Benedict XVI and Islam: Is our dialogue to be "interreligious" or "intercultural"?

One of the most significant contributions to the whole direction of Catholic Interfaith dialogue has been made by Egyptian Jesuit Fr Samir Khalil Samir in Asia News (reprinted on Sandro Magister’s site www.chiesa). Called simply “Benedict XVI and Islam”, it describes a complete seachange in the goals and aims of the dialogue in the direction of the “intercultural” rather than the “interreligious” or theological dialogue.

How much does Fr Samir actually know? Probably quite a bit. Here are his credentials:

He is professor of Islamic studies and of the history of Arab culture at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome; he is the founder of the Centre de Recherche Arabes Chrétiennes and president of the International Association for Christian Arabic Studies. As for his direct knowledge of what’s on Papa Benny’s mind in this regard, he participated in the September 2005 closed meeting, at Castel Gandolfo, with Benedict XVI on the concept of God in Islam. This was the same meeting that hit the headlines after Fr Fessio (another participant) gave an interview to Hugh Hewitt.

So, what about it? Is it “not the time” for interreligious theological dialogue? Should we redirect our dialogue on humanist, rational grounds, since this is in the area of the foreseeably achievable?

For a start, one must acknowledge that there is a lot to be said for “cultural” dialogue. Although the thesis of Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” has been widely rejected, the thesis itself described a problem of cultural rather than theological dimensions. For quite some time now, groups directed toward interreligious interaction have often focused more on the humanist goal of peace, social harmony and human rights than any actual theological dialogue (a good example is the Melbourne Turkish Muslim group Australian Intercultural Society—note that they emphasise “intercultural” rather than “interrelgious” or “interfaith”). In addition, some have argued (against the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act) that issues of race and religion are completely separate things. On the contrary, we have seen that the two are intimately connected, and it is far too simplistic to say that “you can’t chose your race/culture, but you can chose your religion”.

I also am quite conscious of the fact that the Melbourne interfaith scene is substantially different from the situation in the rest of the world. Here there is no “clash of cultures”. It isn’t Utopia, but we do not have the problems that Europe, or even Sydney, has. We have not had, and cannot imagine having, riots such as those in Paris or Cronulla. Were those riots religiously or culturally motivated? I think, given the caveat that it is awfully difficult to separate issues of race, culture and religion, we would have to say on the balance of evidence that they were culturally and not theologically motivated. So I can understand the fact that Europeans and New South Welshmen (and women) may want to focus on the cultural issues.

Yet at the same time, I would be very sad to see the theological goals of interreligious dialogue put to one side. We here in Melbourne are about to hold the third “JCMA” (or Jewish Christian and Muslim Association) 4-day live-in conference in July. Our topic is “Seeing others—Seeing us”, which, for the first time, will begin to look at the ways in which our religious regard the other as religions, as well as cultures. We also have to acknowledge that there are a good many converts from “White Australian” backgrounds (and even Aboriginal Australians!) to Isalm and other religious movements present in Australia today (eg. Buddhism and Hinduism). These converts—many of them former Christians at least by culture—are attracted to their new religion for theological reasons. They may also enjoy the culture, but, at least with reference to the Muslim converts, there is often quite a conscious insistence that it is not the culture they are embracing, but the faith.

Again, I emphasise that I am not rejecting “intercultural” dialogue, but I do not wish to see “interreligious” dialogue of a theological nature shelved—especially as our religious communities are only just now starting to find the confidence to attempt serious theological engagement. For instance, the next Catholic Interfaith Committee Annual Interfaith Symposium will be held on Sunday 18th of June at the Thomas Carr Centre (278 Victoria Parade) on the topic of “Judgement-Mercy”. We will have speakers from Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist perspectives. The topic is quite clearly a theological one, and in this discussion, we hope to come to a clearer understanding of these categories in the context of each religion.

As far as Catholics are concerned, “theological” dialogue has a specific goal. This goal, I must warn, has been viewed with suspicion by other faiths, especially Jews and Muslims. But it should not be a worry if properly understood. I am referring to the evangelistic goal of interfaith dialogue. Note that I say “evangelistic”, and not “proselytistic”. Interfaith dialogue is not carried on with the aim of imposing our faith on others. But it does seek, at the very least, to “propose” the faith in all circumstances.

Archbishop Fitzgerald himself once personally explained to me how interfaith dialogue fits within the evangelising mission of the Church. (For more on this topic, see “Dialogue and Proclamation“, from the PCID.) Two images, one of train and the other of a courting couple are used. In the first image, the mission of the Church is envisaged as a train with a number of carriages. At the front is the engine—corresponding to the Gospel. The next carriages may be sleeping cars—corresponding to catechesis and baptism. The next car may be the “proclamation” car. There will be a “service and charity” carriage, and so on. Far down the back is the Lounge Car, where people meet to chat with one another and get to know one another. This car, said Archbishop Fitzgerald, is the dialogue car, and it may be that those in this car spend all their time there without ever venturing up to the front.

The second image is that of a young man going courting. He is seeking a wife, but he does not “pop the question” to the first girl he meets (that would kill any relationship dead). Rather, he engages in a number of relationships, first talking about the weather and mutual interests and going to movies. Most relationships that he enters into will stop at this level. They are friends, mutually enjoying each other’s company, but with no matrimonial plans in sight. This relationship is perfectly valid, even if it doesn’t become more intimate.

So what concerns me about reframing interreligious encounter in terms of culture rather than theology is that the opportunity for us to propose our faith clearly to others may be greatly reduced. In the same vein, if we do not open ourselves up to the theological dimensions of the other, we block our minds to a significant part of the identity of the other and are limited in the degree to which we can communicate our faith in a way that the other can comprehend it.

After all, I am engaging in this dialogue as a Catholic, not as a Barrossa-Deutsch
South Australian living in Victoria. And I am engaging in the dialogue because I want to talk to (eg.) Muslims, not because I want to engage with the (eg.) Turkish culture.

None of this is to say that the cultural is not an immensely important aspect of the dialogue which is to be welcomed. It is just that I don’t think we would be wasting our time if we were to spend three days talking about our mutual understandings of Jesus and Mohammed as prophets. That is what interfaith dialogue is about in the end.

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