Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Common Word: Islam and the Limits of Dialogue

Christopher Blosser writes about A Common Word, an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI on the part of 130+ Islamic scholars from all branches of Islam, calling for deeper and more open dialogue between Islam and Christianity. (He provides a follow-up post with more Christian reactions to the letter here.)
The origins of this apparently lie in the pope's Regensburg address, in which he talked about the intimate connection between faith and reason, and used traditional Islamic teaching as a counterpoint to that example. According to a John Allen column (quoted by Blosser in his post) the scholars who started the initiative felt that the Vatican was only willing to deal with Islam at a diplomatic level, not a theoligical one:
Hossein charged that the Vatican has rebuffed attempts to engage Muslims in theological conversation, instead concentrating on the diplomatic level.

“Muslims thought of choosing a small team of 4-5 people, leading Islamic thinkers, to be able to have a dialogue on the deepest theological issues with the Vatican, including the pope himself,” in the wake of controversies over Regensburg, Hossein said. “At least, that’s the condition I put down. Nothing came of that, there was no response from the Vatican.”

Esposito said he too was aware of a high-level attempt to open a new channel of dialogue with the Vatican by Muslim leaders after Regensburg that was rebuffed.

“Most of the response that has come from the Vatican, after the Islamic protest and all of these things, has been diplomatic, not theological,” Hossein said.
The Common Word letter attempts to underline common religious beliefs which could serve as the basis for ongoing dialogue:
The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity. The following are only a few examples:

Of God’s Unity, God says in the Holy Qur’an: Say: He is God, the One! / God, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all! (Al-Ikhlas, 112:1-2). Of the necessity of love for God, God says in the Holy Qur’an: So invoke the Name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion (Al-Muzzammil, 73:8). Of the necessity of love for the neighbour, the Prophet Muhammad r said: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself.”

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ u said: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. / And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Thus in obedience to the Holy Qur’an, we as Muslims invite Christians to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love.
The letter goes on to quote extensively from the Qur'an and from the Torah and the New Testament to underline the common elements of monotheism and love of neighbor in the three religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The site also includes a number of responses from Christian and Jewish leaders.

Certainly, this is an encouraging thing to see coming out of a large number of Islamic scholars. From what I understand, theological and juridical consensus in Islam is often achieved by the number of scholars who endorse a particular interpretation of the Qur'an -- and so seeing 130+ scholars from throughout the Islamic world endorse something like this is an encouraging sign, though I'm not in a position to know how the signatories rate within various national and theological groups in the Muslim world.

But aside from the undoubted point that a call for peace (especially if it results in more peaceful co-existence where Christians live under an Islamic majority) is much more encouraging than the reverse -- what should we as Christians make of this?

While I respect the sincerity of the signatories of A Common Word, and agree that the three great monotheistic religions do share in common principles of love of God and love of neighbor, I'm not clear how much of the deeper dialogue which they wish the Vatican were more open to is actually possible. For once we have discussed the love of God and love of neighbor, where exactly could we go from there? The one-ness of God, it would seem, and yet here we immediately run into one of the great historic differences between our faiths. Islam does not admit as possible that God should be three in one. And while explaining the Trinity in such terms as to be understandable to a Muslim audience would be a worthy occupation, if a consensus on this were achieved my understanding is that this would consist (for the Muslims) of rejecting traditional Islam. You cannot, so far as I can understand, both accept the trinity and be a good Muslim.

Which brings us to the central problem of religious dialogue: What exactly is the goal? Clearly in such areas as dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, the goal is a reunion of the great historic branches of Christianity. But in holding interfaith dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims there is clearly no possibility of reunion short of conversion. And while I'm very much in favor of our non-Christian brothers converting, I doubt that that is the goal of the Common Word signatories.

Thinking about this, it occurs to me that in historical terms it is much easier for the children to hold out desire for dialogue than for the parents to appreciate it. Thus, as Christians we may affirm that the Jews hold true to God's original covenant, and remain in a sense His chosen people, even while believing that in Christ the old covenant found its fulfillment. In that sense, Christians can see a fair amount of point in holding dialogue with Jews because we hold their beliefs to be true within a certain context, though not the fullness of truth.

However, from a Jewish perspective, Christianity is a corruption of the truth that was already full. If Christ was not the promised savior, than there's really not much to be said from the Jewish side, so far as I can tell, other than: "Please don't persecute us, and when you're ready to give up this savior-already-came nonsense, we're happy to talk."

The same problem, it seems, arises when Muslims want to hold dialogue with Christians. Perhaps open-minded Muslims are ready to grant that Christianity is mostly true so far as it goes (though can we maybe gloss over a few major dogmas like the Trinity, the Eucharist, etc.?) and in that sense are open for deeper theological dialogue. But from a Christian point of view the entire revelation of Mohammad is a human invention/delusion at best, and at worse something rather more sinister.

At that point, no wonder the Vatican seems more eager to pursue things on a diplomatic than a theological footing. At the level of achieving greater peace between Christians and Muslims, there's much to be achieved. At the level of theological dialogue...

Well, I think there are probably good things to be achieved there, but they would need to be achieved through a very non-goal-oriented approach. That, I think, has been the problem with many recent attempts at inter-religious dialogue. Too often these things seem focused on "let us agree on something we can sign together" rather than "let us attempt to find a way in which our beliefs can be presented to each other through a theological/philosophical language that both of us can understand". There would, I think, be a value in achieving some sort of common theological language that would allow Muslim theologians to understand what Christians mean by things like the Trinity, the Eucharist, etc. Then, at least, we could be clear on it is that each other are talking about. But I'm not clear if that's the sort of dialogue that people are looking for.


CMinor said...

One problem I see is that the letter's rationale seems to be rooted in the fallacy that what threatens the world's security is a Christian-Muslim conflict. If the current unpleasantness in the ME is the culprit, that's between certain Muslims and a number of secular states with some collusion from other Muslims; theological dialogue with the Pope is unlikely to be much help.

It'll be interesting to see what comes of it.

Unknown said...

I know I'm rather late commenting on this (5 1/2 (or something like that) years late, actually). Nevertheless, I wish to and will do so anyway.

There is another religion that, much like Islam, is completely unitarian in its monotheism.
And yet, at the same time, holds a belief in the Trinity in some way.
It is the Baha'i Faith.

Baha'is believe that God is One, and that His essence cannot possibly be described as three persons, two persons, one person, or no persons. It cannot be described at all. He is totally, in His essence, unknowable.

But His attributes can be known, to an extent. And they are made known to use through what we call Manifestations of God. These beings are completely human, but they are perfect humans and reflect the divine attributes of God perfectly, like a polished mirror reflecting the light of the sun.

One of these Manifestations, in the Baha'i Faith, is Jesus. We consider Him to be the Messiah, and the Son of God, born of a virgin. We also believe that it is perfectly acceptable to call Him God, in the same way that it is perfectly acceptable to look at the sun's reflection in a mirror and say that it is the sun. We believe that He is the only one that holds the station of the Son, and thus He is the Only Begotten Son of God.

I know this is not a perfect match with the Christian belief in the Trinity, but perhaps the Baha'i belief in the Trinity would be a good place to start in explaining the Christian belief in language that Muslims can understand.