Faiths Find Common Ground In Dialogue

Friday marked the inaugural meeting of the Boston College Symposia on Interreligious Dialogue, sponsored by the BC theology department, the Church in the 21st Century Center, and the newly created School of Theology and Ministry. It was the first in a series of lectures scheduled to take place over the next five years that will focus on the commonalities between different religious traditions and promote the open exchange of ideas between peoples of varying faiths. 

The lecture, titled “Dialogue Between Muslims and Christians as Mutually Transformative Speech,” focused on the relation between Islamic and Christian beliefs. David B. Burrell, professor emeritus in philosophy and theology at the University of Notre Dame, Joseph Lumbard, chair of the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Program at Brandeis University, and Francis X. Clooney S.J., professor of divinity and comparative theology at Harvard, spoke about the need for interreligious dialogue.

Burrell focused on the recently published document “A Common Word Between You and Us,” an open letter that reaches out to the Christian community and declares the common ground between Islam and Christianity. The document, which evolved as a response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address, was signed by 138 prominent Muslim leaders and scholars representing every denomination within Islam and every major Islamic country or region in the world.

Burrell said he believed that an exchange of ideas between the two traditions would allow each to refine their own doctrine to something that more closely represents the divine reality of God’s word. He said that while some might view the idea of “refining” religious doctrine as blasphemous, this refinement of religious belief and practice has been ongoing for thousands of years.

“Every religious tradition in history has learned from another tradition how to better express what they believe,” Burrell said. He explained that interreligious dialogue challenges faiths to decide for themselves the merits of their counterpart’s beliefs and ideology. It is not the purpose of such discussions to look for religious truth, Burrell argued, but rather to search for meaning in the relative positions of their respective creeds.

Burrell said that efforts to refine religious doctrine through comparison with other faiths are not an attempt to alter the message of God, but rather to improve their understanding and interpretation of it. He said he believes any human doctrine of religion is an insufficient means of expressing the divine reality, but by comparing and contrasting the differences and similarities between different doctrines, an improved understanding of God’s message can be achieved. Burrell argued that the idea that present ideology is absolute and immutable should be discarded.

Lumbard examined the commonalities Islam and Christianity share. A Muslim himself, he explored the similarities between Islamic belief that the Quran is not only a material object, but is also “uncreated” as the eternal message of God, and the Christian belief that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s word.

“The notion of the dual nature of God’s word as both a physical existence and as an uncreated absolute alludes to the idea of God-made flesh,” Lumbard said. He suggested further similarities between the faiths, quoting several passages from the Quran that portray Jesus as greater than the other prophets.

Lumbard echoed Burrell’s call for interreligious dialogue and an acceptance of the idea that doctrine can change as a result of that dialogue. “It is not religious creeds or ideologies that are absolute, it is God alone,” Lumbard said.

Clooney finished the discussion by touching on several points made by both Lumbard and Burrell. He said that no human endeavor, including religion, is perfect, and that all must be subject to changes and clarification, and the refining dialogue should be both within and between faiths. People must be prepared to speak to others of differing beliefs, Clooney said, and to listen and judge their merits in turn.

“No matter how deeply I am rooted in the faith, no matter how deeply I am rooted in proclamation, sometimes I have to shut up and listen,” Clooney said.