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Religion and Society

Echoes of the East in the European destiny

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

 

 

As a Muslim, I am grateful to the good Cardinal for making several points in particular. His Oasis foundation, with its numerous active media platforms, clearly offers very great potential for their exploration by Muslim and Catholic theologians. It is evident that he has a good ear for Muslim voices and concerns; indeed, as I confess to being one of those strange individuals who prefer the Ambrosian to the Gregorian chant, I find it rather fitting that the Archbishop of Milan should be listening so carefully to the East, while remaining unmistakeably rooted in his European home.

 

 

Although our history together is long, our serious mutual engagement has, in certain respects, still not achieved a sufficiently persuasive quality. In our own houses we have often been deep and selfless; in engaging with each other we often still, tragically, contrive to be the opposite. Politics has too frequently made us insecure, and hence shallow. There are exceptions, however. One must salute the efforts of great Catholic scholars of the past century, many writing in the wake of Étienne Gilson’s work on Averroism and other tributaries to the phenomenon of neo-Thomism, to emphasise that the common humanum in which Muslims and Catholics trust, and on the basis of which they ground their universal ethics, may only be defined in terms that are thoroughly theological and philosophical.

 

 

The principle of a universal humanum, although stressed and abused in increasingly reductionist ways since the Enlightenment, is, as it is for Catholics, a principle dear to Islamic thinkers. We speak in terms of adamiyya – Adamic belonging – as the ground for all legal and moral rights. Rights such as the right to property and to establish a family are considered, by Islamic law, to be innate, unearned rights, and are also sacrosanct: we speak, in the Maturidi tradition most notably, of ismat al-adamiyya – the inviolability of the status conferred simply by being Adamic, that is to say, precisely, part of the humanum. Typically, too, our moral philosophers go still further by using the term hurma – the sanctity of the human being, created, for Muslims as for Christians, in the very image of God.

 

 

This categorically transcends any mere Enlightenment or romantic wishful thinking, which conjures up a numinous cloud of rights over an organism that secularity will naturally tend to regard as a product of blind biology. What distinguishes Muslim and Christian reflection about universals, and about what is universal in humanity, is the principle of hurma – what is sacrosanct, because invested by God in His beloved Adamic children.

 

 

Here some Muslims, if I may be frank, have been puzzled by the pages of Oasis, and the drive of some of its public initiatives. They claim that the emphasis is essentially sociological, rooted in Enlightenment notions of human intrinsicality, and that the theological content is wanting.

 

 

Certainly, any attempt to reduce Muslim‐Christian ties to the merely sociological or journalistic will alienate most Muslims, and dissuade them from involvement in any serious dialogue. It will underline, for them, the belief that modern Christian engagement with other religions is fearful to use theology, and finds an essentially secular language more congenial. It has to be said that a good deal of liberal Protestant outreach to Muslims does indeed seem sociological, and theologically bereft.

 

 

However a careful reading of the Cardinal’s paper gives reassurance. Of course, serious Christians who wish to engage with serious Muslims will always know that the language must be theological. And the rooting of the Oasis initiative in the vision of Vatican II underlines this. Nostra Aetate, and subsequent Catholic documents which define the relation and outreach to other faiths, are entirely theological, rather than appearing as merely sociological or utilitarian assessments. Faithfulness to the conciliar vision entails the foregrounding of God‐talk. And that faithfulness is what Oasis consistently advocates.

 

 

Muslims fearful of being approached in implicitly secular terms will be reassured by the quotation from His Holiness Benedict XVI, which appears as a footnote in the Cardinal’s paper, which runs as follows:

 

 

‘Unfortunately, it is precisely God who is kept out of many people’s sights; unfortunately, when the topic of God does not meet with indifference, a closed attitude or refusal, it is in any case relegated to the subjective sphere, reduced to an intimate and private fact, relegated to the margins of public awareness.’

 

 

This same Pope, who has written in terms both impassioned and scholarly about the so‐called ‘death of Europe’s God’, has, in the context of the Holy See’s response to the Common Word initiative of 2007, insisted that the conversation with Muslims must be theological, as witnessed by the choice of Catholic speakers at both of the two Catholic‐Muslim Forums which followed the initiative. I cannot tell you how reassured Muslim participants were to hear the Catholic speakers, who engaged with a range of contemporary concerns dear to the heart of Cardinal Scola and his foundation, as they foregrounded a richly theological idiom. How reassured we were that the first major Catholic lecture in these fora was offered by none other than Luis Ladaria Ferrer, SJ, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

 

 

Far from invoking facile utilitarian or pragmatic politics, his paper set the tone admirably, focussing on a Muslim‐Christian conversation that must, after all, since we are both believing communities, take its life, its delight and its seriousness from our experience of God. Theology must be our shared oasis; it is, at its best, a hortus conclusus, a proleptic sign of the bliss and peace which presently escape our sight.

 

 

No doubt in the selection of this acute Jesuit to inaugurate the Catholic Church’s engagement with Islam in the context of these fora, we detect the prudent hand of the Pope himself. No doubt the same wisdom and insistence on a theological engagement informed the important influence exerted by his predecessor at the Congregation, Cardinal Bertone, in selecting the Catholic delegation to the same Forum. Liberal and secular commentators, both Muslim and Christian, may deplore the fact, but our best and most authentic relationality is always theological, and the present culture in Rome insists on this.

 

 

I regret that I do not have time to hazard further footnotes relating to the remainder of the Cardinal’s wide‐ranging allocution. There are some pregnant remarks here about the Arab Spring, an event which, as it were, sprung upon us so suddenly that like many, I find it difficult to guess at its spiritual and ethical outcomes. My assurance, based on what I take to be a not presumptive hope in Providence, is that current spiritual turbulences, including the ugly hand of fundamentalism, will die away – history suggests that they usually do. In their place will come, I believe, a new era of mutual respect, indeed of métissage, where Muslims can sensibly learn from the best of modern practice; while the faith‐starved masses of Europe can learn, as it were, in the spirit of the Ambrosian chant: how to resonate with the wisdom of the East, while remaining unmistakeably part of a European destiny.

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