Peering through funnels at interfaith problems

Imagine you’re asked to examine a problem through a funnel but not told which end to look through. Some people will look through the narrow end and get a wide-angle view of the problem. Others will look through the wide end and get a narrow focus on certain parts of it. Both will be looking at the same problem, but in different ways.

This image came to mind after I spoke to members of both delegations in advance of the Catholic-Muslim Forum that starts today in Vatican City. Both sides are looking at the same problem – how to really improve understanding and cooperation between Christians and Muslims – but from different points of view. This doesn’t have to deadlock the talks – I don’t think either side wants that. But it does complicate things...

A kind of news blackout has been imposed on the closed-door talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, with only the official spokesman for both sides – Cardinal Tauran and Ibrahim Kalin – supposed to make any statements. In the run-up to the talks, the Catholic side has been quite active. Tauran spoke to La Croix and Vatican Radio in French on Monday, his deputy Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata to Vatican Radio in Italian and the Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir, an adviser to the Catholic delegation, wrote a comment on (here in English). Kalin spoke to Reuters in advance – see our news story here – but the other Muslim delegates told me they could not be quoted.

Things will change on Thursday, when the delegates have a short audience with Pope Benedict (to be broadcast by in-house television to the Vatican press room) and then hold a public discussion session at the Pontifical Gregorian University that afternoon.

(At left, Common Word delegates Ibrahim Kalin (l) and Sohail Nakhooda in Rome).

As for that funnel analogy, who’s looking through which end? The Common Word delegation seems to have grabbed the narrow end and peered through it, thus getting a broad view of the challenge of deeper Christian-Muslim understanding. The Vatican side seems to have focused on issues within the Common Word manifesto, looking with two eyes through the wide end to zero in on specific questions. This is a rough analogy and not meant to criticise either position, since both perspectives can enrich the other. The broad view can help both sides to make progress despite differences on specific points. The narrow view can help clarify details of certain points in the Common Word manifesto. Of course, this is only the first meeting of this Catholic-Muslim Forum, so they are only starting to discuss the issues.

Another intersting development fits into the funnel analogy. The Common Word approach has been to unite as many Muslim leaders and scholars as possible, in line with the Islamic concept of seeking consensus within the decentralised faith. The Catholic approach couldn’t be more different – centralised and hierarchical, with the highpoint of the Vatican meeting being the papal audience organised down to the last detail. The latest example of this came last week when Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed, one of the leading figures in the Common Word group, won support from more than 460 Islamic organisations around the world gathered at a general conference of the World Islamic Call Society in Tripoli. The conference’s final declaration said: “The Conference declares its support for the ‘A Common Word’ initiative, and expresses its appreciation for the positive responses to it. It further calls for working through that initiative in order to widen the scope of mutual understanding and cooperation between Muslim and Christian institutions.”

That means that the World Islamic Call Society, one of the largest international Muslim organisations, will link its dialogue with the Vatican – which goes back to 1976 – with the Common Word group’s efforts. That brings more coordination to the confused landscape of interfaith talks now going on. Those looking through the narrow end of the funnel will see a broad consensus building while those looking through the wide end will focus on specific points and ask how deep the agreement on them really is. But these are not “either/or” propositions, they’re “both/and.” Finding the balance is the challenge.

Tuesday’s talks will be about theological issues arising from the Common Word’s claim that both religions share the core teaching of love of God and neighbour. Roughly speaking, this is the Muslim approach and some Catholic experts mistrust it because of fundamental differences between the faiths. Wednesday’s meeting will focus on human dignity, a catchword for the religious freedom issues the Catholics want to talk about.

Both sides stress the need for these talks to produce some practical results that prove they’re worth all the effort being made. Once again, they show the two sides looking at the issues from somewhat different perspectives. Kalin told me the Common Word group would like to see a crisis management plan worked out so Catholic and Muslim representatives could confer at times of tension, for example during a controversy over the Danish Prophet Mohammad cartoons or the persecution of Christians in Iraq, and make joint statements that might help calm the situation, he said. At the Cambridge meeting last month, Rev. Christian Troll S.J., a member of the Vatican delegation this week, suggested that the Cambridge Iner-Faith Programme could form a Christian-Muslim working committee to evaluate complaints from Muslims and Christians about violations of religious freedom.

Let’s see what comes out on Thursday.