Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Where Do We Go From Here?

From a presentation by Rev. Tom Michel at an April seminar called “The Future of Christian-Muslim Relations: Where Do We Go From Here?” co-sponsored by Georgetown Univeristy.

Since 1996, Michel has served as Director of the Jesuit Secretariat for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome, Italy, and as Ecumenical Secretary for the Federation of Asian Bishop’s Conference.

A reflection on 40 years of Christian-Muslim dialogue.

What I really like about “A Common Word” is that the authors have taken religion seriously as religion. Or they’ve taken faith seriously as faith. Religion, in this document, is not treated as some factor in the geo-political equation or it’s not reduced to some particularly volatile aspect of culture, but it really focuses on what religion is about, which religion is nothing if it’s not about, and that is the way we relate to God.

The questions it asks are: What does God want? How does God want us to act towards God? How does God want us to act towards one another? You’ve heard there are three chapters. The first chapter is on love of God – God’s love for us, our love for God. This is the First Commandment. The second – our love for our neighbor. And the third is it follows from these two, then, how does God want us to act towards one another? God wants us to build peace in this world together. God wants us to work together in a positive way for the good of all. I think that in this document, they are really coming down to the essentials of what religion is about.
My second reaction or my second observation is the importance of patience. They’re starting out on this new program, the first dialog is to be held in November, and my experience over these years is the main reason why dialogs fail is because of lack of patience.

The first readings in any dialog situation tend to be rather superficial. Everybody is careful not to step on each other’s toes, to hurt each other’s feelings, to enter into forbidden territories, and after a while, people say, this is really kind of pointless. What kind of a tea party is this where we’re all just being polite? And I think the reason is that we don’t give it long enough. We don’t, dialog is not for dilatants. It’s not for just sort of playing at it. It means a commitment of time and energy. And why is that? There’s a good reason for that. And that is that it takes time to build up trust. Trust is a very fragile thing. It’s easily broken, but it’s hard to build. And we all have so many resentments, as you heard Abraham saying, before going back centuries towards one another. And those resentments are still alive in both parties.

What I know of Pope John Paul II I think really proves this out. When he started out, Muslims thought, he would say good things about Muslims, and they were interested, politely interested in hearing what he was saying. But it was something that grew cumulatively. I was working in the Vatican in 1986 when the Pope called the first day of prayer for peace. And I was the head of the Office of Islam, and so basically they said to me, get the Muslims. And so it was really hard to do. I would go around, I’d write letters and beg people to come. We only got a handful of Muslims, about four or five, and they were not very representative people. One was a professor of physics at a university in Italy, and another one was an Indian Sufi living in England, but none of them were really people who were very representative.

On the second day of prayer in Assisi, that was ’93, my job again was find the Muslims, and, oh, there was much more of a positive reaction. See I think in 1986, people were thinking, yeah, are we going to be manipulated for some kind of a propaganda effort on the Pope’s part? Is there going to be some kind of a plea, either overt or subtle, for conversion or something like that? Are we going to be utilized for whatever the Pope’s hidden agenda is? I think there was much more trust in ’93. There was much more positive response.

Well, by the time of the third day of prayer for peace in Assisi in 2002, there were so many Muslims that wanted to come; the number had to be cut off. And there were so many important Muslims that many of the people we were really representative of important Muslim organizations and movements and political figures, there wasn’t room for them all on the podium. They had to be down with the audience. There just was not space.

By the time Pope John Paul II died, a whole section of Saint Peter’s had to be cordoned off for the Muslims who wanted to come and wanted to take part. We had, again, we had to limit the numbers. There were many more who wanted to be there and part of the funeral Mass than there was any place for.

