Christian-Muslim dialogue: major stumbling blocks

Christian-Muslim dialogue: major stumbling blocks

Fr Richard Umbers

A close friend of mine recently attended an information awareness night at a local mosque. The purpose of this pre-Regensburg evening with various Christian ministers present was to build a rapport with local groups and dispel mutual prejudice.

My friend, who is a secondary school teacher, discovered through the course of the evening that the real stumbling blocks for Muslims in their attempts to understand Christianity lay with our belief in the Blessed Trinity and in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

If we are to pursue dialogue with the growing numbers of Muslim adherents in our society, will we need to change our presentation of these dogmas in order to accommodate new sensibilities?

At first sight it would seem that little can be done to provide such accommodation. Although Rahner famously quipped that we could dispense with the first chapter on the Blessed Trinity in our dogmatic manuals and popular piety would be none the poorer, we do find a renewed emphasis on the three divine persons in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

As for the crucifixion, the Death of God theology and its theologians of the existentially authentic Jesus have themselves all long since died. The Church finds herself being populated once again with believers in the bodily resurrection of Christ - a resurrection that took place three days after his death on the Cross.

Still, there are currents of thought prevalent in today's churches that the Church's progressive thinkers might wish to develop along more Islamofriendly lines. All that is needed, they might suggest, is the will to step beyond the limits imposed on us by our 'Hellenised' Catechism. Are there any takers?

A couple approached me last year after I had given a talk in the Sydney Town Hall and complained about the presence of Muslims at a Catholic church. But as we had moved on from the days when we had orders of weepers and sent the catechumens away from the Liturgy of the Eucharist I could not see anything wrong with people of other faiths coming to our church.

However, they went on to tell me that the Muslims should not be receiving Holy Communion. I had to agree with them about that. They added further that they didn't think Muslims should be preaching at their church. I began to wonder where they were attending Mass.

It would seem from this that there are indeed some priests who are intrepid enough to step outside the boat and walk on the waves towards Mohammed.

Let us take a look, then, at the size of the waves and the force of the winds that our men overboard will have to contend with.

Water down harsh sayings?

Muslims and Catholics believe that God is utterly transcendent. For Muslims, however, this transcendence precludes any real discussion about God as a subject of speculative inquiry. And keeping silent over that which cannot be discussed is a respectable Wittgensteinian position to hold.

Compare the Tahafut al falasifa of an al-Ghazali to the Catholic insistence on spelling out the nature of God in those dusty De Deo Uno et Trino manuals. If those Thomistic explanations of God's simplicity seem complicated enough, how can we shirk the challenge of kicking the ladder out, so to speak, from our dogmatic definitions about the Trinity?

Islamic critics point to our belief in the Trinity as an example of the unreasonableness of the Christian faith. Whatever Pope Benedict or the Emperor Paleologus may have asserted about the Muslims, surely it is we Christians who act against the reasonableness of the oneness of God's nature?

Underlying this charge of a contradiction is the Qur'an's depiction of the Christian notion of a trinity as akin to tri-theism. Perhaps due to an acquaintance with Byzantine devotion to the theotokos, perhaps due to some contact with the Mary-worshipping Collyridians, Mohammed writes that the Christians believe in The Father, Jesus and Mary as if they were three gods:

* Sura (4:171) 'You shall not say, 'Trinity.' You shall refrain from this for your own good. GOD is only one god. Be He glorified; He is much too glorious to have a son.'

* Sura [5:116] 'GOD will say, 'O Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Make me and my mother idols beside GOD?'

* Sura [5:73] 'Pagans indeed are those who say that GOD is a third of a trinity. There is no god except the one god. Unless they refrain from saying this, those who disbelieve among them will incur a painful retribution.'

It is obviously the notion of 'threeness' in God that riles. Why not replace the 'threeness' of the persons, perhaps at the risk of raising more than the odd eyebrow in the back pew, and emphasise a 'oneness' which Muslims and Catholics can agree on? (OK, even to emphasise God's oneness is actually saying something positive about a God who is supposed to be too transcendent to be known about other than apophatically, but we can let it pass).

Dropping the 'threeness' in God may be incoherent with the Catechism and Tradition, but here we are merely exploring the possibilities that freedom outside the boat affords those who wish to see the bigger picture from an external vantage point.

One way of achieving a greater emphasis on the 'oneness' of God would be the adoption of a 'staggered' understanding of God in his self-revelation. Ever since the hovering over the waters the Spirit's leading men to faith in God has taken place in stages. Catholics have tended to see Pentecost as the final stage - the age of the Church - but we can find precedents of further stages by the Montanists of the third century, Migetius of Spain in the eighth and Joachim of Fiore in the 12th.

