FaithWorld

“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.”

Sign at Yale Common Word conference, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanWe’ve blogged a lot here about the Common Word dialogue appeal last October by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders. That appeal prompted Volf and three Yale colleagues to write a welcoming response signed by about 300 theologians and church leaders, mostly Protestants in the United States. It led to a meeting at the Vatican in March that agreed on a conference and meeting with Pope Benedict in November and a regular Catholic-Muslim forum. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams also hosted a meeting of Christian theologians in June to write another response that will be discussed at another Common Word conference at the University of Cambridge in Britain in October.

An interesting twist has been the burst of interfaith activity by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose strict Wahhabi sect of Islam came to be seen as a stumbling block to better relations between Islam and the West after it turned out that 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudis. Abdullah paid a surprise visit to Pope Benedict at the Vatican in November and announced he wanted to promote interfaith understanding. This was initially greeted with scepticism, including on this blog, because it King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at Mecca conference, 4 June 2008//Ho Newlooked like this might be more a PR exercise than a serious initiative. But Abdullah held an interesting meeting in early June of Muslim scholars — Sunnis, Shi’ites and others — to win approval for his project. He then convened a surprising interfaith conference in Madrid this month that brought together Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others.

“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.

Is the pope planning visit to cradle of Protestantism?

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.

Thüringer Allgemeine logoAccording 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.

Apart from the security, a visit by any pope to the Wartburg would need careful preparation to ensure it helps rather than hurts Catholic-Protestant relations. If that pope is Joseph Ratzinger, the task becomes even more tricky. Pope Benedict has studied the writings of Martin Luther — he’s probably the only pontiff who ever has — and impressed Lutherans with his knowledge and appreciation of his fellow German theologian. At the same time, he has also been blunt in describing Protestant denominations as “not proper churches.” In fact, he doesn’t refer to them as churches at all, but “ecclesial communities.” Not surprisingly, Protestant leaders feel offended.

Are U.S. atheists from Venus and Mormons from Mars?

Barack Obama, 15 June 2008/John GressIs the Democratic Party really “Godless” and are Republicans really righteous?

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.

Pope Benedict’s evolution book finally comes out in English

Creation and Evolution bookcoverAn 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.

Schöpfung und Evolution bookcoverThe German publisher, Sankt Ulrich Verlag in Augsburg, sent me a PDF version of the book in German under embargo, so I wrote a news story the day it appeared. In the book, Benedict said science was too narrow to explain creation, which was not random as Darwinists insist, but has a rationality that goes back to God. He argued this on philosophical and theological grounds, not on the faith arguments that creationists use (“the Bible says so”) or the biology-based examples that ID prefers to argue that some life forms are too complex to have evolved.

A silver lining to the Dutch anti-Islam film “Fitna”

Logo for Fitna movieThere 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.

It said in the English translation of its latest report:

“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.”

*The Dutch original is actually a bit stronger. It says there has been a “toenadering” (rapprochement) between Christian and Muslim groups. “Overtures” implies an initiative towards cooperation without making clear that something happened, whereas rapprochement does. And, as the report made clear, something did happen.

Euro 2008: do Catholic countries have the edge?

The Euro 2008 flag flutters near Zurich’s Grossmünster church, 25 May 2008/Arnd Wiegmann“Do Catholic countries have better football players?”

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.”

Poland’s team with coach Leo Beenhakker (C) attends Mass in Bad Waltersdorf, 6 June 2008/stringerThere’s no hint of analysis of why this should be relevant, or mention of the personal faith — or lack thereof — of the players on these national teams. This purely statistical view (sports fans love stats, don’t they?) goes on to point out which participating countries have large numbers of both Catholics and Protestants (Germany, Switzerland and Netherlands).

China’s Religious Character May Be Deeper Than Thought

china-2.jpgThe 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.

china1.jpg 

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.

In a recent report the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has analyzed available surveys, some a few years old, and concluded that 31 percent of the Chinese population considers religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, with only 11 percent rating it as meaningless. Even the exact starting time of the Summer Olympics is rooted in Confucianism and Chinese folk religions,  the report adds, where the numeral 8 is revered for its luck and power. The games will start on the 8th day of the 8th month of ’08 at precisely 8 minutes and 8 seonds past 8 o’clock.

Evangelical Church in Germany knocks creationism, ID in school

EKD logoThe Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has just published a booklet for school teachers urging them not to advocate creationism or intelligent design (ID). That’s “evangelical” as in the German evangelisch (meaning Protestant, mostly Lutheran), and not “evangelical” as it’s more commonly used in the United States. Still, it’s interesting to see that the EKD in Germany, where there are few U.S.-style evangelicals and almost no dispute about the theory of evolution, felt it necessary to issue a 22-page booklet about teaching evolution. It’s called “The Origin of the World, the Theory of Evolution and the Belief in Creation in School” (here in German).

EKD Chairman Bishop Wolfgang Huber (pictured below) writes in the introduction that there is “an intense debate” about these issues but that “it is being conducted in Germany in a different way from, for example, the United States of America. Still, a fundamental clarification is of considerable practical importance.” He doesn’t elaborate.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, 5 Nov 2003//Vincent KesslerThe daily Die Welt gave a bit more background. “This dispute is increasingly spilling over from the USA to us and has already led to political debates. The Hesse state culture minister (and Protestant synod member) Karin Wolff spoke last year of a “surprising agreement” between evolution and the Bible. With that she sparked a dispute within the Church in which the reasonable faction of the EKD found itself confronted with the growing strength of evangelicals loyal to the Bible. This “orientation aid” should now calm the dispute by setting limits towards both sides.”The “orientation aid,” as the booklet is called, criticises Richard Dawkins and other atheists for thinking science can disprove the existence of God. It compares the books of the “new atheists” to the communist textbooks in East Germany: “The new atheism propagated by Dawkins and others today fits seamlessly into this ideological scheme.”