FaithWorld

Beyond financial crisis, Christian-Muslim dialogue progresses

Dialogue participants at Lambeth Palace, London, 15 Oct 2008/Episcopal Life Online, Matthew DaviesThe financial crisis so dominates the news these days that reports on a meeting of the Christian and Muslim religious leaders and scholars pictured here zero in first on what they said about the economy. These men and women of faith would readily admit they look like anything but a group of portfolio managers, but comments on the crisis now get top billing no matter where they come from. We grabbed the crisis angle too, breaking out the economic statement from the final communique yesterday as our first item on this meeting. With that done, let me go back to look at the rest of the news from the latest Common Word dialogue meeting in Cambridge and London on October 12-15.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this meeting was how both sides — 17 Muslims and 19 Christians — worked to understand the other’s faith and find ways to spread that understanding within their communities. For example, in his opening address, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tackled the problem of how to deal with the the two faiths speak differently about God. “While what we say about God is markedly different,  irreducibly different in many respects,” he said, “we recognize in each other’s language and practice a similarity in the way we understand the impact of God on human lives, and thus a certain similarity in what we take for granted about the nature or character of God.” 

Meeting in Cambridge, they held sessions in the “scriptural reasoning” practiced at the university’s Inter-Faith Programme. In these sessions, Christians, Muslims and Jews read passages from their scriptures together and then explain them to each other. David David Ford/Cambridge Inter-Faith ProgrammeFord, an Anglican theologian from Northern Ireland who is director of the Inter-Faith Programme, told me he attended one such session with a British Anglican bishop, a German Jesuit priest, a Muslim sheikh from the Emirates, a Libyan Islamic theologian, a British Methodist theologian and an Iranian ayatollah.  “We were all studying together and dealing with important issues,” he said. “Some of the Muslim scholars were doing this for the first time with Christians,” said Aref Ali Nayed, a senior advisor to the Inter-Faith Programme.

Nayed told me the theological issues they discussed included the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the way canons of scripture are established, the question of prophesy, the notion of a convenant with God and various aspects of hermeneutics, or how to analyse scripture. At their last meeting at Yale University in July, both sides explained how they understood concepts like love, compassion and mercy. The question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God was also discussed and that dialogue continues, he said.

If those terms seem overly academic, consider what an agreement could mean down at the level of the average church or mosque. If Muslims understand how Christians understand the Trinity, for example, then imams might not stoke tensions by preaching that Christians are polytheists.  By the same token, priests and pastors might not condemn Islam as a false religion if they believed Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God and valued love, compassion and mercy in similar ways.

Elvis Presley, S.J.?

New Jesuit Superior General Fr. Alfonso Nicolas, S.J., 25 Jan. 2008/Dario PignatelliFather Adolfo Nicolas, the new superior general of the Jesuit order of Catholic priests, possesses, besides decades of experience, a good sense of humour. At his first meeting with reporters since his election on Jan 19, the 71-year-old Spaniard spoke about his life, his formation in Asia and what he had been reading about himself in the media.

I’ve read that I am 50 percent Kolvenbach and 50 percent Arrupe,” he said, referring to his two immediate predecessors, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach and Pedro Arrupe. “However, no one has yet said I’m 10 percent Elvis Presley, although one could say this and it wouldn’t surprise me. But I think this is all false.”

After the laughter died down, the soft-spoken Spaniard became a bit serious: “I am not Kolvenbach and I am not Arrupe. I am made for the reality in which I find myself.”

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

Catholic Islam expert gives Muslim dialogue letter high marks

Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.We noted here on Monday that the unprecedented appeal by 138 Muslim scholars for a real Christian-Muslim dialogue put the focus on how the Vatican would react. The only comment from Rome so far has been cautiously positive, saying it was “very interesting” and “encouraging” but going no further. Now one of the Catholic Church’s top experts on Islam has given his analysis — and he’s impressed by what he sees.

Father Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. is an Egyptian who heads the Research and Documentation Centre for Arab Christianity (CEDRAC ) at Saint Joseph’s University in Beirut. A genial polyglot whose native language is Arabic, he is as familiar with the Koran as the Bible and has written extensively about both religions. He was one of two Jesuit professors who lectured about Islam to Pope Benedict and the pope’s former PhD students (the so-called Ratzinger- Schülerkreis) at a private meeting in 2005. He can be both critical and sympathetic in his analyses, so a positive assessment from him carries weight.

“There is a lot of good in the document sent to Benedict XVI and Christian leaders,” reads the start of his analysis just published by the Rome-based Catholic news service AsiaNews.it. He also points out what he calls “gaps and elements which provoke the need for deeper reflections.” Read the whole analysis here .