Saturday, April 2, 2011

Christians and Muslims: Qu'ran burning re-visited

With the encouragement and apparently under the supervision of so-called pastor Terry Jones, who did not carry through with his own threat to burn a Qu'ran last 11 September, another person in Gainesville, Florida, claiming to be a pastor, that is, a minister of the Gospel, one Wayne Sapp, actually burned a copy the Islamic holy book. The burning, which took place on Sunday, 20 March, dubbed by these folks as International Judge the Koran Day, was witnessed by around 30 people, took place after Sapp conducted a mock(ery) trial of the book.

After Sapp made his case against the Qu'ran, the jury took all of 8 minutes to find it guilty. Given that the book had been soaking in kerosene for about hour prior to the verdict, an appeal would seem a slam dunk for the defense, assuming it had one. As the book burned some of the congregation posed for pictures alongside the barbecue on which it burned. One attendee, a supporter of Jones named Jadwiga Schatz, said she was alarmed by the increasing "threat" of Islam in Europe. She went on to say that, at least for her, