Last week Pope Benedict XVI met with a delegation of signatories to the Common Word, a document that seems to have taken the world by surprise. The dialogue that contributed to the Common Word was initiated in the aftermath of Pope Benedict’s statements on Islam in Regensburg, Germany and has transformed that negative episode in Christian–Muslim relations into a positive one. Never before has there been such a coterie of different Christian and Muslim groups from such high levels willing to participate in dialogue and discourse.
After all the Common Word events thus far, there has been a spirt of warmth and a belief in future co-operation. There were two historic meetings prior to the signing of the actual document – the first at Yale University last July, which focused on Evangelical Christianity. The second event was at Cambridge University and engaged with the Anglican Communion directly. At that event the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, met with figures such as the Mufti of Egypt and Dr Ali Goma’a.
Make no mistake – these events are making history. But we also have to ask: What is the need for a Common Word? Is this really the discussion of our time? Dialogue between the West and the Muslim world is vital for a variety of reasons, political, economic, cultural and historical. But one may ask further – is the West really a Christian West? Or are we characterising the West, which is arguably post Christian, in a way that does not bear much resemblance to reality?
Particularly when looking at the meeting in the US, one can understand the relevance of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. After all, the US was historically influenced by particular forms of Christianity, and also a country where Christian adherents are incredibly active in the public sphere. Perhaps the US is less of a Christian nation and more a modern one, but one cannot deny the relevance of a document like the Common Word for that country.
The last two meetings, first with the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, are in Europe – the birthplace of Western civilisation. What characterises Western civilisation as distinct from pre-modern Christian civilisation, is precisely the shift in the public focus from the sacred to the secular. The Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution – the periods that created the conditions for modernity – represented departures from Europe’s religious orientation. The West became secular as it became modern – so, the question remains, is the Common Word, a discussion between Christians and Muslims, really the appropriate discussion for these times?
To answer this question we must find out what “secular” really means. Religion may have a future within some interpretations of secularism but not within others. We can see examples of how this could work in the US and in many other secular states in Africa, South America or Southeast Asia. Religion may have less relevance in some places than in others, but believers continue to exist in cultures that have varying degrees of secularism and the success of dialogues such as the Common Word is vital to them all.
We have seen how religion can be involved in catastrophic misunderstandings, such as the affair around the Pope’s original comments at Regensburg about Islam. At the very least, the Catholic – Muslim forum that the Pope has now inaugurated can be a mechanism through which such events can be avoided and where constructive engagement can take place.
And for Europeans there is also something at stake. Contemporary European political philosophy has come around to the idea that there must be a respect for diversity within unity – this is the main point of multiculturalism. Within this philosophy, however, there is an ongoing uncertainty: In a Europe that requires unity on national and continental levels, what will the moral and ethical basis of that unity be? In days gone by, it would have been the values of the Church – but we appear far past that today.
One of the Catholic participants from the Vatican argued that good relations between Catholics and Muslims could serve as an argument against atheism in a religiously apathetic Europe. As a European, I wonder if the Common Word can serve as an argument for an alternative, proactive sacred worldview that can become an inspiration for a moral and ethical foundation, uniting people of all faiths. So, perhaps, this will be one of the side affects of the Common World – to help heal a Europe that is still searching for herself.
And finally, for Muslims, this discussion is also incredibly important. One of the reasons that the Catholic Church has been so reluctant to engage with Muslims in the past is that they never knew who to communicate with. For a hierarchical institution like the Vatican, the seemingly vague nature of religious authority in the Muslim world appeared chaotic. But there are systems of religious authority in Islam, even though they are more decentralised than one might expect.
The same people behind the Common Word were also behind the Amman Message, which sought to define religious authority according to the historical traditions of Islam. One of the ancillary benefits of this process may be a renewed understanding of religious authority among Muslims, not only for religious dialogue with the Vatican, but in many other realms. We shall have to wait and see, but things are certainly looking better on the horizon.
Dr H A Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick and Founder-Director of the Visionary Consultants Group. He is a signatory to the Amman Message and the Common Word