This was a thing that grew slowly, but when people saw that what the Pope was saying was consistent, that he was not just making public relations, but he really meant it, little by little the trust grew. Now when the trust is there, then you can really talk about anything. And this is why, in a sense, it’s kind of tragic, I think, my reading of the situation is tragic, I think that Pope Benedict came in with a real fund of trust that he could build on, that he could work with. And he started out well in his first meeting with Muslims in Cologne, but the Regensburg speech was so disastrous that now, in a sense, there’s so much mistrust once again that it’s going to take a long time to rebuild it. And that’s why I think those who are involved in the meetings coming up in the Vatican had better be aware that this is going to be a long process and there’s likely to be a number of recriminations on both sides happening.

I want to make a remark on something that I think fits very well with what Peter Fan [phonetic] was saying earlier today. The whole question of prophethood, who’s a prophet, the whole question of scripture, how can we read scripture, how can we pray with others, I think that it’s a real thing. Very often, I teach courses in Christian theology to Muslims; very often in Turkey, also Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, and very often a Muslim student will say, “What about reciprocity? We recognize your prophet, Jesus, why don’t you recognize our prophet, Mohammad?” Well, it seems kind of obvious that one should do that.

But the question for us as Christians is what kind of a prophet comes after Christ? What kind of a scripture comes after the New Testament? How does that fit into our understanding of how God reveals? To me, the real question is not before and after. The question for all of us, whether we’re Muslims or Christians and Jews and others would have their criterion also, is the criterion of truth. What is our criterion of truth? That’s what it comes down to for all of us. We Christians are willing to accept what we find in the Koran as inspired, as coming from God, to the extent it agrees with our criterion of truth, that is, what we see in the person of Jesus Christ, what we hear in his words, et cetera. Muslims, in this sense, are no different because they are willing to accept what Muslims see in Christianity, the virgin birth of Jesus, for example, Jesus’ miracles of giving sight to the blind, that they find in the Gospel. Why? Because it agrees with their criterion of truth, which is what they find in the Koran. When something in the Gospel does not agree with what’s in the Koran, such as Jesus’ crucifixion and death, then they would not accept because it doesn’t fit in with the criterion of truth.

So I think that in a sense we all are looking at one another in the same way. Now we can — this doesn’t stop us from building all sorts of relationships of respect and trust and cooperation. The Catholics among us will remember that in Nostra Etatae we are ordered to what? It is part of our faith to have respect and esteem for Muslims. Now this is not just public relations. I think this is one of the big achievements of John Paul II, was the reception of Nostra Etatae. He brought that into our consciousness as part of our understanding of our faith: that any attitude that I have towards Muslims which is not one of respect and esteem, is not part of Catholic faith as we understand it.

The document went even further, though, to give a common mission in our world today to Muslims and Christians in four key areas of modern life. The council document says, even though there have been many instances of conflict and tension in the past and even war between Christians and Muslims, this council asks both to move beyond the past, to work together for the common good in these four areas of building peace, moral values, social justice and true human freedom. These four key areas were called to work together.

Now this brings us to my final point because I will stop. And that is praying together. I think the most fruitful occasions that I’ve had at praying together with Muslims is groups. In Asia, we’d have these peace courses that we would run, so we’d have thirty Christian participant, thirty Muslim participants, and we wanted to find a way to start out the day with prayer. But how to do it? How to do it in such a way that it didn’t compromise the faith of any of us? So we thought, well, we’ll start out very unstructured. We would have a theme. The theme might be peace or respect for creation or justice or whatever. We’d have a reading from the bible and a reading from the Koran, and everybody would sit there Quaker-like in silence until somebody wanted to say something. Very often you had a Christian kind of explaining the Biblical passage and the Muslim would explain the Koranic passage, but then it would move into things where the Christian might be commenting on the Koranic passage or the Muslim explaining what she or he found in the Biblical passage or maybe somebody would spontaneously make a prayer and the rest of us would all silently be part of it. Well, this got to be — this started out to be about ten to fifteen minutes at the beginning of the morning. It was going on to about forty-five minutes. People didn’t want to end it.

Well, my point in all of this is, prayer together is not just something we can do but it’s something we ought to do. It really shaped and changed the relationship of these sixty people who were working together. We had a very different kind of conference because of the prayer that we had together. We have to find ways to do it, to respect ourselves, to respect the other.