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Islam is now our interfaith priority: all the same, debate on doctrine is futile

We should work towards fighting secularism rather than reaching an agreement on theology

By on Monday, 8 November 2010

Pope Benedict at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2006 (Photo: PA)

Pope Benedict at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2006 (Photo: PA)

In a recent lengthy and thoughtful article in the National Catholic Reporter, John L Allen, one of the few writers for that publication consistently capable of transcending its underlying prejudices, has ruminated on the fact (for such he takes it to be) that “the last decade has witnessed a historic shift from Judaism to Islam as the paradigmatic interfaith relationship of the Catholic Church”.

This is not to say, he continues, that Judaism has become unimportant, or that the Church won’t continue its interfaith relationship with that religion. It’s simply that now, it is Islam “where the bulk of the Church’s time and treasure is being invested”. This relationship, furthermore, is “the new template for all of Catholicism’s relationships with other religions”.

I won’t summarise the whole article, which is very long; it is also well worth reading in full. But he makes one point where I surmise that despite his admirable attempt at being simply a dispassionate reporter, he is uneasy about and possibly hostile to a tendency in the papal strategy which has clearly emerged, particularly since Regensburg. (If I have got him wrong I apologise.)

“Pope Benedict,” says Allen, “is notoriously [note the negative adjective] sceptical of interreligious dialogue, on the grounds that it can imply a surrender of identity on both sides. He prefers what he calls ‘intercultural’ dialogue, meaning joint efforts to defend shared social, cultural and political values – especially  vis-à-vis what Benedict has memorably described as a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ in the west.”

All true, and all, surely the only rational way to proceed. As Allen says: “In practice, that means that rather than debating doctrine, Christians and Muslims should work together on matters such as the right to life, care for the poor, multilateralism in foreign affairs, and a robust role for religion in public affairs.” In other words, an alliance against secularism and the exclusion of faith from the public square.

This sidelining (though not elimination) of doctrinal debate is surely now here to stay. It used to be taken for granted that in both inter-Christian ecumenism, and in what was called, in a memorable episode of Yes, Prime Minister,  “interfaith interface” (in which one character is an Anglican cleric who thinks that “the Bible is some sort of Christian version of the Koran”), the right procedure is to discover points of theological convergence and then to work on eliminating or somehow sidelining disagreements. This was, and is, an essentially liberal – which is to say intrinsically anti-dogmatic – approach.

But it is not, in the end, open to Catholicism, which unlike Anglicanism is an essentially dogmatic religion (that’s why, in the end, ARCIC foundered; there is only a marker buoy to record where it sank). So, incidentally, is Islam, even if its dogmatic content is more difficult to determine. But both religions believe that they have been given the truth by God; and while we are about it, we don’t even believe in the same God, since one non-negotiable Islamic belief is a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, along with the Incarnation, the Resurrection and much else besides.

But in the end, the most profound incompatibility of all was delineated in the Regensburg address. The firestorm over the Pope’s innocent quotation from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, about the prophet’s injunction to impose Islam by the sword, obscured the Pope’s real point: that Christianity believes that God is rational and Islam just doesn’t:

“The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: ‘For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.’ Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm [the 11th-century Andalusian theologian] went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.”

It may be true that Islam, not Judaism, now has to be our interfaith priority. All the same, I greatly regret it. At least one understands what the rabbis are on about. It seems, sometimes, that though they may even live on the same street, Muslims inhabit a different planet. We certainly don’t worship the same God.

  • louella

    I don't think Muslims are interested in interfaith dialogue….only Christians are because we are the ones on the backfoot!

    Muslims are interested in converting and Islamising Europe and the West – that has always been their aim…..and it's not going to stop now. Since the secular West is so weak and demographically in decline it will just be a matter of time before mass Islamic immigration and their highbirtrates mean they are the dominant religion. The course has been set. What use have they in interfaith dialogue?!

  • Josemaria

    Out of interest, Mr Oddie, what are the “underlying prejudices” of the National Catholic Reporter?

  • frater sejunctus

    This separated brother finds it refreshing to read a Roman Catholic theologian robustly free of the Modernist virus and emitting good sense. Dr. Oddie's article matches that of the Washington DC lay theologian, Dr. Chris Ruddy, on ecumenism, to which the Catholic Herald helpfully directed its readers in this morning's list of “must-reads”.

  • Victor Weston

    if as Christians we believe the fullness of the Truth Is in Jesus, and Salvation only to be found in Him and His Cross, then it is manifestly a dereliction of duty for the Church not to present this Truth, with grace and in love to all muslims in UK and elsewhere; there has to be dialogue: ie to share Jesus, the question is: why is the Church seemingly slow and reluctant to do this? (evangelisation is an imperative)

  • louella

    That's evangelistation….not dialogue! I am not sure what the purpose of dialogue is! But Muslims are not interested in dialogue.

