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‘A Common Word’ in the News

First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Islam and Christianity: changing the subject; The Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion, Culture, and Public Life; Pope Benedictand Muslims

SECTION: Pg. 60(2) No. 180 ISSN: 1047-5141

After Pope Benedict’s historic address on faith and reason at Regensburg University on September 12, 2006, a group of thirty-eight prominent Muslims from diverse schools of thought wrote him a letter in the hope of arriving at “mutual understanding.” The thirty-eight grew to 138, and this past October 13 they addressed a second letter to the pope and an array of other Christian leaders. The letter is titled “A Common Word Between Us and You” and calls for theological and doctrinal dialogue based on the dual commandment of love for God and neighbor.

The October letter received rave reviews in the mainline media of the West, with John Esposito, a scholar of Islam at Georgetown University, declaring it a “historic event” that puts the ball in the Vatican’s court. A group at Yale Divinity School composed a letter in response, Loving God and Neighbor Together,” and solicited about three hundred signers for its full-page publication in the New York Times of November 13.

The Yale letter lavishes praise on the initiative of the 138 and is almost gushing in its gratitude for the expression of Muslim goodwill. The 138 had written: “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them–so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them, and drive them out of their homes.” In Iraq and Afghanistan,soldiers, most of whom are Christian, have waged war against fighters who are Muslim, but not on account of their religion. Unless, of course, the 138 agree with al-Qaeda that the Jihadists are indeed fighting in the cause of Islam.

The response of the Yale letter is very, well, very Christian. Very Christian, that is, in the way that Nietzsche caricatured Christianity as the supine morality of losers. The letter says: “Since Jesus Christ says: ‘First take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye,’ we want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbor. … We ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.”

The question of whether the Christian effort to reconquer the HolyLand after it had been conquered by Muslims was sinful is, to say the least, debatable and much debated. Placing the war on terror between quotes is telling. That murderous Jihadists have, in the name of Islam, declared a terrorist war on the West is a subject delicately evaded in both the letter of the 138 and the Yale response.

Certainly every opportunity for dialogue is to be nurtured, but dialogue that makes for peace is dialogue in truth that does not indulge sentimentality and wishful thinking at the expense of honesty and justice. The great majority of those who signed the Yale letter are, as one might expect, from the mainstream of liberal Protestantism. There are a few Catholics: the aforementioned John Esposito; Thomas Rausch, S.J., of Loyola Marymount; and Donald Senior of the Chicago Theological Union. There are a surprising number of evangelicals, some of whom have a reputation for thoughtfulness: Richard Cizik, Timothy George, Bill Hybels, Duane Litfin, Richard Mouw, David Neff, Robert Schuller, John Stackhouse, Glenn Stassen, John Stott, Jim Wallis, Rick Warren, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

A prominent evangelical who declined to sign the letter told me, “I’m telling our guys to wait and see how the Vatican responds. Rome has guys who know this stuff and has been dealing with Muslims for centuries. Our guys don’t know from squat and are jumping on a train run by liberals who have been wrong on just about everything you can name.” Thereby hangs a tale.

Rome’s response to this letter from Muslims, as to the letter of 2006, has been both calm and cool. The reason is that Muslim leaders have been persistently changing the subject. The subject is not theological dialogue about how or whether Christianity and Islam teach the love of God and neighbor. The subject, Benedict has said at Regensburg and elsewhere, is the relationship between faith and reason, between violence and persuasion, between coercion and religious freedom.

Pope Benedict said in his Christmas 2006 address to the Roman Curia: “In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that was imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church. … On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the lifeof the community and from public organizations. … On the other hand, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion. … Also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions to these problems. … We Christians feel ourselves in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious convictions as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom.”

These are the questions that need to be engaged in an honest and constructive dialogue with Islam. As Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has explained,what we in the West mean by theological dialogue is exceedingly difficult with Islam. “Muslims,” he says, “do not accept discussion about the Koran, because they say it was written under the dictates of God. With such an absolutist interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of the faith.” The questions posed by Benedict about reason and faith, religion and freedom, entail an understanding of reciprocity. “In dialogue between believers,” says Tauran, “it is understood that what is good for one is good for the other. It should be explained to Muslims, for example, that, if they are allowed to have mosques in Europe, it is normal for churches to be allowed in their countries.” Rome has indeed had centuries of experience in these matters.

On November 29, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, secretary of state, wrote to Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan, the chief organizer of the letter of the 138, on behalf of the pope: “Common ground allows us to base dialogue on effective respect for the dignity of every human person, on objective knowledge of the religion of the other,on the sharing of religious experience, and, finally, on common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation. The Pope is confident that, once this is achieved, it will be possible to cooperate in a productive way in the areas of culture and society, and for the promotion of justice and peace in society and throughout the world.”

The letter concludes: “With a view to encouraging your praiseworthy initiative, I am pleased to communicate that His Holiness would be most willing to receive Your Royal Highness and a restricted group of signatories of the open letter, chosen by you. At the same time, a working meeting could be organized between your delegation and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, with the cooperation of some specialized Pontifical Institutes (such as the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and the Pontifical Gregorian University). The precise details of these meetings could be decided later,should this proposal prove acceptable to you in principle.”

In sharpest contrast to the embarrassing effusions of the Yale letter, the response of the Holy See represents, I believe, just the right mix of cordiality, clarity, candor, and caution. Of most particular importance, it keeps the focus on the sources of terrorism and oppression perpetrated in the name of Islam. That, after all, is what prompted these exchanges in the first place, and it serves neither peace nor understanding to acquiesce in the efforts of Muslim leaders to change the subject. As of this writing, the response of Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, if any, has not been made public.

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