ROMA (Chiesa) – The letter from the 138 Muslims addressed last month to Benedict XVI and to the heads of the other Christian churches received a spectacular collective reply in a message signed by 300 scholars and published in “The New York Times” on November 18.
The message originated in the Divinity School of Yale University, specifically through the initiative of its dean, Harold W. Attridge, a professor of New Testament exegesis.
The signatories belong mainly to the Protestant confessions, of both “evangelical” and “liberal” strains, and include such a celebrity as the theologian Harvey Cox. But the list of the 300 also includes a Catholic bishop, Camillo Ballin, the apostolic vicar in Kuwait. Other Catholics include the Islamologist John Esposito of Georgetown University and the theologians Donald Senior, a Passionist, and Thomas P. Rausch, a Jesuit from Loyola Marymount University.
Also Catholic – although at the margins of orthodoxy – are Paul Knitter, a specialist on interreligious dialogue, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a teacher at Harvard and a feminist theologian.
The message lavishes praise upon the letter of the 138. It endorses the letter’s contents, or the indication of the love of God and neighbor as the “common word” between Muslims and Christians, at the center of both the Qur’an and the Bible. And it prefaces everything with a request for forgiveness to “the All-Merciful One and the Muslim community around the world.”
This is the reason given for the request for forgiveness:
“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’ (Matthew 7:5), 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.”
In releasing the message, its promoters announced that it will be followed by meetings with some of the signers of the letter of the 138, in the United States, Great Britain, and the Middle East, meetings that will also be open to Jews.
Benedict XVI and the directors of the Holy See appear more cautious and reserved toward this flurry of dialogue.
The Holy See immediately replied to the letter of the 138 Muslims with polite statements of appreciation. But it put off until later a more fully elaborated response.
The only comment on the letter of the 138 so far released by an institution connected to the Holy See – The Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies – has also been kept in the shadows, in spite of the fact that it emphasizes the new and positive elements of the Muslim initiative.
Not even “L’Osservatore Romano” mentioned it. The only reference made so far to the letter of the 138 in the newspaper of the Holy See was within a note announcing and commenting on the November 6 meeting between King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and Benedict XVI. “L’Osservatore” did not even give coverage to the commentaries on the letter of the 138 by two scholars of Islam highly respected by pope Joseph Ratzinger, the Jesuits Samir Khalil Samir, from Egypt, and Christian W. Troll, from Germany.
But it is precisely from reading these commentaries – and that of Troll in particular – that one understands the reason for the caution of the Church of Rome.
Troll notes that the letter of the 138 Muslims, with its insistence on the commandments of the love of God and neighbor as the “common word” of both the Qur’an and the Bible, seems intended to bring dialogue onto the sole terrain of doctrine and theology.
But – Troll objects – there is a gaping distinction between the one God of the Muslims and the Trinitarian God of the Christians, with the Son who becomes man. This cannot be minimized, much less negotiated. The true “common word” must be sought elsewhere: in “putting into effect these commandments in the concrete, here-and-now reality of plural societies.” It must be sought in the defense of human rights, of religious freedom, of equality between man and woman, of the distinction between religious and political powers. The letter of the 138 is elusive or silent on all of this.
And it is so intentionally. One of the main authors of the letter, the Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed, a professor at the University of Cambridge, explained himself this way in an interview with “Catholic News Service,” the agency of the United States bishops’ conference:
“Mere ethical/social dialogue is useful, and is very much needed. However, dialogue of that kind happens everyday, through purely secular institutions such as the United Nations and its organizations. If religious revelation-based communities are to truly contribute to humanity, their dialogue must be ultimately theologically and spiritually grounded. Many Muslim theologians are not just interested in mere ethical dialogue of ‘cultures’ or ‘civilizations’.”
But what is the kind of dialogue with Islam that Benedict XVI wants?
The pope explained this most clearly in a passage of his pre-Christmas address to the Roman curia, on December 22, 2006:
“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 has been 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.
“It is a question of the attitude that the community of the faithful must adopt in the face of the convictions and demands that were strengthened in the Enlightenment.
“On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations, thereby depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment.
“On the other, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.
“As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs – a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all -, so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.
