FaithWorld

Pope wants real interfaith dialogue, not just talk

Pope Benedict in Lourdes, France, 14 Sept 2008/Regis Duvignau Is Pope Benedict getting impatient to make some progress in dialogue with Muslims? He told French bishops in Lourdes today that the Church wants to pursue interreligious dialogue, but it must be real dialogue about serious theological issues and not just polite talk that leads nowhere.

“Good will is not enough,” he told them at a meeting during his pilgrimage to the famous shrine. “One must follow closely the various initiatives that are undertaken, so as to discern which ones favour reciprocal knowledge and respect, as well as the promotion of dialogue, and so as to avoid those which lead to impasses.”

These comments may help put an end to a long-standing doubt about how committed Benedict is to dialogue with Muslims. The doubt started soon after his election when he sidelined the Vatican’s top Islam expert, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, and folded his Council for Interreligious Dialogue into the larger Council for Culture. His Regensburg lecture in 2006 seriously set back relations with Muslims by suggesting Islam was violent and irrational. As part of the patching-up work, he restored the interreligious council as an independent Vatican department. But he handed it over not to an Islam or dialogue expert but to a former diplomat, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who publicly said that theological discussion was impossible with Muslims (much to some Muslims’ surprise) and that the world was “obsessed” with Islam.

King Abdullah opens his interfaith meeting in Madrid, 16 July 2008/Juan MedinaSince that time, Tauran has met with leaders of the Common Word initiative on Christian-Muslim dialogue and attended Saudi King Abdullah’s Madrid interfaith mega-meeting. There seems to be “something in the air” on the interfaith front. The Vatican is now preparing to meet 24 representatives of the Common Word group in November for theological discussions about their proposal that the double love commandment — love God and neighbour — is common to both major faiths. So it was probably time to clear up the question of whether the Vatican thought such a discussion was even possible. The way Benedict mentioned theological dialogue as a step beyond the listening (i.e. polite conversation) phase suggests he’s thinking of the Muslims here. Catholics have already had extensive theological discussions with other Christians and Jews.

While open to dialogue, Benedict made very clear he felt the ultimate purpose of such talk is to lead people to Jesus Christ. There are certainly Muslims who think the same way about leading people to Islam. What effect this issue will have on the dialogue remains to be seen.

“Comfortable candor” at Yale Christian-Muslim meeting

NAE President Leith Anderson (l) listens to Shi’ite philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr speaks, 31 July 2008/Tom Heneghan“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.”

Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, made the same point in his address. We can affirm the appropriateness of simply engaging in dialogue and conversation with each other at this critical time in history. It is right that we’re together. We can affirm the development of new and strengthened relationships. It has been good to sit together and build new friendships. We can affirm the genuine spirit of being willing to listen to each other and seeking to gain understanding into each others’ perspectives.”

Webcast for Common Word final news conf. on Thursday

Sign outside Yale Divinity School, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanAn announcement about the Common Word conference we’ve been following here (and will cover on Thursday):

    FYI Yale Divinity School tells us there will be a live web stream of the final news conference of its Muslim-Christian dialogue conference on Thursday, July 31, at 11:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m. EST/1530 – 1700 GMT. The stream will be available at the conference web site at:  http://www.yale.edu/divinity/commonword/index.shtml.   Yale Divinity School theologian Miroslav Volf and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan, chairman of the royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, will present a summary document from the conference and will take questions from the media. Members of the media unable to attend may submit questions to Volf and Ghazi via e-mail, beginning at 11:45 a.m. EST, to: gus.spohn@yale.edu.    Sign at Yale Common Word conference, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanVideos of several of the conference sessions, including an opening address by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts on Monday evening, are currently available online at:http://www.yale.edu/divinity/video/commonword/video.shtm

Prince Ghazi fears the worst if interfaith tensions flare

“Christians and Muslims routinely mistrust, disrespect and dislike each other, if not popularly and actively rubbish, dehumanize, demonize, despise and attack each other.”
Hmmm … this doesn’t sound like your usual speech at a conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue.

“With such an explosive mix, popular religious conflicts, even unto genocide, are lurking around the corner.” Um, er … the gloves are really off.

“God forbid, a few more terrorist attacks, a few more national security emergencies, a few more demagogues, a few more national protection laws, and then internment camps, if not concentration camps, are not inconceivable in some places.”

“Something in the air” in Christian-Muslim dialogue

Yale Divinity School chapel, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanMeetings 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.

