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Fisher Lecture—Catholic Chaplaincy, Cambridge University

Christians and Muslims Breathe a New Spirit
Fisher Lecture—Catholic Chaplaincy
Cambridge University

20 February 2009

David Burrell, C.S.C. – Professor of Ethics and Development Studies, Uganda Martyrs University,

Nkozi Hesburgh – Professor emeritus of Philosophy and Theology, University of Notre Dame

The papacy continues to register symbolic valence, often more so for those who are not Catholic. A quick look at the acceleration of relations between Christians and Muslims within the scant two years since Regensburg contrasts dramatically with fourteen centuries of conflict or standoff: Many of us cannot help but attribute this dramatic turnabout to deep-flowing divine action in our current history: action starkly at variance with the prevailing Islamophobia in the west, evidenced in palpable fear in Europe and untutored prejudice in America. But let us first consider the unlikely chain of events since the professorial address at Regensburg, which the Pope used to develop a recondite thesis about the intrinsic role which reason has played in developing the Christian faith over the centuries. So far, a thoroughly Catholic view of the development of doctrine, with a sidelong critique of “voluntarism” redolent of ”radical orthodoxy.” But it was the aside which offended, ostensibly offered in homage to Professor Khoury, who had been a colleague of professor Ratzinger at Regensburg. Not only does the aside offer contested views, but it is poorly constructed as well, with the lecturer quoting Khoury, who quotes the Byzantine Emperor Paleologus (shortly before the fall of Constantinople), to bolster a thesis about Islam’s insouciance towards reason, itself bolstered by citation of an early work by the distinguished French Isalmicist, Roger Arnaldez, on Ibn Hazm, proposing that Iberian “hardline” thinker as the spokesperson for Islam. In short, so many citations within citations that the lecturer’s view of the matters in question was utterly obfuscated. Careless rhetorical construction could not but lead to utter distraction, yet when an intelligent theologian who is also Pope distracts us, industrious speculators try to tell us what he meant by doing something so inept. So we were treated to inane western commentators suggesting what he must have intended, while “friends of the court” invented astute reasons why a pope might have made such contentious statements—though we have seen that the concatenation of citations within citations makes it quite impossible to ascertain what the lecturer himself actually stated regarding the matters in question: the relevance of reason to Islam. So the most charitable comment would be that he made a gaffe, and the most salutary response of the Pope should have been to admit just that.

Yet within a month thirty-eight Muslim scholars took the initiative, reminding the lecturer of things he should have known, like medieval Christendom’s reliance on Islamic thinkers to develop their own doctrinal positions, notably on creation, and reminding readers of the polemical cast of both emperor Paleologus and Ibn Hazm. The official Vatican reaction was lukewarm, but the Pope himself offered a potent symbolic response on his visit to Istanbul, praying in a celebrated mosque. Yet other forces were at work, and a year after the initial Muslim response, a document appeared, endorsed by 138 Muslim thinkers, addressed to the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other Christian leaders: “A Common Word.” Capitalizing on the Qur’anic statement, here rendered as “a common word between us,” the document begins by reminding Christian leaders that Muslims and Christians make up more than half of the world’s population, and proceeds to celebrate what we hold in common: love of God and love of neighbor. Freely citing from Christian and Muslim scriptures, the document challenges us all to reach for mutual understanding in the cause of peace (http://www.acommonword.com/). Scarcely a month later, the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, spearheaded by Miroslav Volf and Joseph Cummings, gathered 300 Christian signatories to a response printed as a full page advertisement in the New York Times (18 November 2007). Five months later, the Vatican announced a Catholic-Muslim forum, to be jointly administered by five Muslim and five Catholic notables. Most recently, with the assistance of distinguished consultants, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a theologically astute response on July 14, as the Yale Center for Faith and Culture convened a gathering of Christian and Muslim leaders, including a broad representation of the signatories to “A Common Word,” to probe the issue of love of God and neighbor in an explicitly comparative way. Moreover, the way the Yale conveners facilitated a broad evangelical representation in this gathering, as well as in the earlier published response, is perhaps most telling for America. In the face of Islamophobia in America and pervasive fear in Europe over the very presence of Muslims, deep counter-currents emerge: the Spirit must be at work!

