Muslim-Catholic National Plenary 2012/1433

By Fr. Thomas Michel,S.J.

The plenary theme this year is "Living Our Faith Together." This was the original title I received and according to which I prepared my talk. Later on, on one of the schedules I saw a variation, "Living Our Faiths Together," with the word "Faiths" in the plural. I'm not sure which is the intended title, but I like the original text: living our faith together. It is a mark of the maturity of the three national Muslim-Catholic dialogues that have been held over the past 16 years that we recognize our common commitment, as Muslims and Christians, to respond to the One God with the same sense of obedience, submission, worship, and trust that characterized the faith of Abraham. It is therefore proper that we look to Abraham as "our common father in faith" and that we come together to celebrate living our faith together.

In this context, I recall the words of John Paul II, which he said at a meeting with Muslims in Otranto, Italy, in 1982. The Pope noted that Islamic faith in God that Muslims have inherited from Abraham forms a deep basis for a spiritual unity with Christians and a foundation for dialogue that should transcend historical and theological differences. He stated: "We present to the One God ... the challenge, of coming closer and having true dialogue with those who are united to us – despite the differences – by faith in the one and only God, faith inherited from Abraham."

Notice that the Pope refers to Muslims as "those who are united to us by faith, despite the differences." He is referring to an already existing spiritual bond rooted in the faith which Christians and Muslims can trace back to Abraham. The challenge, as the Pope sees it, is not that of creating some vague theoretical unity. Rather, he is urging Christians to deepen ("come closer") through dialogue a faith-based fellowship with a community of believers with whom we are united by a common submission to the One God.In short, we are already united. The challenge is to realize the unity that is already there in the personal and communitarian ways that we relate to one another.

So, how do we live our Abrahamic faith together? It is basically by responding to God and acting toward one another today with the values we find exemplified by Abraham in our respective Scriptures. This is not something we need a degree in theology to understand or express. Every pious Muslim and Christian is called to live his and her faith in their daily encounters, both with brothers and sisters of their own community, and with those outside their own community. We are not talking, of course, about finding some common denominator, of shaving off the specifics of Islamic faith and Christian faith to arrive at something acceptable to both. Rather, we are striving to recognize that in living faithfully before God, in the full specificity of what is involved in being faithful Muslims and faithful Christians, there is nevertheless much that we share in common.

One of the first lessons that we learn from Abraham is that in the context of our pluralist societies, living one's faith transcends some minimalist view that claims that we have no obligations owed to anyone outside our circles of family or religious confession. Does God care how we treat someone outside the family, outside my religious group? Both the Qur'an and the Bible teach us that one of Abraham's key virtues is hospitality.Both religions teach that hospitality should be our special concern.In short, the Abrahamic virtue of hospitality is clear message from God that our responsibilities are not limited to our own family and people, but extend as well to those outside our immediate circle.

But what does this mean in actual practice? Let me give an example from my own experience.I recall a day thirty years ago when I was a student doing Arabic studies in Cairo, Egypt. One afternoon during Ramadan, I took a walk through the streets of the old neighborhood of Cairo, not far from Al-Azhar and Hussein mosques.It was almost sunset, and the usually busy streets of Cairo were quiet, with families gathered to break the fast together.I could only see a few cars or taxis hurrying home to be in time to break the fast.

As I was enjoying the unusually quiet atmosphere of the city and watching the sun inch toward the Western horizon, a man came running out of one of the small houses, grabbed my arm, and started pulling me toward his home."Hurry!" he said, "It's almost time for iftar" (Iftar is the meal with which Muslims break the fast.)Thinking that he was presuming I was a Muslim who had nowhere to eat, I said, "But I'm a Christian."He said, "Ma'laish! [That doesn't matter!]It's a blessing from God for us to have a guest for iftar." So, after some more persuading, I went in and met his wife and five children, we enjoyed good food and experienced the joy of what we might call "table fellowship."

It's a blessing from God to have a guest! Through the hospitality of this simple man – I found out later that his name was Faruq and he was a barber - I not only learned something about the graces, the blessings, that God grants to Muslims who piously perform their Ramadan fast, but I discovered something as well about the significance of welcoming a visitor, of the beauty of gratuitous acceptance and love for the stranger, of the way the dignity of both host and guest is raised up before God in the exercise of openheartedly receiving a guest. From Faruq and his family I came to understand something about Islam that I couldn't have learned from books, that is, what Abrahamic hospitality is really like when it is practiced in modern life, and the way that God wants us to accept "the stranger in our midst."

