in a way that is closed. Similarly, an LGBT rights charity is particularly concerned with sexuality and gender identity, but such advocacy work can be done with a view to positive engagement with wider society.

Tonight is a small part of that process. We can hopefully move off the foothill of tolerance, talking as we go, climbing up the mountain of respect towards the peaks of friendship and trust. Being friends with someone, trusting them, does not mean you agree over everything. It means you have found a way to disagree but maintain relationship, to hold fast to what is good, together. In his teachings, Jesus tells his followers to pray for their enemies and bless those who curse them. He expects his followers to be prepared to love everyone, to seek their good, and I would argue that if we do that, we can establish meaningful dialogue, build firm friendships and our world would be a much better place to live in.