Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Theology and the Complications of Catholic-Muslim Relations: Looking to John Paul II


The last several years has witnessed a number of pointed eruptions in relations between Catholics and Islam. These have ranged from battles over the right to use the "name" of God to depictions of aspects of the faith.  I have written briefly on some of the more interesting recent points of eruption.  See, Larry Catá Backer, Who Owns the Name of God? The Malaysian Government Knows!, Law at the End of the Day, Nov. 5, 2009; Larry Catá Backer, On Benedict XVI, Islam and the Politics of Abusive Discourse, Law at the End of the Day, Sept. 16, 2006; Larry Catá Backer, Law: Benedict XVI and the Constitution of Political States,  Law at the End of the Day, June 30, 2007; Larry Catá Backer,  Fides et Ratio: Religion and Law in Legal Orders Suffused by Faith, Law at the End of the Day, July 30, 2007.

A recent re-reading of a book published during the middle period of the Papacy of John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Vittorio Messori, ed., New York: Knopf, 1994) reminds us that the tensions in the relations between Catholics and Islam has a strongly theological basis.  But it also suggests that because the tensions are fundamentally theological, there is a space for dialogue.  However, that space is quite different from those who measure those things in secular, pluralist ways.  John Paul II's brief thoughts on those issues are worth considering carefully, both because they provide a straightforward introduction to a set of complex communicative problems, and because they point forward to the Catholic position on its sense of certain aspects of Islam that, during the Papacy of Benedict XVI, produced significant popular reaction.

Not unexpectedly, John Paul II starts from the foundation of Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, Proclaimed by His Holiness Paul VI, October 28, 1965):
'The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims, who worship one God, living and subsistent, merciful and omnipotent, the Creator of heaven and earth' (Nostra Aetate 3).  As a result of their monotheism, believers in Allah are particularly close to us.    
John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, supra at 91 (Mohammad?)The privileging of monotheism as the connection between the faiths is important for suggesting as much what separates and the little (though fundamental) basis on which they overlapped.

But John Paul II does not venture there directly.  Rather, the cited passage of Nostra Aetate brings forth a strong memory that he recounts.
 I remember an event  from my youth.  In the convent of the Church of Saint Mark in Florence, we were looking at the frescoes by Fra Angelico.  At a certain point a man joined us who, after sharing his admiration for the work of this great religious artist immediately added: 'But nothing can compare to our magnificent Muslim monotheism.'  His statement did not prevent us from continuing the visit and the conversation in a friendly tone.   
John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, supra at 92 (Mohammad?) This memory served as metaphor and template for the framework of any workable dialog between Christianity and Islam.  Id. ("It was on that occasion that I got a kind of first taste of the dialogue between Christianity and Islam, which we have tried to develop systematically in the post-conciliar period." Id.).

That framework is grounded on a great theological chasm between Christianity and Islam.  It is to a description of that chasm and its foundational importance to Christian conceptions of religion that John Paul II then turns.
Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation.  It is impossible ot to note the movement away from what God said about Himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets and then  finally in the New Testament through  His Son.  In ISlam all the richness of God's self-revelation, which constitute the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside. 
John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, supra at 92 (Mohammad?). This is the heart of the essay--its vital link to current thinking.  The space between Islam and Christianity can be measured, then by Divine historicity.  The geography of the Divine presence--where he is, has been will be, is a central eleemnt of dicergence at the core of the two religious paths.  "Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only  Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us.  Islam is not a religion of redemption. . . . .  For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity."  Id., at 92-93. For Christians this is a critical distinction that can produce real world ramifications in the cultural, social,  and political spheres. 

What then, can serve as the basis for dialogue?  John Paul II suggests a starting point, well away from theology or the resulting anthropology of communal norms.  That starting point is grounded in the religiosity of Muslims--their embrace of religion--rather than on religion itself.  The outward habits of pious Muslims can serve as a point of commonality, like the hard shells that  walnuts and pecans have in common, each covering very different flavors.  John Paul II explains  in this vein that
the religiosity of Muslims deserves respect.  It is impossible not to admre, for example, their fidelity to prayer.   The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all. (Id., at 93)    
The thrust is unmistakable and clear.  The focus of dialogue is on the outward fidelity to religion, the common ground shared by Muslims and Christians.   Yet, at the same time, that small space for common ground also necessarily emphasizes  that  a deeper dialogue is much more difficult. 