Pope John Paul II adverted to the same reality when he affirmed that the spiritual unity of the children of Abraham can be found in living the genuine tradition of our Abrahamic Faith. When he arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1981, he was received by the country's president, Ziaul Haq. The Pope addressed President Zia as follows: "One of the outstanding characteristics of Abraham - to whose faith Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike eagerly link their own - was his great spirit of hospitality, shown when he welcomed the guests at the Oak of Mamre." In 1985, speaking to the Muslims of Morocco, he reiterated this message: "As Christians and Muslims, we have many things in common, as believers and as human beings. For us, Abraham is our very model of faith in God, of submission to His will and of confidence in His goodness."

One reason why it is important that we focus on the essential qualities of the faith that we inherit from Abraham is because we live at a time when the values of that common faith are tried and tested in many ways.In some Muslim-majority countries, Christians feel that their civil and religious liberties are not respected.They are prevented from building places of worship and experience discrimination in finding jobs and housing.Muslims fare no better in many Western countries.In our own nation during the recent month of Ramadan, no less than ten mosques and Islamic centers were defaced, desecrated, or burned to the ground.Others encountered legal challenges and popular resistance.Very recently, Muslim commuters taking the train to work in morning in New York have had to face billboard advertisements that refer to them as savages and that distort their religious beliefs.I must confess that I have lived for many years in Muslim-majority countries but have never been forced to endure such blatant and public aspersions on my faith.

It is obvious that the key Abrahamic virtue of hospitality is still much needed in our society.We have to see this virtue not as a quaint and sentimental relic of the way people used to live "in the olden days," but rather as a basic attitude toward the neighbor that is much needed in our societies today.When any religious group is attacked, defamed, or insulted, all of us who claim to be children of Abraham must respond in solidarity.We do this through common statements of support, advocating for legal and civil protection for vulnerable groups and, most of all, by educating our people in the importance of tolerance, respect, and even esteem for one another.In this way we renew Abraham's example of hospitality and make it into a crucial strategy for building pluralist societies in the 21st Century.

Those who are called to be teachers in their community have a responsibility to form their people in the knowledge that hatred or disparagement of any group on religious, ethnic, or racial grounds is not only socially unacceptable, it is a sin against the God who made and loves us all.When was the last time you heard a Friday- or Sunday- sermon that stated that hate-talk, disrespect for others' faith, and discrimination in society is a sin that demands repentance and asking forgiveness from God?It is sacrilegious to claim to be proclaiming Christ by burning a Qur'an or making a hate-filled video about Muslims.Similarly, it is sacrilegious to claim to be defending the prophet Muhammad by killing innocent persons, when the Qur'an teaches clearly that to kill someone wrongly "it would be as if he slew the whole of humanity."

For this reason it is gratifying to see the number of both Christian and Muslim religious leaders who have condemned the acts of disrespect and bigotry that produced the anti-Muslim cartoons and videos, and the desecrations and destruction of mosques.It is gratifying also to see the Muslim leadership in our country that has called press conferences, issued statements, and sent letters to their co-believers to condemn violence against the innocent in some foreign countries.

Often our approach to controverted social issues is very similar.For example, last week Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, in New York to address the United Nations, said in an interview with the press: "Freedom of speech is one thing, but one should not use that freedom to offend others or advocate hate speech or provoke people to violence." He went on: "The right of demonstration should not be used to kill people or to put fire to buildings or to offend others by burning flags.So we should not abuse the freedom of demonstration and should not abuse the freedom of others."Compare this view with that of Pope Benedict who, referring to the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006, insisted that "to foster peace and understanding between peoples, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected."This implies, he went on that "believers not be the object of provocations that wound their lives and religious sentiments" and held that "intolerance and violence can never be justified as response to offenses, as they are not compatible responses with the sacred principles of religion."Had I not identified the two religious leaders beforehand, it would have been difficult to know which one was a prominent Muslim spokesman and which was a preeminent Christian leader.

I am originally from St. Louis, and so I have been following somewhat closely the burning – twice – of the mosque in Joplin, Missouri. I think it is in microcosm an example of what is involved in living our faith together.In July of this year, the mosque that served the small community of about 50 Muslim families in the Joplin area was burned, with the roof and a wall damaged.It was declared arson by law enforcement officials. Then a month later, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the mosque was burned again, this time to the ground. Once again, the police investigated and once again the cause was determined to be arson. Imam Lahmuddin of Joplin told the press: "This will not stop us from worshiping God. We will find another place to do it."

