By Dr C.Sugden, published in The Church of England Newspaper, Jan 26, 2018

Imagining the divine is an exhibition running from mid-October to mid February at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the oldest museum in the world. It sets out “to explore the art of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism as religion spread across the world in the first millennium A.D.”

Set out in five exhibition spaces the artefacts can be viewed with their accompanying texts in about an hour. Underlying the exhibition is a narrative that claims that “these visual identities did not develop in isolation with each individual religion, but as new belief systems spread across ancient empires they shaped the appearance of their gods in reaction to the religious images they encountered, adapting, adopting or rejecting what already existed.”

The exhibition thus poses some fundamental philosophical and theological questions to which it appears to assume the answers are clear: namely that all religion ( note the use of the singular in the quote) is the expression of one underlying idea which as it emerges and spreads in various areas takes on facets of what it already finds there to present it in a new way. One set of exhibits in the Exhibition maintains a separate visual identity and while they imitated other models removed any overt symbolism of the other faith: Islam.

Does the expression of Christian faith require an entirely separate and unique visual, liturgical and artistic expression, like Islam, or can it properly engage with and embrace the cultural and religious artefacts of the context it finds itself in in order to share more relevantly the word made flesh?

To suggest that appropriation of a cultural expression of one religion by another is evidence of syncretism, or the expression of fundamentally the same religion, is an unproved assumption. The depiction of Christ in the robes of a Roman emperor does not prove a syncretic Christianity; rather either Christians were being discreet ( since to be a Christian was very risky) by deliberately confusing the two, or were also claiming in this way that the ultimate Lord was Jesus.

The question ought also to be asked whether the exhibition is entirely correct in characterizing religion as “belief systems”. This reduces the religion of communities to sets of abstract ideas to be promulgated by various means. What constitutes religion is a matter of continued discussion and research; religions comprise practices and rituals, commitments, expressions of relationships between people, and the exercise of social and political power, all related to a ‘greater power’ held to bind the various experiences of life into one. Therefore the notion that there may be one fundamental idea expressed in different belief systems is itself a ‘persuasive’ definition of religion.

Vinay Samuel (India) notes that In the ongoing discussion about the religious imagination of world and local religions, world religions look beyond local boundaries to make claims about the rest of the world and are missionary in their approach. All the religions in the exhibition proposed a common narrative for all humanity with a particularist view of what the world looked like to them. In contrast local religions were held to be confined to their own territory. But study shows that these religions also had a view of the world beyond themselves.

“The Enlightenment suggested that the whole of reality can be explained by a universal narrative on the model of maths and science. This was backed from the eighteenth to the twentieth century by the power of the European empires. The post-modern rejection of modernity has now removed that support and elevated the credibility of various centres of explaining the world.

It is therefore strange to encounter an exhibition at the centre of a leading global university that continues to interpret religious experience in terms of the enlightenment paradigm of a universal narrative. This colonialist view, underlying the Imagining the Divine Exhibition, tries to explain the whole universe in terms of its one narrative is outdated in a polycentric pluralistic world,” said Dr Samuel

The biblical records take a different view. The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 recognized the religious identity and traditions of the Gentiles who had become Christian, and allowed their own expressions of Christian faith except to abstain from food polluted by idolatry, sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

Biblically founded Christian faith, centred on the creation of man and woman and on Christology, recognizes the validity of people’s own religious identity and narratives as centres contributing to a polycentric whole. Such a view underlies the difference of Anglicanism from the Roman Catholic Church.

Much may be learnt about the spread of the various major religions of the world in the first millennium, misleadingly characterized as the Dark Ages. Dr Peter Frankopan’s book “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” looks at the fascinating interaction of religion, cultures and peoples from the Mediterranean to central Asia giving a view of world history from a non-Eurocentric point of view. He is to lecture on Faith and Co-Operation along the Silk Roads at the Ashmolean on Saturday February 3.