In fact, the Common Word website lists more than fifty Christian responses, including an immediate response from the Vatican Secretary of State to Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan, conveying Pope Benedict’s enthusiastic praise for the initiative, notably for its focus on love of God and neighbor. We have all been trained to be critical of texts, but it is more telling to note the nearly miraculous fact of garnering signatures of so many notables across a widely diverse Muslim world. It would appear that Prince Ghazi’s pellucid Islamic culture pervades the Common Word initiative, from text to signatories. Let us try to ascertain what is at stake as well as what is actually taking place, as much as we can.

Meaning and truth; dialogue and proclamation

In encountering documents like “A Common Word,” we shall see how dialogue, like any probing conversation, attends to meaning rather than totruth. This should be evident enough, but attempts to contrast ‘dialogue’ starkly with ‘proclamation’ have obscured this simple point, by implying that dialogue is somehow deficient as a faith-strategy, since it stops short of proclaiming the truth. But what would it be to proclaim the truth? Would it be to make an assertion and then to insist that it was true; or as one wag put it: to stamp one’s foot? In fact, of course, any properly formed assertion, actually stated, intends what is the case. Grammar is inherently ethical, which is why lying—deliberately stating what is not the case–is inherently wrong. Yet we know that our acceptance of what another says is often conditioned by the moral probity or veracity of the speaker. So “proclaiming the truth” of one’s faith is better done than said, as the Amish community in Pennsylvania demonstrated to America by forgiving their children’s killer. Merely stating one’s faith convictions cannot in fact count as proclamation. What counts is witness; and while the fact of dialogue may give telling witness in certain situations, like Israel/Palestine, the intellectual endeavor of dialogue can at best be a means of sorting out awkward from promising ways of stating what we believe. But this is hardly a deficiency; it is simply what any conversation tries to do. Authentic proclamation is quite another thing, as the gospels remind us again and again.

John Henry Newman, Bernard Lonergan, and Nicholas Lash can each be invoked as witnesses to this crucial distinction. Newman reminds us (inGrammar of Assent) how sinuous is the path to arriving at truth, and how delicate are the balancing judgments involved. Bernard Lonergan professedly acknowledges Newman’s reflections when he parses Aquinas’ insistence that truth can only be ascertained by way of judgment. And Nicholas Lash’s recentTheology for Pilgrims (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008) deftly exhibits the quality of dialectical reasoning which must attend reliable judgment. In the spirit of Wittgenstein, the witness Lash’s writing gives to constructive and critical dialogue offers a healthy antidote to current TV confrontations which leave listeners to “make up their own minds.” One can almost hear Wittgenstein query: “I know how to make up my bed, but how might I make up my mind?” So whatever effective proclamation might be, it cannot be had without probing discussion and the conceptual clarification that dialogue can bring. Reduced to forthright assertion or downright insistence, it can neither be authentic nor effective. So there is no substitute for attending to meanings, as we attempt to minimize infelicitous expression in matters “pertaining to God and the things of God” (as Aquinas views theology). For that same thinker reminds us that our language at best can but “imperfectly signify God” (ST 1.13.3).

