Dialogue with Islam: A Strategy of Hope
There is a good deal of debate among Catholics concerning the fruitfulness of dialogue with Muslims. Obviously, Muslims have often regarded the “Christian West” as an enemy to be destroyed. But Muslim nations and the Holy See have also found common ground in resisting the sexual ideology of the United Nations. Pope Benedict XVI clearly hopes for dialogue, but some Catholic critics regard this as a betrayal.
In a recent column, I addressed the gap that separates Muslims from Christians (Islam and Paganism). I have no illusions on that score, but a recognition of obstacles does not invalidate Benedict’s hope. The Pope’s critics—at least as represented by the messages we’ve received at CatholicCulture.org—appear to be animated by three questionable convictions: first, that Islam can be truly represented only by terrorism and holy war; second, that Islam cannot change; and third, that the only proper way for Christians to act toward Muslims is to attempt to convert them.
While Jihad, or Holy War, plays an important role in Islam, it has been interpreted in conflicting ways from the first. There are passages in the Koran which advocate war against non-believers, and there are others which emphasize peace. Different schools variously regard the Koran as calling for either the annihilation of enemies or for a more spiritual battle, striving for complete submission to Allah out of love. A perfect example of this conflict within Islam itself is the contrast between terrorist training schools and the recent open letter of 138 Muslim leaders to Benedict XVI. The letter emphasizes that Christianity and Islam share a common commitment to love of God and love of neighbor which should be the basis of relations between the two faiths.
The belief that Islam cannot change is, of course, incorrect on principle, as any sound Catholic should be quick to see. Though Muslims would disagree, Catholics are convinced that Islam is not based on a true Revelation. Nor is Islam constituted under a single authority guaranteed to protect its founding ideas and interpret them consistently. Even our own religion, which possesses both of these non-Islamic traits, has developed in many ways over time, and there have been even greater (and sometimes self-contradictory) cultural differences from age to age as Christians struggle imperfectly to express their Faith through public life. These same possibilities exist for Muslims, without any Catholic assurance of consistency and continuity. Over the centuries, we have already seen varied patterns of peace and war, and of kind or brutal treatment of Christians, in Islamic lands.
The belief that conversion is the only legitimate Christian activity with respect to Muslims causes all dialogue to be viewed as infidelity. This is very much like saying our relationships with fallen-away family members must be limited to continuous direct efforts at reconversion. It is difficult to know how to address such an absurdity. We rightly interact with people based on both natural and supernatural bonds, and with a prudent awareness of the possibilities which present themselves. The cultivation of peace, collaboration and friendship is both a legitimate end in itself and the best possible prelude for spiritual influence. Benedict has never advocated hiding the Catholic faith in order to achieve some lesser goal, as if the natural could be well-served by denying the supernatural. But neither are others worthy of our respect and affection only if we can continuously preach to them.
The open letter from 138 Muslim leaders is a followup to a letter sent to Benedict one year ago in response to his famous Regensburg address. The new letter argues that, since over half of the world’s population consists of Muslims and Christians, peace and justice between these two religions is essential to peace and justice in the world. At the very least this is a sincere effort to respond to Benedict’s request for a discussion based on reason in search of human solidarity. Some Catholics may believe the prospects are very dim, but that is no warrant for branding the effort immoral. The benefit of the doubt, I think, must be given to Benedict and to hope.
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