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Christians in the Muslim World

The Eternal Question: a New Method

Five years have passed since 11 September 2001, the day of the Twin Towers, the day when all of us, even the most lacking, even the most shallow, even the most distracted, were shocked and opened our eyes, with our hearts troubled. What is happening? What kind of a world is this? Nobody was able to avoid these questions and nobody, still today, can avoid them. Not that 11 September was an isolated explosion: a history preceded it, and a very long history. But perhaps we did not have the eyes or the energy or the desire to look at this history. However on that day something happened that had the force of a beginning, such was its terrifying drama, These are the thoughts and the questions that beset us when think again of what happened five years ago.


Nobody is able to weigh up the 'balance', even though many propose conclusions; nobody is able to provide comprehensive interpretations, even though many exhibit deductions and explanations, including ones that are about plots and behind the scenes activity.


Our contribution to the debate begins with a different assumption: the entry onto the scene of a subject who asks questions and reacts to the consequences of an extraordinary event. Christians and 11 September, this is the title, the subject, of this fourth edition of Oasis. That is to say: faced with a circumstance, even a circumstance with a terrible and disturbing face, we ask ourselves what God is asking of us through this circumstance, what he asks of we Christians. I believe that first and foremost the event of 11 September brings to the fore the question of evil in the world. This is a question which has always in an acute way besieged the mind of man. With Leibniz and the Teodicea, the West even transformed it into an objection: 'If God exists why does evil exist in the world?' And like a game of hide and seek, in looking for the responsibilities for evil different answers are attempted. Perhaps it is thought that God is not responsible for evil, but does not impede it and thus at the least He is quiet up there, in the heights of heaven. Or He is not responsible because simply He is not there and thus the curse of man is not to be redeemed in any way: nothing has meaning.


But in order to address the question of evil in an authentic way it is necessary first of all to go to the original experience of man. From there perhaps we will find some outline of an answer. 'In the face of evil what am I? Am I able to eliminate evil?' If a man is sincere, in front of his own evil and that of others, his first act is to recognise that he needs salvation, a salvation that he cannot alone give to himself. It is here that the message of Christ becomes dramatically evident: the possibility of the redemption of evil and thus of the salvation whose indispensability man perceives lies in One who did not engage in discourses about evil but proposed himself as liberation from evil; even though he had not sinned he allowed himself to be treated as a sinner; and as an innocent he allowed himself to be crucified for our sake. Salvation is not only the explanation of the constitutive enigma of man ('what a strange being is a being that does not have in himself the foundation of his being? Who before did not exist and now does exist, and then will not be?'), but is even the concrete offer of Jesus himself as the Eucharistic way to life and truth. Thus the answer to the question of the Teodicea is not a theory about evil it is the person of Jesus who was crucified and rose again.


Now, this salvific key is offered to the freedom of every man. Balthasar says: 'God in Jesus Christ ends the enigma of man but does not pre-decide his drama'. The meaning of this is that each one of us is always in action and must ratify with his 'yes' to Christ the path of his conversion, of his change, and of his victory over evil in faith. To those who listen to him Christ says: 'you need to change, you must change, and you must always change'. This is the 'convert!' that gathers within it the whole of the great appeal of the Torah, of the Prophets, and of Wisdom, concentrated after a certain fashion in the appeal of the Baptist. 'I beseech you, be reconciled with God', says St. Paul. Thus 11 September pushes us deeply towards a great reflection on the enigma of man, on the enigma of evil, on the possibility of salvation from this enigma, on the possibility and responsibility that each individual man has in the construction of a personal and social 'good life'.


Today, in Christians, all of this should bring about two approaches. First of all the depth of the question. 'Are we in a position of confession? In our daily and communal lifestyle is the approach of confession, that is to say that of those who recognise that they are sinners and invoke the mercy of the cross, normal?' Can we, instead, observe that we rarely enter the fray, rarely feel the urgent need for a question about our faithfulness to the Christian message. I believe, for example, that it is necessary to reflect on why in the East such a total confusion between Christianity and Western civilisation has been made possible. This confusion allows very many of our Islamic brethren to condemn both Christianity and the West as though they were the same thing, linked in the same decadence; we cannot confine ourselves to dismissing this as a simplistic criticism. I do not believe that Christians must throw a veil of negativity over the whole of the modern experience which so strongly marks the West, but it is certainly important to take on board 'Eastern' criticism so as to engage in courageous questions about the claim to reduce religion to a private fact, the intellectualistic and abstract claim of 'democracies for export', and the claim to an irrepressible freedom of conscience which, however, coincides with 'it is forbidden to forbid'. To sum up, the formula of the Second Vatican Council is of great contemporary relevance: Christianity by its nature generates cultures but it is bound to no culture in particular.


Secondly, the energy of knowledge. To know Islam; to know the forms of Islam. And here the question of the subject involved returns. I would like to observe here the path followed by Oasis. We have made a proposal to the Christians of the West: to know Islam, to speak with Islam, through our Christian brethren of the East, through their millenarian experience, through their reality and their concerns as minorities. Through a created, concrete and present subject. This is a choice that is generating two very good consequences: it forces we Westerners to 'de-intellectualise ourselves' and leads our Eastern brethren to adopt this task within the universal Church. In this context we want to address the questions of a most general nature, that is to say of a social, economic and political nature, that this historical moment is bringing to the fore. Can we not today ask ourselves whether the great appeal launched by John Paul II against the war in Iraq was not a prophetic voice that should have been listened to? Can we reduce the problem of security in the West to mere technical and containing factors? How can Europe speak to the United States of America? Is it right to think that one must respond to human bombs with retaliation? In what sense can one prevent a threat? To what point should the use of force be taken?


Westerners believe that they have an explanation for everything, a reflex of the great European mind that has synthesised Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome. But after losing the subjectivity that was behind it, this great culture has become one big building game: pieces to out together and take apart in a game that is increasingly abstract and rarefied. We produce theories that are always new and which lose sight of reality. And if one departs from real subjects, the purely scientific approach, the approach of study, is destined to be partial. From our wealth springs presumption, which easily becomes a superiority complex because within our mental system we can articulate very complete theories in relation to which, measured solely on the terrain of language, the developments that come from the East can appear overly primitive. However it is on the other side, specifically in the East, that we see a force, a belief in religio, in an explicit relationship with God, in relation to which, essentially, we are nostalgic, because by now we run the risk of being without fathers, the children of no one.


In this historical moment that began with 11 September, which is so dramatic and so dark, there is the possibility of a positive way. In the East and the West this passes by way of the community of Christians, the courage with which they themselves enter the fray, how they demonstrate that they are 'confessing communities', knowing how to adopt and make their own the request for salvation that beats in the heart of every man.