Friday, 22 January 2016

Christian Muslim Relations in the light of Nostra Aetate

Thursday 10th December, Jesuit Centre, Mount Street, London
With thanks to Kristian Girling whose summary is below;

The Holy See's declaration on the Relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions published in 1965 by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council. In the fifty years since NA's publication it has perhaps been one of the most significant in its impact of all the documents published and as to its effects on Catholic teaching extending as it does the concept of God's plan of salvation to communities outside of the Catholic Church including to Muslims in light of a shared monotheism. A key outcome of NA's publication has been extensive research and discussion on Christian-Muslim relations and also as to the extent of shared spiritual connections and perceived shared patrimony between the so-called Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Our discussion ranged widely but focused on four main points:

- Concepts of authority in Islam and their effects on the direction of inter-religious dialogue.

Unlike the Catholic Church, for example, and its relatively centralised structure with --- at least in theory --- an authoritative governing figure to direct the community, Sunni Islam has lacked an equivalent since the end of the Ottoman Empire in the office of the Sultan-Caliph. A significant issue in the context of dialogue with a strong diversity of opinions within the Sunni community as to the best approach to engaging with Christian communities and as to the degree of interaction which is regarded as acceptable.

- The figure of Jesus Christ/Isa in Christianity and Islam as a point of discussion

Given the shared appreciation of Jesus as a central figure to both Christianity and Islam --- albeit for substantially differing reasons --- that reflection on Him can be a key point of engagement between Christians and Muslims. To what extent this is a useful path of discussion is difficult to determine insofar as Islam strongly denies the notion of the possibility of the Divinity of Christ whilst this is the ``ultimate" fact for Christian believers. Nonetheless, shared awareness of Jesus as central to both Christianity and Islam underlines that engagement between the two religions takes place in a context distinct to that between Christianity or Islam and Buddhism by way of comparison.

- How Muslims meet the challenge of being a ``minority"?

Insofar as Christians have extensive experience of being a minority --- whether numerically, politically or socially --- the same cannot always be said of Muslims who especially in the Middle East have enjoyed superior political status and numerical majority size for at least the last six centuries.[1] For Muslims resident in the ``West" (Europe, North America, Australasia) living in such an environment presents a challenge in lacking a social structure or religious paradigm which they had previously enjoyed: Pakistan and Iran, for example, are both explicitly Islamic Republics. In these circumstances is it possible that inter-communal discussion with Christian communities is useful as a means to anchor their shared sense of religious life as an obligation in environments which are increasingly ambivalent to public displays of religion or with religion as outside the frame of reference of the conduct of private and public affairs for many. Can Muslim communities ``learn" how to adapt in such circumstances in the same way that Christian communities have often learnt to cope with being ``minorities" over the last 2,000 years?

- The continuing merits of Christian-Muslim dialogue

Aside from the intellectual curiosity in and engagement with topics arising from the study of Christianity and Islam is there a consensus as to the tangible and practical benefits of continuing to engage in inter-religious dialogue for both religions? Is there instead a greater need and better use of resources dedicated to a dialogue between communities than a particular dialogue of theology and speculation on shared spiritualities? In many instances inter-religious dialogue already exists as a ``thing" or aspect of societies especially in the Middle East and where dialogue is a dialogue of a shared lived reality than an engagement with ideas on a more academic level.[2]

End notes

[1] Although this experience is not uniform given the numerical minority position of Muslims to China and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example.
[2] One example of a dialogue of life given in discussion was the attendance of Muslim students at Christian schools and universities in the Middle East.

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