Reuters blog archive
The Church of England has just issued an apology to Charles Darwin for opposing his theory of evolution when The Origin of Species first came out 150 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church says it sees no need to say "sorry" for its initial hostility to the same theory. But both are now reconciled to evolution as solid science and are getting active in presenting their view that it is not incompatible with Christian faith. Is one approach better than the other to get this message across?
Next year's double anniversary -- the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species -- is one reason to speak up about evolution. Another is the fact that evolution has become an increasingly controversial public issue, especially in the United States, and the debate is dominated by mostly conservative Protestant creationists and "intelligent design" supporters on one side and agnostic/atheistic scientists on the other.
That debate is so entangled in U.S. politics -- the latest chapter being the questions about Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's views on teaching creationism in schools -- that a less polarised view has a hard time getting heard. Trying to walk a middle path can be a tricky business, too, as Rev Michael Reiss in Britain has learned. A biologist and Anglican priest, he has just had to resign as the Royal Society's director of education after causing an uproar among scientists by saying creationism could be discussed as a "world view" in science class. He wasn't advocating it, but thought that simply telling students with creationist views that they were wrong would turn them off science completely.
So what's the best way for anyone who wants to get a word in edgewise? Apologies to a man long dead? Arguments that may not be heard? Something else?
"Comfortable candor" is the way Leith Anderson described the atmosphere at the Common Word conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue that ended at Yale University on Thursday. The term is as interesting for its image as for the person who used it. Anderson is president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals and one of several evangelicals attending the meeting. Among the mostly Protestant leaders who responded to the Common Word dialogue appeal in a letter launched by Yale Divinity School, evangelicals tended to be more cautious and more concerned about pointing out the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam. Even with those reservations , these participants faced some criticism in their own ranks for attending and came to the conference not knowing how open it would be.
Anderson told me on the first day that he appreciated how forthright the discussion was, with each side standing up for its beliefs while seeking common ground where they could. In his keynote address in the final session, he put his stamp of approval on the process: "Our differences are deep and real. Sometimes those differences are cultural or ethnic or racial. But I have been especially impressed this week with the comfortable candor with which Muslims and Christians have clearly stated their own doctrines to one another."
Meetings of theologians don't usually make news. But trends can make news. A series of meetings can start to show some direction the participants' thinking is going in. If it's a new direction, and one with potentially positive results, then we journalists on the Godbeat take notice.
The "Common Word" conference now underway at Yale Divinity School in the United States is at the heart of a trend towards increasingly frequent and detailed discussions among Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders. This trend is a reaction to September 11 and other Islamist attacks in Western countries. To our 24/7 news culture, this sounds like a very slow-fused reaction indeed, but changing attitudes and building trust takes time.
Readers of this blog will know we have been following the "Common Word" initiative for Christian-Muslim dialogue from its beginning last October. We already have a long list of blog posts about how the 138 Muslim scholars invited Christian leaders to a new dialogue, how some churches responded promptly and positively while others (especially the Vatican and some evangelical Protestants) were more wary but came around, how the preparations for their dialogue have progressed, etc. Now the first in their series of dialogue conferences, with a Christian side made up mostly of United States Protestants (including some evangelicals), has kicked off at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.
The conference started with a closed-door meeting among theologians from Friday to Monday for an initial round of discussions of how Christianity and Islam view what the Common Word says are the two core principles they hold in common, i.e. that love of God and love of neighbor are the foundations of both faiths. This is one of the novel aspects of the Common Word initiative, identifying core concepts that many Christians and Muslims did not think they shared so closely. This half of the meeting is partly a getting-to-know-you session, since most of the Muslims come from the Middle East and Europe while most of the Christians come from the United States. But it is also a forum to test out some theological ideas in debates without television cameras or journalists hanging on every word. The journalist in me would like to be in there following the debates, but it's obvious the participants need a little time warming up before they can discuss these issues in public. The second session, from Tuesday to Thursday, will be open to the public.