Yet precisely because of this slack which inevitably attends human language in speaking of the divine, thinkers operating within a tradition have often found space to interact with another tradition, so as to enrich their own. What we know as inter-religious dialogue has certainly been facilitated by the sea-change wrought by the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, but the practice of engaging one’s own tradition by encounter with others has long been part of the creative assimilation of revelation which characterizes faith traditions. I have probed the ways Thomas Aquinas utilized the Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonides, as they both adapted the Islamic metaphysics of Avicenna, in an effort to offer a coherent account of free creation—a teaching shared among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the face of formidable philosophical alternatives. More recently, in the main narrative of Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address, he delineated the sustained role which rational inquiry has played in the ongoing development of Christian revelation. For now, it will prove useful to propose the sophisticated ways in which medievals interwove faith with reason to develop a discipline we have come to know as theology, as a way of modeling interfaith exchange into an apt vehicle for developing doctrine. Recall Aquinas’ simple recommendations: should an apparent contradiction emerge between faith and reason, first determine whether the relevant interpretation of scripture is a faithful one, then look to see whether the reasoning in question has been carried out responsibly. To appreciate the new context, however, we shall have to expand John Paul II’s discussion of “faith and reason” [Fides et ratio] to embrace the variable of culture. For that encyclical explicitly notes how “reason itself, in accord with which Christians experience their faith, is soaked in the culture of the place nearest to it, and in its turn ensures that with the progress of time, its own nature [i.e., what we take to be reason itself] is bit by bit transformed” (#71). Yet since that prescient reminder is never developed within the text itself, it remains our task to delineate how the cultural shift in interfaith attitudes augurs new theological potential.

Three neuralgic issues

Let us explore three neuralgic issues, beginning with that of “trinity,” to illustrate how interfaith exchange can now offer an apt vehicle for developing doctrine. Christian-Muslim disputations regularly opposed Muslim insistence on the unicity of God to a Christian trinitarian presentation. Yet any student of the history of Christian thought knows how it took four to five centuries of Christological controversies, plus another century of conceptual elaboration, to hone a “doctrine of trinity,” precisely because of the shema: “Hear, O Israel, God our God is one” (Deut 6:6). If Muslim teaching showcasing divine unity—tawhid—has been developed polemically over against a misunderstanding of the “threeness” of the one God, that should be perfectly understandable for Christians, given the time it took them to articulate “threeness” in God without prejudice to God’s unity. Moreover, Islamic thought soon came to see how, as God’s Word, the Qur’an must be co-eternal with God, lest God be mute!1 So once we emphasize the Johannine expression of “word,” rather than the synoptic usage of “son,” in dialogue with Muslims, we will at once be able to converse with them less polemically, yet also realize how thoroughly our baptismal formula refines the ordinary notion of son. And rather than diminishing the presentation of our faith, we will have come to a more refined understanding of what we have long been affirming. The fact remains that our faith is indeed “trinitarian” while theirs is not, yet the process of dialogue will have brought us to a better articulation of our respective understandings oftrinity and of unity in God.

The next example comes as a corollary to the intradivine relations, called (in common parlance) “persons,” yet utterly different from the distinct individuals we normally identify as persons. We are speaking of the mediating role of Jesus in effecting our relationship to God. Muslims insist that while the Prophet delivers the Qur’an, which presents us with the very Word of God, it is our response to God’s very Word which effects an immediate relation with God. Given the gift of the Qur’an, there can be no need for a “mediator,” nor should one think of Muhammad as one. On the other hand, Christian scripture and theology speaks in countless ways of Jesus Christ as “mediator between God and human beings.” Now the ordinary use of ‘between’ makes it sound as though Jesus operates in a space between the creator and creatures. Yet that would be an Arian view, explicitly repudiated in the early councils, so in orthodox Christian belief Jesus’ mediation operates theandrically; that is, as something intrinsic to Jesus’ divine-human constitution, so carefully elaborated in early councils from Nicaea to Chalcedon. So while the actions of Jesus can effect an immediate relation to God as Father, Jesus does not mediate as a “go-between.” So the very feature of mediation which Muslims deny to the Prophet, thinking that to be Jesus’ manner of mediating, represents a distortion of Christian thought, though one in fact proposed by some Christians as well. One thinks of sixteenth-century debates between Protestants and Catholics, where the polemical edge doubtless distorted a more classical meaning of “mediation.” For Catholics have elaborated a sense of ‘mediator’ to include ecclesial structures and personages, so that ordained persons “mediate” the saving power of God to the faithful. But just as Jesus could not be construed, thanks to the shema, as a “being alongside God” (which is the meaning Muslims attach to shirk: something–either created or uncreated–on a par with the creator), so Christians falsify their own faith if they conceive of Jesus’ mediation (or, a fortiori, that of the church) as situated “between” the creator and creatures. As the Word who is God, Jesus’ mediation effects that immediate relation to God as Father which Christians presume in their recurrent prayer: “Our Father.”

