It is a matter of greatest urgency that a Christian-Muslim dialogue on theological issues and broader values takes place
It matters little whether the Pope had simply mis-spoken or, as the highest-ranking authority of the Catholic church, was enunciating church policy. Now the issue is one of identifying those areas in which a full-fledged debate between Catholicism and Islam must take place. Papal references to “jihad” and “Islamic violence” came as a shock to Muslims, even though they were drawn from a quotation attributed to Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. It is clear that the time has come to open debate on the common theological underpinnings and the shared foundations of the two religions. The appeal by Muslim men of religion, “A Common Word“, had precisely this intention: our traditions have the same source, the same single God who calls upon us to respect human dignity and liberty. These same traditions raise identical questions concerning the ultimate purpose of human activity, and respect for ethical principles.
In a world that is experiencing an unprecedented global crisis, a world in which politics, finance and relations between humans and the environment suffer from a cruel lack of conscience and ethical integrity, it is a matter of greatest urgency that Christian-Muslim dialogue turn its attention to both theological issues and to those of values and ultimate aims. Our task is not to create a new religious alliance against the “secularised” and “immoral” world order, but to make a constructive contribution to the debate, to prevent the logic of economics and war from destroying what remains of our common humanity.
Our constructive dialogue on shared values and ultimate goals is far more vital and imperative than our rivalries over the number of believers, our contradictory claims about proselytism, and sterile competition over exclusive possession of the truth. Those dogma-ridden individuals who, in both religions, claim truth for themselves, are, in fact, working against their respective beliefs.
Whoever claims that he alone possesses the truth, that “falsehood belongs to everybody else … ” has already fallen into error. Our dialogue must resist the temptation of dogmatism by drawing upon a comprehensive, critical and constantly respectful confrontation of ideas. Ours must be a dialogue whose seriousness requires of us, above all else, humility.
We must delve deep into history the better to engage a true dialogue of civilisations. Fear of the present can impose upon the past its own biased vision. Surprisingly, the Pope asserted that Europe’s roots were Greek and Christian, as if responding to the perceived threat of the Muslim presence in Europe. His reading, as I noted after the lecture at Regensburg, is a reductive one. We must return to the factual reality of the past, to the history of ideas. When we do so, it quickly becomes clear that the so-called opposition between the west and Islam is pure projection, an ideological instrument if you will, designed to construct entities that can be opposed or invited to dialogue, depending on circumstances.
But the west has been shaped by Islam, just as Islam has been shaped by the west; it is imperative that a critical internal process of reflection begin: that the west and Europe initiate an internal debate, exactly as must Islam and the Muslims, with a view to reconciling themselves with the diversity and the plurality of their respective pasts.
The debate between faith and reason, and over the virtues of rationalism, is a constant in both civilisations, and is as such far from exclusive to the Greek or Christian heritage; nor is it the sole prerogative of the Enlightenment. The Pope’s remarks at Regensburg have opened up new areas of inquiry that must be explored and exploited in a positive way, with a view to building bridges and, working hand in hand, to seeking a common response to the social, cultural and economic challenges of our day.
It is in this spirit that I will be participating on November 4, 5 and 6 in Rome, and in the meeting with the Pope scheduled for November 6. Our task will be to assume our respective and shared responsibilities, and to commit ourselves to working for a more just world, in full respect of beliefs and liberties. It is essential, then, to speak of freedom of conscience, of places of worship, of the “argument of reciprocity”; all questions are possible in an atmosphere of mutual confidence and respect.
Still, it is essential that each of us sit down at the table with the humility that consists of not assuming that we alone possess the truth; with the respect that requires that we listen to our neighbours and recognise their differences; and, finally, the coherence that summons each of us to maintain a critical outlook in accepting the contradictions that may exist between the message and the practice of believers. These are the essential elements to be respected if we are to succeed.