Is Pope Benedict planning a visit to a cradle of Protestantism? Should a Catholic pontiff tour the medieval castle where Martin Luther translated the Bible into German at the start of the Reformation? It's far too early to get confirmations or denials from the Vatican or the German government, since the visit -- still only in the rumor stage -- is not due until the spring of 2009. But a local newspaper in the eastern state of Thuringia, where the Wartburg is located, says security planning has already begun.
According to the Erfurt daily Thüringer Allgemeine, an advance team from the German president's office in Berlin has already met local police. Dieter Althaus, the state premier who invited Benedict to Thuringia during a visit in Rome in April, has also met mayors from towns in the area "to discuss the emergency case of a papal visit. Also in Eisenach, the words 'pope' and 'Wartburg' are mentioned together more frequently." An earlier German press report about a possible trip mentioned that Benedict would visit Eichsfeld, a nearby island of Catholicism in an otherwise Lutheran region, so he would be in the neighborhood.
Far from it, though there are findings from the monumental U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life which could be used perhaps to make such arguments. You can see our main story on the survey here and the survey itself, which was released on Monday, here.
On partisan affiliation for example, the survey found that Mormons were the most staunchly Republican religious group in America with 65 percent of those polled indentifying with or leaning towards that party.
An English translation of Pope Benedict's 2006 discussion of evolution with his former students has finally come out and I recommend it to anyone who's confused about where the Roman Catholic Church stands on this issue. It's called Creation and Evolution and is publised by Ignatius Press in the U.S. The discussion was held in German and the original text, Schöpfung und Evolution, appeared in April 2007.
I mention the confusion about this issue because a 2005 New York Times op-ed piece by Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn prompted supporters of "intelligent design" (ID) to think the Church was embracing their argument. He denied that to me in an interview a few months later. So when it became known that Benedict would discuss evolution with his former doctoral students -- his so-called Schülerkreis -- at Castel Gandolfo in September 2006, there was considerable interest in what he would say.
There seems to have been a silver lining to the Dutch anti-Islam film "Fitna" that far-right PVV party leader Geert Wilders released in late March. We noted already the strife that many people feared didn't materialise. Now the country's National Coordinator for Counterterrorism says the long debate about the film actually brought Christian and Muslim groups closer together.
"The commotion surrounding the Fitna film appears to have resulted in overtures* between Christian and Islamic organisations. Several organisations with a Christian foundation have strongly criticised standpoints of the PVV parliamentary party chairman with respect to Islam and, together with Muslim organisations, are taking initiatives to reduce the social tensions in the Netherlands and abroad. Remarkable in this context is a collaboration between the World Council of Churches and the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (Protestanse Kerk in Nederland, PKN) on the one hand and the Muslims and the Government Liaison Committee (Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid, CMO) and the Islam Contact Group (Contact Groep Islam, CGI) on the other hand. In March 2008 these organisations conducted a ‘reconciliation mission’ to Muslim organisations in Egypt to neutralise any detrimental effects of the film."
I was surprised to see this headline on the Austrian Catholic website kath.net today... and even more surprised to see they seemed to mean it seriously.
"A look at the participants in the final round of the European football championship in Switzerland and Austria suggests this," kath.net writes in a report from Vienna. "In seven of the 16 participating countries, Catholics are clearly in the majority: Poland (95 percent of the population), Spain (92 percent), Italy (90 percent), Portugal (90 percent), Croatia (77 percent), Austria (69 percent ) and France (51 percent). Only one Protestant stronghold confronts them, Sweden. Of the 8.8 million inhabitants of the northern European country, 80 percent are Lutherans."
The light being cast on China by the coming Summer Games is far brighter than the flickering Olympic flame now wending its way across that vast country. Politics, society, human rights, the status of Tibet and even the environment have been widely discussed.
Now a window has been opened on faith and religion in a country where six decades of Communist philosophy and rule might seem to have pushed those subjects into obscurity.