The final example explores the polemical stance both Jews and Muslims take with regard to Christian teaching regarding “original sin.” Here again, applying Aquinas’ hermeneutical cautions, we find that there are widely divergent versions of “original sin” in diverse Christian lexicons, and one is never sure which one of them is at issue. The spectrum of meanings Christians attach to this teaching can be fairly represented between a characteristically Catholic view, captured in Chesterton’s insistence that “original sin is the only empirically verified Christian doctrine” (or “Murphy’s Law” in the moral order), to the most stark contention that its effects render our intellectual and voluntary faculties utterly dysfunctional. But these views all require that Adam’s transgression somehow affect and infect us all by a path which remains obscure (see Rudi teVelde’s delineation of Aquinas’ attempts in Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Joseph Wawrykow, eds., Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005). So they all focus on the universal human need for redemption, exemplified in and effected by Jesus’ death on a cross. Now if this remains a sticking point for Muslims, an adequate way of articulating “the atonement” continues to elude Christian theology, which deems Anselm’s account deficient on several counts, but has yet to find a satisfactory formulation (though I find an illuminating one in Sebastian Moore’s The Crucified Jesus is no Stranger). Yet we can all recognize how incapable are rational creatures of achieving their inbuilt goal of union with God, so some action on the creator’s part must make that possible—recalling Chesterton. Now a closer look at the Muslim view of human beings’ capacity for “drawing near to” God shows less difference between us than first appeared. Islamic thought takes the situation in the Hejaz before the Prophet’s preaching the Qur’an, and readily applies it to the entire world: bereft of divine revelation, human beings are bound to wonder aimlessly, seeking to fulfill their own desires and inevitably engaging in deadly combat, as we see every day! On this view, the Torah or the “Injil” [gospel, i.e. New Testament] serves the purpose for Jews or Christians that the Qur’an does for Muslims, since human beings left to themselves would never make it. So while Christianity focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus, Muslims locate the redemptive act par excellence in the unmerited and serendipitous “coming down” of the Qur’an from God through the Prophet. Human beings are invited to respond to this gift, and their everlasting redemption depends on the quality of that response. So this dynamic reinforces the fundamental analogy between Jesus and the Qur’an: as Christians believe Jesus to be the Word of God made human, Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the word of God made book. Each of these examples can show us how comparative inquiry will inevitably highlight dimensions of our own theological task, by accentuating items in our own traditions which need clarification and development.

How the examples culminate in an exposition of theological grammar

Moving beyond examples to the grammar proper to theology, we can note the “play” of theological inquiry, rooted as it must be in practice, to display Aquinas’ contention that our language, at best, will “imperfectly signify” divinity (ST 1.13.3). And if theological expression will ever be inadequate, theological inquiry will ever be comparative, always seeking the least misleading modes of expression. Yet that requires refinement of judgment, gained by weighing different expressions relative to each other, in an effort better to articulate what Augustine called “the rule of faith.” Yet if there can be no adequate expression, we shall always be weighing candidates relative to each other. And once the idol of “pure reason” has been shattered, and we can learn to accept diverse ways of arriving at conclusions, we will also find that we can employ the skills learned in one tradition to follow reasoning in another. Traditions, in other words, are often found to be relative to one another in ways that can prove mutually fruitful rather than isolating. The traditions which prove to be so will be those which avail themselves of human reason in their development, as the patterns of stress and strain in their evolution will display their capacity for exploiting the resources of reason. (On this point, Pope Benedict was “spot on,” as the 38 Muslim scholars noted, yet for both Muslim and Christian traditions!) In short, fears about “relativism” give way to the human fact that all inquiry takes place within a tradition. So just as medieval ways of resolving apparent conflicts between faith and reason turned on critical hermeneutics with regard to texts, together with critical assessment of the reasoning one is employing, so interfaith comparative inquiry will require skills of reading one set of texts in relation to another.


