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Islam and Catholicism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 05, 2023

In reading the last few essays and addresses that Pope Benedict XVI wished to be published after his death (see my brief review in True Renewal: Why is it so hard to grasp?), I find good reason to comment on the late pope’s very brief reflections on “The Christian-Islamic Dialogue”. The point Benedict wishes to make is that, while Islam really is “a religion of the book”, Christianity simply is not. It is impossible to engage constructively in Christian-Islamic dialogue without understanding this fundamental point.

Protestants may sometimes be confused by this distinction, because so many of them adhere to the concept of sola scriptura, as if the exact text of Scripture is explicitly verbally inspired as the sole norm of Christian Faith. This is broadly similar to the general Muslim belief that the Koran was dictated by the angel Gabriel directly to Mohammad. For both Muslims and true sola Scriptura Christians, then, all “dialogue” must be based on the respective texts. But in fact most Protestant theologians respect the “Great Tradition” as a necessary determinant of how Scripture is to be interpreted (i.e., in light of the the ongoing broad points of agreement among Christians throughout history)—albeit that this tradition, however defined, is impossible to maintain without Catholic authority, and is rapidly being abandoned on all sides.

Still, there remains sufficient Christian consensus for Benedict to point out three radical differences between the general Christian assessment of the Biblical text and the Islamic assessment of the Koran. These three points are, in any case, all taught by the Catholic Church. Thus Benedict points out that, in contrast to the Islamic claim about the Koran, the Bible was not inspired by God verbatim as a whole book, but it is rather:

  1. A collection of diverse writings over more than a thousand years by different authors who were personally inspired by God to compose texts which shed light, each in its own way, on God’s action in history;
  2. A collection of books of widely varying genres, therefore, to be read and understood in light of each other, with the books of the Old Testament to be understood particularly in light of the books of the New Testament, and all to be understood in light of Christ’s personal intervention in human history, which also establishes the full authority of His Church, and a fuller understanding of the Bible as the Church’s book;
  3. A body of writings for which Christians do not claim, and have never claimed, a direct verbal Divine inspiration, as if God Himself had dictated these books.

Benedict’s particular purpose in writing this very brief analysis was, as he put it in the closing sentence, so that “anyone who considers these structural differences will guard against hasty parallels” (What Is Christianity, 51).

False starting points

The points Benedict makes so gently do point out the dramatic difference between a religion that claims a present living interpreter and one that must be based exclusively (and so very unsatisfactorily) on what we might call the plain meaning of a particular text. The claim of every religion is that its ultimate authority figure is God Himself, but given this claim, it is most unsatisfactory to have nothing from God Himself but an allegedly inspired text of very dubious origins. It would be ludicrous (as it is indeed ludicrous even among many Christians) to claim that we simply “know” that certain old texts are inspired by God, and that these texts in splendid isolation give us everything we need to live infallibly in accordance with the will of God. Apart from the history of the texts in the experience and approbation of the Jews, Jesus Christ, and the Church, it is impossible to establish what is inspired and what is not.

Manifestly, the Koran faces a deeper crisis of demonstrable authority, being the isolated production of a man who imposed his will on a large section of mankind by sheer military force. The only thing comparable is the unwitnessed story of the Book of Mormon engraved on sheets of gold and allegedly translated from Egyptian with the help of an egg-sized stone. One grants that many alleged supernatural occurrences could be true, but as St. Peter pointed out, all of us should be ready to give reasons or a defense for the hope that is in us (1 Pet 3:15)—and not merely make assertions. By this I mean publicly intelligible reasons, such as ought (by their legitimate force) to give pause to honest questioners, scoffers, and persecutors.

This is one of the habits that ought to separate Jews and Christians from all other claimants to Divine Revelation, and which ought also to be of use to Christians in discussions with Jews: Reasons for our hope.

What Pope Benedict was objecting to in his very brief commentary on dialogue between Christians and Muslims was not the discussion itself, but the falsification of Christianity in the discission, as if to avoid giving offense by pointing out that the two religions have wildly different claims to authenticity. It is one of the deep errors which underlie many contemporary religious discussions that we are all in the same boat when it comes to religion—that we are all somehow guilty of taking unsubstantiated religious ideas “on faith”, and so we ought all to concentrate on the fundamental human values we can extract from them in learning to live together peacefully with each other.

Successful discussion?

Now a certain amount of this is inevitable simply because one of the motives is to find elements of mutual respect and common humanity in order to avoid hostilities, persecutions, and wars. But in an increasingly secular (time-bound, worldly) culture which chooses not to look beyond what it can see, and touch, and manipulate, there is the danger of reaching relative levels of agreement or mutual respect simply because we choose to regard all religion as mere personal sentiment, rather than seeking knowledge of religion as a revelation of God to His creatures about their destiny.

But part of the engagement ought to be for the purpose of all participants growing to understand each set of religious claims precisely, not only in its beliefs but in its claims to veracity, its rootedness in Divine actions which, as actually witnessed, can be, in themselves, probed and studied. As I have often stated, there are only two religions which claim to be based on revelations which were attested by widely-witnessed historical events and signs that could not be other than Divine: Judaism and Christianity. Even granted that it is difficult to begin the discussions by throwing down such a gauntlet, Benedict is correct to expect that all parties should begin with an accurate exposition of the claims they make about their respective origins and revelations.

For example, Islam begins with the claim that Muhammed had private visions, wrote them down, and rode out to begin the conquest of a vast territory. Christianity begins with the claim that God revealed Himself through the documented and widely-experienced history of the Jewish people capped by the widely-witnessed coming of a long-promised and oft-prophesied Messiah; and that Jesus Christ taught publicly, performed countless widely-witnessed miracles, claimed to be the Son of God and, when crucified for his pains, rose from the dead with plenty of witnesses; and that He then invested both his inner life and his teaching authority into a hierarchical Church of martyrs (witnesses) to the entire world.

It is good to look for shared human values and to promote mutual understanding. But if this exploration is based on the assumption that all religious claims are the same, then all the values that go beyond mere cultural sociology will be lost. Presenting the claims and the historical foundations of each religion accurately ought to be only a bare minimum, but that bare minimum is enough to create needed space within inter-religious discussion—space not only for religion but for God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: philmatous9668 - Sep. 20, 2023 11:55 AM ET USA

    Would you believe I found your article through a link, a news site serving as a dialogue of cultures in the Middle East.

  • Posted by: philmatous9668 - Sep. 20, 2023 11:37 AM ET USA

    A very well written article. If the author is correct and given his skills I have no reason to doubt that he is, it seems like Benedict might be splitting hairs unnecessarily if Benedict sees a difference in authenticity of God’s will and God’s words between “authors who were personally inspired by God to compose texts” and “a direct verbal Divine inspiration, as if God Himself had dictated these books.” (You should allow longer comments, 1,250 - 1,500 characters)

  • Posted by: PES - Sep. 06, 2023 4:53 AM ET USA

    A marvelous summary and exposition of Benedict's synthesis regarding the foundational basis of Christianity and Islam, to my mind in the tradition of CS Lewis, Fulton J Shehan and Robert Baron.