Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Theological dialogue with Muslims impossible?

It is an odd thing which has caused some consternation in the circles in which I move. High ranking European Church officials, from whom other things have been expected, have been declaring that "theological dialogue" with Muslims is "impossible".

To name just three:

1) Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican diplomat and new president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue:
The newspaper, La Croix, asked the cardinal if theological dialogue was possible with members of other religions.

"With some religions, yes," he said. "But with Islam, no, not at this time. Muslims do not accept the possibility of discussing the Quran, because it is written, they say, as dictated by God.

"With such a strict interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the content of faith," he said in the interview published Oct. 18. (from CNS)

2) Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, outgoing Father General of the Jesuits:
On the strictly religious and theological level, is dialogue with Islam possible?

I’m afraid that at a theological and dogmatic level, dialogue with Islam is impossible. Often in Beirut, Muslims would ask me: ‘How is it possible that an educated person, a professor, believes in three gods?’ Obviously, they were referring to the Christian dogma of the Trinity. That’s an example of the difficulties of dialogue. Some who are favorable to theological dialogue with Muslims forget that at a certain point, you have to choose. For Muslims, it’s very clear: God is one. They chant it five times every day. (John L. Allen Jnr. NCR)

Not to be outdone, there is, of course, the Grandaddy of them all, Pope Benedict XVI (he said this some time ago and reported second hand by Fr Fessio on a radio program):
HH: And what did the pope say?

JF: Well, the thesis that was proposed by Father Troll was that Islam can enter into the modern world if the Koran is reinterpreted by taking the specific legislation, and going back to the principles, and then adapting it to our times, especially with the dignity that we ascribe to women, which has come through Christianity, of course. And immediately, the Holy Father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said well, there's a fundamental problem with that, because he said in the Islamic tradition God has given his word to Mohammed, but it's an eternal word. It's not Mohammed's word...
Now what is going on here? Because I have dialogue almost every day with Muslims on matters of theology.

I think that two things are happening.

First, the Europeans, when they say "theological dialogue" mean something like the dialogue we have with our separated Christian brethren and sistern; that is, dialogue aimed at achieving dogmatic consensus. Of course, that sort of dialogue with Muslims is impossible, and we should say so at the outset, or we will be disappointed. We are not going to convince Muslims that God is Triune. If we do, by definition, they will not be Muslim any longer.

Secondly, by "theological", it seems that these men mean "about specific dogmas". But theology is wider than that. It is asking the "God question" of all aspects of experience. Everything we could find to talk about with our Muslim friends has a theological aspect, in so far as everything could be examined from the point of view of what this tells us about God.

But really to limit "theological dialogue" in either of these ways (or both) leads to a superficial understanding of both dialogue and of theology. In fact, as I have just said, it is possible to reflect together on the different ways in which we approach theologically the issues of our religion, world and daily life. I have always found such reflection immensely positive. For instance, recently at a JCMA planning committee meeting, we fell into a discussion of "holiness" in Jewish, Muslim and Christian theology. This was very enlightening, as we realised that holiness is not a concept that has a large place in Muslim theology, and certainly is not something that God communicates to human beings or to the world.

Please note: This was real dialogue. It was theological dialogue. It did not produce consensus, but then we didn't expect it too. We just expected to learn from one another about our theological perspectives. And to that extent it was a roaring success.


At Wednesday, December 19, 2007 11:20:00 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Herr Schutz,

I know this is your thing but I wonder how, in this context, you would define theology. Is natural theology possible? Or is this, rather, a philosophical discussion from distinct theological world-views?

At Wednesday, December 19, 2007 11:01:00 pm , Anonymous john fisher said...

Interested in your comment, "we realised that holiness is not a concept that has a large place in Muslim theology".

My (inexpert) impression is that Islam has little sense of Sin. Yes, there are sins, but of course that's not quite the same thing.

Is this related to the unimportance of holiness?

The general view of Islam seems to be that people are all right really, but just need a few pointers to keep them on the right path.

Would you agree?

Ironically this is precisely what liberal Christianity degenerates to. And whilst it is s superficially attractive view, some of the the problems that "Islamism" raises could be seen as arising directly from it.

At Thursday, December 20, 2007 12:06:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...


I think sometimes that Islam is an excellent example of where "natural theology" without revelation could lead. I might be wrong there, or mixing my categories, but if you asked someone to sit down and think up a rational religion, would they not perhaps come up with something very much like Islam? In actual fact, I think a discussion of "natural theology" is precisely what we can have with the Muslims, and this might lead to them realising they need to do a bit of work to make their account of their faith just that little more palatable to reason.

John Fisher,

The holiness issue was to do with the fact that Muslims see God alone as holy and no creature can have a share in God in any way. Thus holiness is excluded as a quality in human life.

But you are right. There is certainly no understanding of "original sin" or "sinfulness" in Islamic thought. One Muslim once questioned me on why we baptised little babies: "They are like the angels!", he exclaimed.

Yes, exactly like the liberal Christians.

At Wednesday, December 26, 2007 3:27:00 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you asked someone to sit down and think up a rational religion, would they not perhaps come up with something very much like Islam?

I have a feeling that either Belloc or Chesterton said something very like that. And indeed, it seems very plausible.

There is certainly no understanding of "original sin" or "sinfulness" in Islamic thought. One Muslim once questioned me on why we baptised little babies: "They are like the angels!", he exclaimed.

Yes, exactly like the liberal Christians.

Quite a helpful observation!

And David, in you encounters with muslims, do you get a sense that they are unhappy with the violent actions of so many of their co-religionists? This is a genuine question - not a cheap shot.

I ask, because like most people of this age, I would really *like* to believe that I can live in peace with any muslims in the neighbourhood, but I am fast beginning to doubt this. I want to know if it is possible for a serious muslim to live his religion without wanting to harm the "infidels."

At Monday, December 31, 2007 1:40:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Dear Louise,

Oh yes, to be sure, Louise, to a man (and woman) every Muslim I have encountered has categorically deplored the violence of the jihadists (as Richard John Neuhaus suggests we should call them).

In the main, they do not see any identification between what they are (ie. Muslims) and what the terrorists are (ie. "not real Muslims"). Because the terrorists are "not real Muslims", my Muslim interlocutors do not feel that they are in any way obliged to or that we should expect them to or indeed that it is possible to take any blame or responsibility for this violent phenomenon that has found its way into the heart of so many Muslim communities throughout the world.

I don't know if that makes you feel any better disposed toward any Muslims you may meet. I hope it does. They are 99% nice guys. It's the other 1% "not real Muslims" that you have to worry about. (and the 1 or 2% of the non-Muslim Australian population that can also be pretty dangerous at times).


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