Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pope and Islam II There is no reason to doubt that, as Pope Benedict has said, the "true meaning" of his lecture at Regensburg "was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect." The lecture did not deserve a response marked by cruelty and violence. It was an academic address, though, and should provoke questions. We can wonder whether the "rapprochement" between Biblical faith and the Greek spirit of inquiry was more difficult and asymmetric than he implied. Furthermore, although the "Greek spirit" in Holy Scripture is truly ineradicable, exactly how binding and comprehensive is "the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church" for those hoping to compose self-consciously African or Asian theologies (the Pope does acknowledge that "there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures")? Finally, the Pope states that the "rapprochement" of Greek thought and Biblical faith, combined with the Roman heritage, "created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe." How do we hold to the distinctiveness of "what can rightly be called Europe" without always setting it in contrast to the East, inevitably seeing Islam as an "other"? The temptation is to "think with" a simplified version of Islam to establish our own position, rather than to listen to a real and complicated partner in the mutual enrichment of dialogue. These are questions - perhaps marked by my naiveté, but hopefully not a lack of charity ... That said, here are a few paragraphs from an interesting article posted today at the website of Eureka Street, written by the Jesuit Daniel Madigan, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and head of the Pontifical Gregorian University's Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures, which he established in 2002. You can tell me if you think that the last paragraph is unfair. Fr Madigan writes: On the question of the rationality of God, the New Testament itself puts us on our guard against presuming that God conforms to our notions of what is rational. We have to learn God’s kind of rationality—what Paul calls the wisdom of the God—through the Cross, which to many who consider themselves wise and rational is simply scandal and folly (1 Cor 1:17-25). Indeed the Pope’s speech, whilst extolling rationality, has a very particular kind of rationality in mind—one that has been “purified” by the encounter with Biblical faith. A rationality of love. The Islamic tradition, too, has been wary of presuming that God is somehow subject to our preconceived notions of rationality and justice. Taken to its extreme for the sake of philosophical argument, this has led some thinkers to assert, for example, that a God who is absolutely sovereign is therefore not obliged to tell us the truth, or to command us only to do good things. However, this kind of speculation hardly touches the mainstream of the Islamic tradition, which remains convinced that God is Truth and reveals the Truth. The whole thrust of the Qur’anic preaching is to encourage people to use their reason to reflect on what can been known about God from the “signs” of God’s activity in creation and history. In this the Qur’an’s thought is very close to what Paul says in Romans 1, quoted by the Pope in his lecture. Vatican observers often predict that this Pope will engage much more than his predecessors in substantive dialogue with Muslims about the issues between us. That may be true, and such a dialogue is surely urgent. However, it cannot be done without allowing Muslims to speak for themselves. We cannot presume first to tell them what they believe, and then to criticise them for it. In Regensburg the Pope engaged not with Muslims, but with a version of Islam enunciated by a Christian locked in battle with them. Is it so surprising that conflict resulted?

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