Gnosticism

Given that more parish-goers may have read The Da Vinci Code than the Bible, perhaps we could tap into the popularity of Gnosticism and relativism and begin preaching a new stage of fluidity at the dawn of the age of Aquarius the water bearer. The Old Testament Yahweh will be seen as a God of violence in the age of Aries but who was then revealed as Jesus the Ichthus during the planetary alignment of Pisces. Now we are in the 21st century, hey presto, our projection of God can go the way of the polar ice caps and dissolve into The Environment.

Such a God, however, would be too immanent for Muslim sensibilities. Anyway, I'm not sure what legacy we would be entrusting to our children's children when, 2,000 years from now, we enter into the age of Capricorn the Goat. Pantheism?

A different and more promising form of modalism could be developed from current feminist downplay of the personality of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Where Sabellius spoke of three masks as three different ways of presenting the one divine substance, feminist friendly liturgies replace the term 'Father' with 'God' and his tri-personal name with his functions: 'In the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer and of the Sanctifier'.

In this way, some might suggest, we can focus on that which is common to all three divine persons rather than upon the differences of relation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This approach is compatible with a shared Christian praxis within which we can tell our own story about God in preference to any historical revelation.

The downside of course is the corresponding loss of God as Mother which the Qur'an itself has depicted as Christian belief and Leonardo Boff has been able to promote in his claim that Mary is in hypostatic union with the Holy Spirit. If any faith approach is flexible enough to simultaneously maintain transcendent oneness and Gaia immanence, shared Christian praxis will be our best hope, but the grim news is that even stronger waves and winds must yet be faced.

Even if I should succeed in replacing 'Father' with 'God', and so lose the notion of our going to the Father though the Son in the Holy Spirit, what are Muslims to make of the claim that it was the Father who died on the Cross? If it makes no difference that Jesus is the Father is the Holy Spirit, it is still 'God' who dies on the Cross.

At this point we can draw on the ancient sagacity of Theodotus of Byzantium and Paul of Samosata. Their subordinationism could be more appealing to Islamic sensibilities. Jesus would be regarded as a man in whom God acted most powerfully, and even raised up to heaven, but he would not be God.

The difficulty with adopting a subordinationist position is that it interferes with our modalism and 'oneness'. Shared Christian praxis to the rescue? A Lambeth-like compromise suggests itself here. If we demote Jesus to the status of prophet we can still say that the Father is the Holy Spirit is God. Muslims would at least agree that we are taking a step in the right direction.

The problem with this manoeuvre is that if the Son is held to be subordinate, one's understanding of the Holy Spirit will fall into the same line of thinking and in turn be subordinate to Christ. A point not lost on Catholics at the time of the Arian crises.

The Tome of Damasus (AD 382) declared, 'We anathematise the Macedonians who, coming as offspring of the Arians, have changed their name but not their faithlessness.'

The Macedonians thought of the Holy Spirit as a lesser divinity to Jesus. We could argue that the Spirit is an Arabic jinn but it would be to no avail since it seems we have now come full circle to the threeness that we were originally trying to shed. Oh the incoherence of the incoherence! We have trod water for as long as we might but outside the boat we eventually drown.

Discover the Catechism

How then are we to reach out to Muslims? It must be from within the boat, throwing them a life-line to help bring them aboard. Rather than water down our identity, we should be encouraging future Ibn Ru_d's to discover the rationality of the Greeks and the rigours of theology which are to be found in our Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Muslims would be able to read how the Church has profited from Greek philosophy in the expression of her faith - Greek philosophy often mediated by Muslim Arab commentators. At the same time they could learn how we have parted company with the philosophy of the times by rejecting neo-Platonic subordination within the Trinity and by stating that Jesus could actually have a human nature as well as a divine nature.

They would read how the Almighty does not act in an arbitrary fashion since 'nothing ... can be in God's power which could not be in his just will or his wise intellect.' They would even see how Jesus needed to be both son of God and son of Mary so that his death on the Cross could be a saving reality and not just a sign of God's love. They could reflect on how Mohammed compares to Jesus in the remission of sins. They could think about God as Love in a communion of persons.

Rather than change the presentation of Christian dogma we need to present Christian dogma. In this way we will open up unsuspected horizons for Catholics and Muslims alike.

Fr Richard Umbers is a New Zealand priest resident in Sydney and is a graduate of the University of Navarre in Pamplona. He tutors in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a chaplain at Redfield College.

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