But this is not the end of the story. The Interfaith Alliance of St. Louis quickly condemned the arson, and in less than two weeks over $400,000 was collected, most of it locally. Dr. Ghazala Hayat of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis said, "We are really heartened by the response of non-Muslims in the city to raise money so quickly to build up the mosque again."The Interfaith Alliance is now cooperating with St. Louis CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) on an educational campaign, distributing booklets and videos to explain the teachings of Islam, introduce Muslims to church and synagogue groups, and pursue an outreach to local police departments to increase understanding and strengthen communications bonds.

My point is that in the world we live in, there will always be those driven by hatred and prone to violence, as well as those who have integrated the faith values that we – Muslims and Christians, as well as Jews – have inherited from our father Abraham, into an obedient response to God. Jesus depicted the situation very well, describing our world as a field in which the wheat and the weeds are growing all mixed together, and will stay that way until the future day of harvest arrives. So too in our American society, at the same time some are trying to build harmony and peace and understanding, others are trying to destroy those same values.I think it will happen that those who are more firmly committed to their path, whether it be harmony and unity or animosity and hatred, will be the ones to have the greater influence on the course of history.

It's worth remembering that this combination of the hate-filled and the neighborly living in the same civilization and culture is not unique to American society.The same is true elsewhere in the world.We have all watched the television coverage of the protesters storming American embassies and consulates in the Middle East.But that is not the whole story.I hope that we have also watched the much larger crowds of bearded men and hijab-covered women in Ben Ghazi marching with homemade signs that read: "America, we're sorry, this is not Islamic behavior," and "Thugs and killers don't represent Islam," and "Chris Stevens was a friend to Libyans."

Some years ago I was living in Indonesia when the social disruption that followed upon the fall of the dictatorial Suharto regime took on a religious element in which Christians and Muslims were, in several places, pitted against one another. At Christmastime that year, bomb threats were issued against Christian churches in an effort to disrupt worship services. In response, the youth wing of the Nahdatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the country, publicly committed itself to protecting the churches.On Christmas Eve, more than a thousand of these young Muslims swept the churches for bombs and then formed a cordon around the churches to permit safe access for worshipers at midnight Mass.

As it happened, a young Muslim named Riyanto was among the volunteers checking the churches.Riyanto was 26 years old, the father of two children, and worked as a stock clerk in a supermarket.In one of the churches, he found a bomb under a pew in a plastic shopping bag and gingerly carried it out of the church and to the edge of the parking lot, where the bomb exploded in his hands, killing him instantly.Riyanto was the only bombing victim in Indonesia that Christmas.This young man, with only a junior high school education but formed by the teachings of his Islamic faith, is remembered by the Christian community in Indonesia as one of their heroes who gave his life for them.He was a true son of Abraham.

The connection between hospitality and building the foundations of society reminds me of an interview Pope Benedict gave a few weeks ago. On his way to Lebanon, on September 14, the Pope took some questions from reporters. One question was, what did he think about the Arab Spring?In reply, the Pope affirmed that the Arab Spring was "a positive thing, a desire for greater democracy, greater freedom, greater cooperation and a revived Arab identity. "And then he went on." The renewed Arab identity implies also a renewal of the centuries-old, millennia-old, coexistence of Christians and Muslims, who together, in mutual tolerance of majority and minority, built these lands and cannot do other than live side by side. "The Pope is enunciating an intriguing view of history, one too often overlooked by partisan historians, of Muslims and Christians in the Middle East together building their lands in mutual tolerance as majority and minority. We often forget that the disruptions and the conflicts are the exception, separated by long periods of peaceful living together.

These hopes of the Pope for a mutually enriching coexistence of Christians and Muslims, living together in mutual tolerance, building the country side-by-side, do not apply only to the countries of the Arab Spring. They are equally needed in the American context. There is even a sense in which Muslims and Christians today must see their goal as going beyond peaceful coexistence to the more ambitious vision of seeing one another as partners united in a God-given mission in this country. There is a specific contribution that they can make together as Christians and Muslims.

On first hearing, people might be surprised, or even shocked, to hear of a common mission of Muslims and Christians in our nation, and yet this concept of a Muslim-Christian partnership is not a new one. You might remember how in the statement of the Second Vatican Council on other religions, the document, called by its Latin name Nostra Aetate, had a passage on the relationship of the Catholic Church to Muslims. After mentioning the theological and social reasons why Christians should have esteem for Muslims, the document concludes with advice for the two communities of faith.