  • Jeannine

    NCR is generally considered a bastion for progressive, Catholic thought.

  • W Oddie

    Anti-papal, anti-dogmatic

  • PhilipH

    I would agree that it's fairly pointless debating with Muslims about religion – I've done a little of it myself both in person and on the Internet, and my experience is that you don't get very far even if you're only defending your own faith. You also have to be very careful not to give offense which you can easily do. I do agree that Christians and Muslims have some common interests, especially in opposing militant secularism that wants to drive all expression of religion out of the public sphere – and there we can cooperate in facing down a common opponent.

  • Thomas M.P. from India

    Due to the inability, drastic errors of commission and omission as well as disinterest of the Christians (both the laity and the clerics) of all denominations, especially of the Catholic Church, the new generation of people in Europe and the west have lost Christian belief and faith. This is due to materialism, atheism etc. As a result a huge vacuum has been created in the spiritual life of the people. If you don't take care or remain a passive spectator, Islam will fill this vacuum, as they have already filled it quite a lot. In another fifty or hundred years, you will be scared to celebrate Christmas or Easter or even afraid to practice your faith because many of your children or grandchildren themselves will be hard-core Muslims.

  • Thomas M.P. from India

    I would like to make a correction in my comment: Please read ” If you don't take care or IF YOU remain a passive spectator…”

  • CPKS

    “We certainly don't worship the same God” – is it certain? It is certain that Muslims believe different things about God (of course), but wouldn't a Christian want to say that they have incorrect beliefs about the one true God?

    It would be similarly odd to describe the errant Bishop Williamson believing in a “different” Auschwitz. There was no such Auschwitz. What we ought to say is that there is one and only one Auschwitz and Williamson has false beliefs about it.

  • AndyFrankophile

    Of course you cannot lump together sunni and shia let alone the different schools within those two families of Islam. We do share not only the same planet but also the same country and often the same city with all of these people and we must try and seek peaceful and positive coexistence just as we share the same planet with orthodox, reformed and ultra-orthodox rabbis . Whatever wing of catholicism you find yourself on I do urge you to read the highly positive and well thought out article in the National Catholic Reporter rather than a blog on a blog with its very different message.

  • Bwaj

    Perhaps you should try looking at the Qur'an which all Muslims have in common and believe literally. The Qur'an tells Muslims to fight us (and terrorize us until we accept Islam. It also denies the Divine Trinity, the Crucifixion, it denies Jesus is the Son of God Who is God and Lord. It calls us sinners and blasphemers for doing this and that we will be sent to hellfire for doing so, however, the truth Jesus is the Son of God Who is God and Lord, Who did suffer and die on the Cross and rise from the dead. It is God the Father Who tells us to worship His divine Son and the Holy Trinity is true. I have sent a lot of these Qur'anic quotes to show I am not lying to Mr. Oddie.

  • Bwaj

    Perhaps you should try looking at the Qur'an which all Muslims have in common and believe literally. The Qur'an tells Muslims to fight us (and terrorize us until we accept Islam. It also denies the Divine Trinity, the Crucifixion, it denies Jesus is the Son of God Who is God and Lord. It calls us sinners and blasphemers for doing this and that we will be sent to hellfire for doing so, however, the truth Jesus is the Son of God Who is God and Lord, Who did suffer and die on the Cross and rise from the dead. It is God the Father Who tells us to worship His divine Son and the Holy Trinity is true. I have sent a lot of these Qur'anic quotes to show I am not lying to Mr. Oddie.

    Perhaps you should look at what Our divine Saviour tells you not a lot of liberal heretics since Vatican II.
    Our Lord not only tells us many people will believe what they are doing is for God when they kill Christians but it will not be as they do not know Him, no-one who denies the Son has God the Father and vice versa (1 St. Jn:2.22-23) but also anyone who either denies Our Saviour's divinity or incarnation comes from the AntiChrist (1 St. Jn:4.3).

  • AndyFrankophile

    I am not in the slightest saying that Islam or the Koran contains truth. I

    am in entire agreement that debate on doctrine is futile but rather we

    should concentrate on love of neighbour in an attempt to imitate christ.

    There are caring loving people in Islam. There is much to admire in many

    muslim families' way of life (as well as much that we find repulsive).

    Interfaith dialogue requires us to accentuate the positive but I agree

    entirely that we should not seek to compare our religions any more than

    Christ did with the Samaritan woman. That way lies tension and despair. We

    should not seek to make asinine comments such as that we are nearer to the

    rabbis than the imams. We are nearer to those who have an open and large

    heart of whatever religion.


  • Bwaj

    I disagree and our dialogue is concluded. The duty of the true follower of Jesus is to call all men, women and children to turn in faith to Christ, repent and be baptized – those who refuse to believe in Our Lord will be condemned (St. Mk:16.16). God the Father speaks through His divine Son (Heb:1.2) Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (St. Jn:14.6).