So where have we come? To an interim conclusion, using the skills we have developed to subvert the perfectly normal desire of each religious group to show it is superior to all comers, even though characteristic efforts to do so will invariably involve presenting the other in ways which can at best be contested for fairness, and at worst display brutal colonization. A final charitable look at the 2000 Vatican statement Dominus Iesus, “on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church,” can suggest a way of putting things less contentiously than that document did. (see Sic et Non: EncounteringDominus Iesus, edited by Stephen J. Pope and Charles Hefling [Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002]). It purports merely to proclaim abiding Christian truth, yet recalling our earlier discussion of “proclaiming truth,” article two of the document effectively derails that intent. After expressing the elements of Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed in article one, the authors go on to claim, with disarming self-assurance, that “in the course of the centuries, the Church has proclaimed and witnessed with fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus.” Proclaimed, yes; but witnessed with fidelity? If this were true, past centuries would have been radically different and our own century surely unrecognizable. Indeed, a contestable assertion can fault an entire document. Nor is this a minor flaw, for this claim to have witnessed faithfully throughout the centuries, so out of touch not only with history but also with present day reality, can only make our proclamations arrogant and monopolistic. Indeed, ethical humility and intellectual humility are intimately related, as proclamation is to witness, as we have seen in the Amish example.

So Christian theology must always begin, as does Christian worship, with amea culpa and a Kyrie eleison. Its focus is proclamation, yet substantial moral failures of the Christian community will inevitably mute the truth claims we may make, as Pope Benedict has acknowledged in asking forgiveness for clerical abuse. Had the Christian community, including its officials, offered better witness to Jesus, claims about the role of the Church in God’s saving plan and activity could find a more receptive audience. (These words are adapted from Dan Madigan, S.J.’s reflections on a discussion in which we both participated. 2) Yet our discussion of the effects of interfaith dialogue, in this case with Muslims, can offer an alternative way of expressing the distinctiveness of Christianity, and do so in a fashion which might be intelligible to others: that our revelation is in a person. Preceded by an appropriate mea culpa regarding our collective ability as “Christians” to follow that same Jesus (as John Paul II did during Lent in the same year 2000), we can simply remind ourselves that Christians believe that Jesus is the Word of God made human, while Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of God made book. These parallel formulae express profound difference as well as structural similarity, and recalling them can advance ecumenical interests as well as our own self-understanding as Christians. So the practice of dialogue can serve to affect, for the better, our attempts at proclamation as well. As our own sense of who we are develops in the face of generous Muslim initiatives like “A Common Word,” we will come to appreciate how much we need one another to appreciate as well as give witness to what we have received from God.

For a succinct statement of the eternal Qur’an, see Kenneth Cragg’s learned introduction to his Readings in the Qur’an (Portland OR: Sussex Academic Press, 1999): “the Qur’an does not present itself as documenting what is other than itself. It is not about the truth; it is the truth. .. as a book already existing eternally” (18); for an illuminating discussion, see Yahya Michot, “Revelation,” in Tim Winter, ed., Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 185.

Dan Madigan’s comments, made to an interfaith gathering at Tantur Ecumenical Institute (Jerusalem) in 2006, edited by James Heft, will be published by Oxford University Press.