Just about every conference participant I’ve spoken to has stressed that work towards greater understanding between Christians and Muslims was now moving ahead on several fronts. “There’s definitely something in the air,” remarked Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian who runs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. As University of Cambridge theologian David Ford put it, “People were almost waiting for an initiative around which they could gather and which generally gave some way forward for Muslim-Christian engagement. Many initiatives were on the Christian side before but this was a Muslim initiative. It’s had the desired effect.”

“Common Word” Christian- Muslim talks kick off at Yale

Yale Common Word conference sign, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanAnd they’re off!

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, Sign outside Yale Divinity School, 25 July 2008/Tom Heneghanbut 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.

Since I’ve been in New York all this month at Union Theological Seminary attending a research colloquium run by CrossCurrents magazine, I was able to dash off to New Haven for the start of the conference and will be covering it this week. Here is my opening report on the meeting.

Ex-diplomat Cardinal Tauran pulls no punches now

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, 25 Nov 2005/Jameson WuCardinal Jean-Louis Tauran has apparently left diplomacy behind in his past life. The cardinal is now the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, and as such, Pope Benedict’s point man for relations with all non-Christian religions except for Judaism.

From 1975 to 2003, Tauran was often a tight-lipped Vatican diplomat. He did his job so well he ended his previous life as Secretary for Relations with States, effectively the
Vatican’s foreign minister and number three position in the Secretariat of State.

When he left that job, the Frenchman was briefly Archivist of Holy Roman Church and kept a mostly low profile.

In interfaith dialogue, beware of Saudis bearing gifts?

Saudi King Abdullah at Mecca interfaith dialogue conference, 4 june 2008/Ho NewSaudi Arabia’s King Abdullah looks determined to get his proposal for an unprecedented Muslim- Christian-Jewish dialogue off the ground. A three-day conference in Mecca to discuss this ended with a soaring declaration of goodwill and benevolent intent. Saudi media reported that Muslim clerics from around the world had supported the call and confirmed that dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.

The official Saudi Press agency said the meeting recommended holding “conferences, forums and discussion groups between the followers of the prophetic messages and relevant civilisations, cultures and philosophies to which academics, media and religious leaders will be invited”. Given the gazillions Riyadh must be earning with oil at $140 a barrel, it may not be long before we see all sorts of petrodollar-funded “dialogue sessions” being held here and there.

Interfaith dialogue is a good thing, but the recent rising chorus of calls for more such talk hasn’t just emerged out of a vacuum. There is already a decades-long history of dialogue sessions that essentially exchanged pleasantries and generated warm feelings but did little to actually reduce misunderstanding and mistrust. The latest generation of initiatives — for example the Common Word consultations and the “Painful Verses” book we’ve blogged about here — takes the disappointment with earlier efforts as its starting point and aims to tackle the issues that earlier dialogues tended to avoid.

Interfaith talks on agenda in Mecca, Rome and London

Saudi King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 4 June 2008/Ho NewThere were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.

The Mecca meeting, organised by the Saudi-based Muslim World League, is supposed to draw up guidelines for the inter-faith dialogue that Saudi King Abdullah says he wants with Christianity and Islam. “You are meeting here today to say to the world with pride that we are a fair, honest, humanitarian and moral voice, a voice for living together and dialogue,” the monarch said in a high-minded speech.

But former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the few prominent Shi’ites at the conference, rained on his parade with broadsides against the United States and Israel. But he also said: “To have a dialogue with other religions we need to start talking among ourselves. The call needs to be directed at ourselves first of all, and all the sects need to agree on shared points. As a Muslim and a Shi’ite … I say the things we agree on are many.”

Vatican-Iranian dialogue agrees on faith, reason, non-violence

Church tower and mosque minaret in AmmanPope Benedict was “particularly satisfied” with the topic of a meeting this week held between Vatican and Iranian specialists on inter-faith dialogue, according to a statement just put out by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. That shouldn’t be any surprise. The statement copied below shows his trademark topic — the compatibility of faith and reason — was prominent at the three-day session. He has been stressing this for years, with some success (as during his recent U.S. visit) and some misunderstanding (as in his Regensburg speech). With another Catholic-Muslim meeting due later this year, with delegates of the Common Word group, we can expect this issue to stay front and centre in inter-faith dialogue.

That the Iranian delegation agreed with the statements on faith and reason shows they did not see the contradiction between them in Islam that some observers read into Benedict’s comments in Regensburg. They also agreed that “faith and reason are intrinsically non-violent,” a message Benedict said he meant to get across there. Another point agreed on here — that both Catholics and Muslims should promote respect for religious beliefs and symbols — seems to have the controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad as its background. One can’t read too much into one meeting but it seems that dialogue is moving ahead despite some occasional setbacks.

I can’t help but notice the different emphasis here from what the popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled said this week about the protests against the Danish cartoons.