  • Bwaj

    Al-Qaeda of Iraq Calls Pope 'Hallucinating Tyrant of the Vatican', Threatens 'Killing Sword'

  • EditorCT

    I do not believe for a second that Islamic leaders want anything to do with Catholics, in the sense of these daft inter-faith dialogues. I don't think the Muslim community – that is, the truly religiously observant community – want to integrate with us at all.

    I once found myself standing beside a Muslim couple in Glasgow, at an outdoor display of some artwork; the woman was covered from head to toe and when I commented on casually on the display, she immediately turned the baby buggy around and, with her husband, walked quickly off. They are definitely not into talking with people like me and I tend not to think it's personal.

    We're now in the ridiculous situation where we have priests writing letters to the press in defence of Islam (as in a recent edition of the Scottish Catholic Observer), while remaining silent when Catholicism is under attack. Unbelievable.

    Christ's final words on this earth were an instruction to His Church to go out and evangelise, baptising in the name of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    When that's done, there will be no need for inter-faith dialogue. Get a grip.

  • Anonymous

    Catholics need to educate Catholics. Educated Catholics need to educate Muslims who allow it. There likely will be Muslims who may oppose this violently but we can do it through the media and through coordination with specifically authorized Catholic clergy.

    As for Muslims who oppose us violently it is best to withdraw from the territories they inhabit. If they invade Catholic or Christian territories, then it is up to the Vatican to guide us as to whether there is war or martyrdom.

  • Jay from Canada

    The only solution is evangelization of muslims – a difficult task to be sure.

    Dialogue is very much useless simply because of the Islamic doctrine of taqiyaa which permits muslims to lie to non-muslims about their faith.

    This raises an important dilemma – how do you talk to Muslims without them frothing at the mouth?

    It is important, I think, to consider that Islam is somehwat rational but not with respect to God, obviously, but rather the tribal politics of 7th Century Arabia.

    I think the way to do it is truth-telling about Islam. Present the facts about Islam to individual muslims and let them see the truth about their religion. I encourage everyone to read about Mohammed himself, then something starts to become clear that Al-Qaeda and other similar groups are very close in emulating the life of Mohammed.

    As to the question of finding common ground with muslims for countering secularism, there is some validity there, but I think that one should examine the history of Islam and see quite clearly that the Jews and Christians of Arabia made a bum-deal with Mohammed and his followers and for it they were expelled from the Arabian Peninsula or they were massacred like the Banu Qurayza, so on that front their should be caution. I think the goal is purifying secularism, or achieving as BXVI calls it “a healthy secularism” not eliminating it. The Islamic political goal is Islam in control of the state, so once again caution.

  • Bwaj

    You have it right – we need to evangelize Muslims, but, we shouldn't just tell Muslims what the Qur'an really teaches and see if they reject it we should also tell all Christians too as a lot of Christians are so naive they just don't believe it when you tell them the ones nearest to practising the Islam of the Qur'an are Al-Q'aeda. What does that mean? Christians slain by this group are martyrs in Heaven but the Church will not say it. As for 'taqiyaa' – there are probably many Muslims in the west who know what the Qur'an teaches but tell us the opposite.

    The difference between the Crusades and ji'hads are the former were not offensive wars to spread Christianity but defensive wars to protect Christians while ji'hads are offensive wars to spread Islam. We
    can not impose our faith by force because Our divine Saviour forbids it (St. Mtt:26.52), however, Our divine Redeemer through St. Paul tells us to respect kings, queens and those in civil government
    who do God's will (Rmns:13.1-5). This means attacks on a country from within (or without) can be met by force. It is for this reason I believe the war in Afghanistan is permitted, but the war in Iraq, is not. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 – however, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article believing it was on this date because of the Battle of Vienna.

  • Bwaj

    Christopher Hitchens' article can be read here:
    'Why the suicide killers chose September 11' ('The Guardian': 3 October 2001):

  • Bwaj

    New wave of attacks targets homes of Iraqi Christians
    By Kevin J. Jones, Staff Writer

  • Phillipturnbull

    Like the Pope, William Oddie gets to the heart of the matter – Christianity believes that God is rational and Islam just doesn't. This is the point! This is the point! This is the point! Some people in the West and in the Church just don't get it.

    A few weeks ago driving out of Jakarta – in the world's most populous Muslim nation – I spoke with a friend who is a devout Muslim. “Do you ever question anything in the Koran?” He looked at me as if I was from 'another planet'. Of course nwe don't – it is direct from God. There is nothing to question.

    Of course they do. There are live chat shows on televison in Egypt where people phone in with queries.

