The difficulties of dialoguing with Islam

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asked Tertullian in his Prescription against Heretics (VII), as he sought to defend the purity of the gospel of faith from the faithless philosophy of men. The question was answered partially at least by St Paul himself in his mission-pulsing Areopagus speech, where the Jewish doctrine of God was expounded to the heathen of Athens. Perhaps it wasn’t fully addressed until a thousand years after Tertullian, when Europe’s scholastics asked: “What has Jesus to do with Aristotle?” In the Latin traditions of the Hellenised West, we are still living with the socio-theological and religio-political consequences.

What has Mecca to do with Rome? What has Mohammed to do with Jesus?

Christianity does not dialogue with Islam: Christians talk to Muslims and Muslims talk to Christians, and thence flows mutual understanding of theological precepts and perceptions of divinity. But bishops tend to be deficient in Arabic, and imams aren’t too good at Koine Greek. They can chat in broken English over a kebab and a plate of hummus, but truths are veiled in the mutual misunderstandings of dynamic equivalence. What has justice to do with القاضي?

In an manichæan-eschatological frame of mind, we have long heard about a coming “clash of civilisations” and, more recently, warnings of “Muslim encroachment” and an “Islamic conquest of Europe”, as mass immigration and multiculturalism challenge our religious traditions and cultural identity. We observe an increasingly precarious cohabitation. The Christian response ought to be the peaceful proclamation of the day of salvation; instead we get wrapped up in assertions of morality and expressions of dominion.

Many of those who comment on “the problem of Islam” have never met a Muslim, let alone read the Qur’an. And the meeting of Muslims is as depthless as the reading of the Quran, for they must be made our friends and it must be examined, expounded and understood. There is no dialogue in a handshake on the steps of a mosque.

Archbishop Giuseppe Bernardini lived in predominantly Muslim nations for 50 years. His comments below were written following a Christian-Muslim synod in October 1999, in Izmir, Turkey.

Dialogue with Islam1Dialogue with Islam2Dialogue with Islam3Dialogue with Islam4

Most British Muslims are very happy to talk about their faith, expound the transcendence of Allah and justify the actions of their prophet. Many are eager to talk humbly about their religion and their beliefs about its place in pluralist society, and they will do so respectfully and courteously over a plate of fish and chips and a pint. But there can be no dialogue with fundamentalist forms of Islam, which is what many term “proper” or “true” Islam, because it has nothing to learn. We can discuss with Muslims the devotional similarities of Ramadan and Lent, and this may well extend to musing about doctrines of soteriology and the meaning of salvation. But fundamentalism knows no moderates and tolerates no compromise.

Archbishop Bernardini has found that there is no happy via media in Muslim-Christian dialogue; there is no halfway house in the Dar al-Islam. And his experience will confirm in the minds of many what they think they already know. For others, it will fortify them in their missiological desire to reach out and inculturate to know and understand. Still others will seek to forge a “reformed” Islam that is contiguous with the political values of liberal democracy, respecting diversity and tolerating difference.

But fundamentalist Islam despises humility, liberty and democracy. While our arms ache with holding out olive branches, fanatical Muslims are busy sharpening their scythes. We cannot ignore a programme of expansion and conquest which is being facilitated by the very liberties we prize and which they seek to eradicate. They are determined in their politics and dogmatic in their religion. Our polity is plural and our religion is liberal. They have carved out supremacy under our laws of equality.

Interfaith dialogue is good for forging relationships and building confidence. In a secularised world of spiritual decline and moral decay there is much upon which Christians and Muslims can cooperate and make common cause. But let us not forget the way, the truth and the life. And let us not be ashamed to preach the gospel in season and out of it, and live the faith in our every word and action.

What has xenophobia to do with Christianity?