Yet, a more extensive dialogue, even an outward one, is not impossible.  Again, Nostra Aetate provides the lens through which the scope of this dialogue is understood "with the followers of the 'Prophet'"  (Id., at 93).
We read in Nostra Aetate: 'Even if over the course fo the centuries Christians and Muslims have had more than a few dissensions and quarrels, this sacred Council now urges all to forget the past and to work toward mutual understanding as well as toward the preservation and promotion of social justice, moral welfare, peace and freedom for the benefit of all mankind.'" (Id., quoting Nostra Aetate at P. 3).
Not just prayer then, but the worldly application of religious doctrine in the form of ethics and morals, can also serve as a common ground.  And thus the measurement of progress through joint prayer  meetings, "especially that for peace in Bosnia, in 1993,  . . . played a significant role."  Id.  Further meetings with Muslims of Africa and Asia in Muslim majority states, where "the Pope was welcomed with great hospitality and was listened to with great graciousness," (id., at 94) were  judged "worthwhile."  Id. at 93.  "The encounter with the young people at Casablanca Stadium (1985) was unforgettable.  The openness of the young people to the Pope's words was striking when he spoke of faith in the one God.  It was certainly an unpredecented event." (Id., at 94).  Religiosity, prayer, meeting, the emphasis on the monotheistic core, the common moral/ethical agenda.  There is the alpha and omega of dialogue. 

But which Islam?  To answer this question John Paul II returns to focus on the theological anthropology that divides Islam from Christianity. 
Nevertheless, concrete difficulties are not lacking.  In countries where fundamentalist movements come to power, human rights and the principle of religious freedom are unfortunately interpreted in a very one-sided way--religious freedom comes to mean freedom to impose on all citizens 'true religion.'  In these countries the situation of Christians is sometimes terribly disturbing.  Fundamentalist attitudes of this nature make reciprocal contacts very difficult. (Id., at 94).
Here one hears what will later form the central element of Benedict XVI's Regensberg speech.  Here also is Christianity seeking, through dialogue, to privilege a more dialogue-friendly Islam (as conceptualized within the framework of Nostra Aetate) from its more unmanageable variants.  And not merely unmanageable,  but aggressively competitive.  "All the same, the Church remains always open to dialogue and cooperation."  Id. at 94.

What then, is the expectation for dialogue?  Timothy Furnish put it best when he suggested "So, the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church toward Islam can perhaps best be described as “tolerant disagreement.” Such a position is of course anathema to newspaper editors and the American intelligentsia, for whom nothing short of open, uncritical acceptance of every belief system  . . . is pilloried as tantamount to theocratism." Timothy Furnish, Is Dealing with Islam the Next Pope's Great Challenge? History News Network, April 11, 2005.  In this, contrast for example, Fethullah Gulen from the Muslim side.  Institutionalizing of Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Nostra Aetate and Fethullah Gülen's Vision.
In Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Twentieth Century, Ataullah Siddiqui analyzes the definitions and methods of prominent Muslim scholars in the case of interfaith dialogue. Dialogue is understood as meeting and communicating with other faiths, sharing thoughts and exchanging views, and reaching mutual understanding and respect through focusing on common ground[17].
However, Nursi and Gülen go beyond this understanding of dialogue. Interfaith dialogue needs to be institutionalized and collaboration must take place through joint projects for there to be any effectual dialogue in the atmosphere of skepticism. Dialogue programs occur at a local level with small projects on part of other Muslim organizations, but larger-scale programs and projects that attract public attention are needed[18].
It is for this purpose that Gülen proposed a joint divinity school, student exchange program between divinity schools, and joint trips to holy sites when he met with the Pope. There was no response from the Vatican, possibly due to political conditions in Turkey. If this project had become a reality, it would have been a first and original institution, serving as a model in the world.
Id., citing Ataullah Siddiqui, Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Twentieth Century, Macmillan Press, London, 1997, p.163-169;  Mahmoud Ayoub, Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Goals and Obstacles. The Muslim World. Hartford: July 2004. Vol. 94, Iss. 3; pg. 313-320; and Zeki Saritoprak & Sidney Griffith, Fethullah Gülen and the 'People of the Book': A Voice from Turkey for Interfaith Dialogue, The Muslim World. Hartford: July 2005. Vol. 95, Issue. 3; pg. 329-341. The suggestion here is for interior dialogue, a task both dangerous and difficult.  

The danger and difficulty is embedded in John Paul II's thoughts.  He reminds us of the difficulty of communication between visions of the Divine and the divinely inspired world that proceed from two different conceptions of the Divine reality and the world organized thereunder.  The same words may be used--but they will be embedded with distinct meanings.  The same emotions and positive feelings will be mustered, but they will be laced with different significance.  People speak to each other but understand only themselves--because they are capable of hearing others only through themselves. 

Perhaps this is the essence of the parable of the Tower of Babel ((Hebrew: מגדל בבלMigdal Bavel Arabic: برج بابلBurj Babil) recounted in Genesis 11:1-9.   Certainly it reminds us that Logos is a wall as well as a place and a road.  That "quia ibi confusum est labium universæ terræ" Gen. 11;9 ("because there the language of the whole earth was confounded") has profound effects on Logos as well as labium for all who seek to order their lives through .  But this is a lesson with profound application for communication between systems whose foundations are fundamentally distinct, and one worth considering in the slow push for everything from the regulation of multinational corporations to international approaches to climate change, to the construction of systems of transnational constitutionalism. 

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