Acknowledging that down through the centuries there have been many conflicts between Christians and Muslims, the document declares: "we urge all to move beyond the past, to work together, for the good of all, for peace, social justice, moral values, and freedom." In this official declaration of the Catholic Church, the Council envisions nothing less than a shared mission in our world for Muslims and Christians. It is a partnership in which the two communities should work together for the common good in four key areas of modern life: to build peace, to establish justice in our societies, to defend moral values, and to promote true human freedom.

From the Muslim side, even earlier than the Second Vatican Council, some Muslims were already calling for Muslim-Christian unity in order to bring the values of faith into modern life. For example, Said Nursi, who was probably the most influential Muslim thinker in Turkey in the 20th Century, foresaw pious Muslims cooperating with the good Christians to oppose aggressive atheism and destructive trends in society, and encouraged both communities to work together to overcome the common problems of ignorance, poverty and disunity.In his day, he was certainly thinking of the growth of aggressive communist regimes, but referring as well to problems of destructive and self-destructive tendencies and behavior in modern societies that are still present in our world today.

There is even a more basic reason for our partnership. For why do we exist – Muslims and Christians - except to bear witness to the One True God, who made all things, who is Merciful and Compassionate, who is Love itself, and who will one day judge every individual according to their deeds? And yet today this truth is not self-evident to all in our society. There are many who say, "What god?" Or "Who needs a god?" Or "I'm an agnostic. I can't get involved in this old-time religious stuff; religions only breed fanatics."

However, in what is shaping up to be the great debate of our day, I believe that the followers of Islam and Christianity will find themselves in the same camp. In The Grand Design, the latest book by the prominent scientist, Stephen Hawking, the author makes some startling claims about the universe. He says that given the operations of quantum physics and the law of gravity, the universe can and did create itself without the need for "intervention of some supernatural being or god." He holds that the laws of nature "determine both the future and the past" and do not permit temporary suspension by a divine being in the form of miracles or answers to prayers. He further affirms: "it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion caused by our failure to understand the complex interaction of physical laws." In short, no creation, no free will, no one answering prayers.

Now, Hawking is not the traditional "village atheist," working out some psychological authority issue by attacking the idea of a Supreme Being. He is a serious scientist attempting to describe our universe in accord with the results of mathematical formulae. However, the consequences that many could derive from his theories and those of his fellow scientists are that humans are simply cogs in a godless, soulless machine that is proceeding inexorably from the last Big Bang toward the next far-off Big Crunch, to be followed anew by a subsequent Big Bang.

As more and more people in our societies abandon religion and belief in God as ideas incompatible with science, Muslims and Christians must recognize how much greater is what they share than the elements of dogma that divide them. The question that confronts every serious person today remains: "Is there anything outside the universe?" "Is there something, or Someone, that is not scientifically measurable?" "Is there Someone who is responsible for creating all this and to Whom we are all ultimately answerable?"

To this, the great question of our age, Muslims and Christians affirm with surprising unanimity the existence of a good and loving God, who has produced the world as a thing of beauty, who has destined humans for eternal happiness, who has taught people to live according to ethical norms. This religious belief unites Christians and Muslims as well as Jews in a vision – our common Abrahamic heritage – of a very different type of universe, one that is, I believe, both warmer and more hopeful than the rather chilly mechanism of scientific theory.

What we are talking about is not some battle between science and religion. Science is autonomous in its methodology and logic, and the old dictum still holds true: "Bad science begets bad dogma." Religious believers today, including Muslims and Christians, have much to learn from the advances in paleoanthropology, particle physics, the new cosmology, and other sciences on the frontiers of knowledge. The discovery of the Higgs Boson is neither irrelevant nor threatening to our faith. Like the other new discoveries, we must try to integrate it into our awareness of the Abiding Mystery that we call God, Allah, who has accompanied our universe in the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang and the 2-4 million years that our human ancestors have lived on this planet.

Our religious images of a merciful Creator who maintains all creation in being with loving presence and benevolent power, who is guiding all things wisely towards a just consummation – these images complement and give meaning and direction to our scientific discoveries. Just as our religious understanding of God's presence and activity in our universe are enhanced by the advances of the natural sciences, so the scientific community needs to be enriched by the insights and convictions that arise from our faith in the God of Abraham. The contribution that we can make jointly to this discussion is crucial.