    “I was just reciting (not the word) my prayers, ” asks one woman, “and I looked out the window and saw a male dog. Am I unclean. Are my prayers valid?”

    I think when Athens and Jerusalem got together in the first century Church, we kind of sorted these things out. However, since (and before) the 12th Century, when Islam decided against the use of Reason in understanding itself – Islam finds itself in a cul-de-sac which it refuses to get out of. And sometimes (often?) the refusal is based on intimidation and threats. That's what happens when one man's religious experience in a cave results in a 'paper god' generations later.

    The last task of the Church is the conversion of the Jews. Don't howl me down! If you object to that, take it up with Our Lord.

    And like St. Francis of Assisi, and the little girl who grew to be Teresa of Avila, our task is also to set out to take the message of Jesus to the Muslims. Perhaps the best way I can do that here is by being the best and most open Catholic I can. Recently when I had muslim guests in my home for lunch 'out of respect' I did not make the sign of the Cross before I said (silently) Grace before Meals. When I began to eat – a 13 year old muslim boy said to me – “You do not pray before eating?” I will never forget that lesson.

    Incidently – I work with Muslims. One person comes fairly frequently and asks me questions about Christian teaching. I try to respond openly, simply, and charitably. I always point out the difference between what the Church teaches and what the Koran states. However, I am always conscious that there is apossibility that what promts this operson to enquire is my own life and how I live it. And that makes me aware of a great responsibility and fear of giving scandal.

    Muslims in the west come there and expect to encounter a Christain culture and christian virtues and behaviour. And what do they find? The Church ridiculed from within and without – and Christian culture a museum piece and christian piety lax and apologetic. No wonder they are scandalized and in many cases, despise us. We are the ones who give them all the amunition they need.

    Is dialogue possible at present. Perhaps it is taking place behind the scenes, slwoly, diplomatically – but on the street and in the neighbourhood and between local parish and local mosque – I very much doubt it at presnt. The climate is not right.

    But the climate is always right for me to be a good catholic and witness to Christ by my life. And in this, I am afarid, I stand wanting.

  • Lafe

    People: Unless the so called people of God who claim a saving faith in the atonement of God's only Son, Jesus the Christ wake up and realize that God is not dialoging with anyone who refuses to acknowledge that Jesus is the Savior of the world. The Word of God does not engage in empty philosophical debates as to the merits of any “religion.” Why: There is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved and that name is Jesus. Debate? Go ahead, debate until you are blue in the face. In the end, you will still have to answer for your sins and if you are not born again via the sacrifice of Jesus, who is God in the flesh, you are

    facing hell for all of eternity. Debate? Sure….talk all you want and sound important and use big phrases and

    words to impress someone but unless you are like a little child and receive God's sacrifice by faith and faith alone in Jesus Christ (not praying to Mary [who was a sinner and in need of a savior] or blessing from a Pope or saying a thousand Hail Marys a day), you are far from the kingdom of God.

    As you can see, no attempts to be politically correct. If the Catholic Church wants to dialogue with Muslims…fine but when the dialogue is consummated, has salvation being presented to the sinner?

    Obviously not. So…what is important? Coming, by faith, to know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior for the remission of your sins against a holy God.

    Convinced? If so, pray this prayer (God knows your heart and intents): God, I am a sinner and have sinned against you, a holy and righteous God. Forgive me of all of my sins. I receive, by faith, your sacrifice for my sins, Jesus Christ, your only begotten Son who died and rose again from the dead that I might have eternal life. Lead me and guide me by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit. Amen.”

    If you prayed that prayer in sincerity, you are born again and are in the family of God. Now, seek out a

    church that is Bible centered and worships the one and true God!

    not born again.

  • GabrielAustin

    I believe Hilaire Belloc had one of the clearest explanations of the appeal of Islam in the world of its origin. Read the Cambridge History of Byzantium. You will find there a good description of the gradual corruption which infested that world. An overweening bureaucracy; impossible taxes, continuous warfare. Islam simplified all this by forgiveness of debts [including the forbidding of usury], and simplification of government and bureaucracy. The latter is not unknown in our world; consider the French Revolution and other revolutions; consider the growth of the Tea Party in the US. Consider the growth of the bureaucracies of the U.N., responsible the no one. “Power without responsibility: the prerogative of the whore throughout the ages” [Stanley Baldwin].

    Consider Mrs. Pelosi's curious comment about Obamacare: “Let's just pass the bill; we can study it later”. That, in a nutshell, explains the elections in America.

    Belloc noted the absurdity of the League of Nations: one third of the world's population was not represented: Islam. He thought that Islam is a heresy. It makes all the difference in what should be our approach.

    And then the matter of abortion. Europe is killing the new generations. What wonder if Islam is drawn into the void. I note a similarity with the early Christian martyrs: the Moslems are willing to die for their faith.