We should build side by side, not atop each other

“Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Jesus spoke these words to Peter, or to all the disciples including Peter but not limited to him, or to the disciples about the confession of Jesus as being the Son of God, or to them about his being the Son of God. Take your pick and you’ll likely find yourself in a church with a different surname on the sign outside, because that verse seems to divide rather than unite Christians across time.

But let’s put that to the test another day and call it a red herring for now so that I can get to a different point altogether thereby, obtusely if not abstrusely.

Your columnist has been toiling on your behalf in Spain for some weeks, seeking storylines of a sacred manner. Aside from the beauty, cleanliness and friendliness of the country, one disturbing history lesson comes home to me and with me in light of our July freedom celebrations. Many of the most sacred sites in Spain are the product of three iterations of building projects.

Take the magnificent Mezquita Cathedral in Cordoba, for instance. The Moors built this extraordinary mosque atop an old Visigoth church. They even used stone from that conquered holy building to build their own holy building. And when the Christians conquered the Moors, they rebuilt the mosque into a church.

So the Muslims did it to the Christians, and the Christians did it back to the Muslims. It was always a winner-take-all contest in the name of the same God who went by different names. Alas. (In fairness, the same is true of Muslims re-sanctifying Christian churches in Turkey for their own purposes: the Hagia Sofia being the chief example.)

Couldn’t we all just find our own rocks to build our churches and mosques on? I can’t speak for Islam, but no matter how you interpret Jesus on the rock verse above, none of these is a possible or passable approach.

During the 10th-12th centuries in Cordoba, the church existed side by side with synagogue and mosque in a flourishing moment of religious history that saw the likes of the Jewish doctor/philosopher Maimonides and the Muslim lawyer/philosopher Averroes, guiding the intellectual climate of the city with a broad-minded tolerance that lacked no conviction. Each was driven out of Cordoba by a strict sect of Islam that purged the Christians, too.

Ferdinand and Isabella’s reconquista project of claiming all of Spain for the Catholic Church (ironically concluded in 1492 as their Italian explorer was sailing the ocean blue) meant that all Jews and Muslims were expelled unless they converted (and even then they had to prove they were sincere). Five hundred years later, few Jews or Muslims live in Spain, notwithstanding the welcome mat being put back out, in theory.

The genius of America’s founders was their vision of a country where true religious liberty would prevail and houses of worship could be built side by side, not on top of each other. We will know whether they are built on rock or sand by the faith and character of the people over time, not by our conquering of one another under a banner of heaven.

Religious liberty is greater than religious tolerance. Tolerance says that one religious group is in charge and allows others to exist. Liberty says no one is in charge so that all may live together freely.

The spiritual threat is from demented, not devoted, religious neighbors. Practicing our faith freely in the presence of others of different faiths who do the same may enrich us — if we listen to one another and learn.

When we cherish and respect our neighbors of other creeds and no creed, we recall the spirit of Maimonides and Averroes, and in doing so we are the more, not the less, for it.