“The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions. We Christians feel in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious conviction as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom.”
The letter of the 138 contains no trace of this proposal that Benedict XVI issued to the Muslim world in December one year ago. This is a sign that there is truly a great distance between the visions of these two.
The vision of Benedict XVI is the same one that the other authorities of the Holy See demonstrate each time they speak on these topics. Proof of this is the message addressed to the Muslims last October, on the occasion of the end of Ramadan, from the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, headed by cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. This message also has at its center “freedom of faith and its exercise,” as a task for all the religions, in keeping with the “plan of the Creator.”
And this is a vision that Ratzinger has been defending with great consistency for years, first as cardinal and then as pope.
The lecture in Regensburg, on the need for “synergy between faith and reason” is the most fully elaborated foundation for this vision.
But even before this, the premises of how Benedict XVI conceives of dialogue with Islam and the other religions must be traced back to the discussion he had in January of 2004, in Munich, with the secular philosopher Jürgen Habermas.
On that occasion, Ratzinger said that a universally valid “natural law” is far from being recognized today by all cultures and civilizations, which are divided from each other and also divided on this issue within themselves. But he indicated the way in which “the essential norms and values known or intuited by all human beings” may be illuminated and “keep the world united.” The way is that of a positive bond between reason and faith, which are “called to reciprocal purification” from the pathologies that expose both of these to domination by violence.
A great scholar has conducted a particularly lucid analysis of Benedict XVI’s vision in relation to Islam: the German jurist Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, in an essay published this year in German, and translated in Italy by the magazine “Il Regno.”
Böckenförde agrees completely with the pope in maintaining that Islam is now facing a challenge similar to the one posed to Christianity by the Enlightenment, in the matter of freedom of religion.
At Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church responded to this challenge with the declaration “Dignitatis Humanae” on religious freedom as founded upon the rights of the person.
But, Böckenförde asks, is the Muslim world ready to make a similar journey? Is it ready to recognize the religious neutrality of the state, and therefore the equal freedom, within the state, of all the religions?
The Muslims living “in diaspora,” as minorities in the countries of Europe and the West, seem willing to accept this recognition. Proof of this is a declaration adopted in 2001 by the association of Muslims in Germany, which stated: “Islamic law binds Muslims who live in diaspora to adhere to the local legal system.”
But what about where Muslims are in the majority, and control the state? Böckenförde is skeptical. He maintains that Islam, in a position of command, remains far from accepting the neutrality of the state, and therefore the full freedom of all religions.
Böckenförde is so convinced of this that he concludes his essay with a hypothetical conjecture: the hypothesis that in a European country, Muslim immigrants should be close to becoming the majority of the population.
In this case – the German jurist maintains – that country would have the right to close its borders, in self-defense. Because a secular state cannot renounce the “natural law” that is its foundation: “a law induced by membership in a cultural world rooted in the elements of the classical world, Judaism, and Christianity, but reconceived within the context of the Enlightenment.”
In any case, there is no lack in modern Islamic thought of positions “open to a tolerant form of reason,” as Ratzinger defined them in his conversation with Habermas in 2004.
One of these positions is highlighted by Fr. Maurice Borrmans, former head of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, in the latest issue of “Oasis,” the magazine in multiple languages, including Arabic and Urdu, sponsored by the patriarch of Venice, cardinal Angelo Scola.
Borrmans cites a Tunisian scholar who lives in Paris, Abdelwahab Meddeb, who commented positively on the theses of Benedict XVI in an essay entitled “Le Dieu purifié,” included in a collection published in France: “La conference de Ratisbonne: Enjeux et controverses.”
Meddeb writes, in part:
“In Regensburg, the pope wanted to prompt the Muslims to undertake an effort of anamnesis, so that they might forsake violence and return to the articulation of the logos familiar to their ancestors, so that they might broaden and deepen it.”
And after recalling that these “ancestors” of an Islam purified by reason included the great philosopher Averroes (1126-1198), he continues:
“It is toward these territories that the Muslim must make his return, to participate in the great logos, in its broadening and deepening within the way of purification that neutralizes violence and establishes an ethical serenity.”
Abdelwahab Meddeb is not among the signatories of the letter of the 138, nor of the letter of the 38 from a year before.