But Muslims and Christians cannot give credible witness to this religious vision of life unless they are united in mutual respect and appreciation. If they feel that they must fight out every disagreement and seek to dominate the other economically, politically, and intellectually, their jointly held profession of reality as being the product of a Merciful and Compassionate God will be dismissed as belligerent ideology that human society is better off without.

In other words, in working to build harmony between the two communities, our very credibility is at stake.The message that we see as giving direction to our lives can only respond to the spiritual needs of the people of our time if it is a message of peace.This conviction that has motivated my work for the past 40 years has not dimmed with time but is, if anything, stronger today than before.I can only believe in a God whose love and mercy and forgiveness are not limited to any group of people or any exclusive community of believers.

Already in the Qur'an it is stated that the closest community in friendship to the Muslims are those who say "We are Christians." If that was the case in the time of the prophet Muhammad, can it not be the case again today? In this connection, I want to tell you a final story, one that happened over twenty years ago but has stayed in my mind all these years.

In 1990, while I was working in the Vatican in charge of Office for Relations with Muslims, I made a trip to China to make contact with Muslim communities there. Among the places I visited was Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, in the northwest corner of China. You probably know that that area used to be mainly Muslim, but in recent decades has seen much non-Muslim immigration from other parts of China. During the Cultural Revolution, many of those accused of bourgeois tendencies were exiled to reeducation camps in the area.

One day after visiting the main mosque in Urumqi I was sitting in the mosque garden talking to a group of elderly Muslim men. We were chatting about various things, when one of the men asked me: "Do you believe in God?" I said, "Yes, I do." Another asked, "How many gods?" I said, "Just the one God." Somebody said: "Well, then, you're a Muslim!" I said: "No, actually, I'm a Christian." That stopped them. "Christian? What is that?" Nobody had ever heard of Christians. I was surprised and a little humbled that there was a place in the world where no one had even heard of the Christian religion.

But then, one old man, better informed than the rest, spoke up. "I've heard of the Christian religion," he said. "It's a sect of Islam. Like us, Christians worship the One God, and like us they are waiting to be judged by God according to their deeds. But whereas we Muslims follow the prophet Muhammad, they follow the prophet Jesus. So Muslims and Christians are sister communities." The others all nodded and took in the information. "So that's what Christians are."

It's an instructive exercise to see ourselves through the eyes of another, to see how we are regarded by others. And I must admit that this old Uighur Muslim was not too far off the mark in his evaluation. One God; judged according to our deeds; following Jesus. Sister communities. Is that the way others see us? Is that the way that those who have no faith in God look upon us? Is that the way our own adherents look upon one another and regard one another? I think that many people don't see us that way and that we still have much work ahead of us.

Naturally, there are matters on which we disagree, and we must not ignore them or sweep them away. When I teach Christian theology in Islamic theological faculties in Turkey or Iran or Indonesia, I focus on trying to delineate for my students the points of convergence and divergence between our faiths. For both are important. If we forget those key elements of faith that we hold in common, we lose sight of the partnership to which God calls us. If we downplay those elements of our faith that are unique to each religion, we lose sight of the distinctiveness of our call, the special message which we must proclaim to our world. Muslims must glory in the prophethood of Muhammad and the Qur'anic message that he brought, just as Christians must glory in the cross of Jesus Christ and our faith in what God has accomplished in him for all humankind.

But this profession of faith need not be grounds for enmity. Already in 1085, Pope Gregory VII wrote to Al-Nasir, King of Bejaya in modern Algeria, the following words:  "Almighty God, Who desires that all people shall be saved and that none shall perish, approves nothing in us more highly than this: that next to loving God, a man should love his fellow man and do nothing to him that he would not want others to do to himself.This affection we and you [Christians and Muslims] owe to each other in a more particular way than to others, because we worship and confess the same God, though in diverse ways, and daily praise and adore Him as the Creator and Ruler of this world… For God knows truly that we desire your prosperity and honor, both in this life and in the life to come.And God knows how earnestly we pray both with our lips and with our heart that God Himself, after a long journey in this life, may lead you into the bosom of the most holy patriarch Abraham."

May God lead you forward until you reach the bosom of Abraham, the one whose faith unites us in the first place! This is the attitude we should have toward one another. Even though we disagree on various points of doctrine, this must not make us enemies. I believe that even in our disagreements we can trust in God, who knows that each of our communities is wholly sincere in our faith. In this context I often remember the words of the Qur'an: "To God you are all returning; at that time you will be informed about those things over which you disagreed. "We don't have to fight out these issues here and now because eventually – and this is my deepest hope – the truth will become clear to us all.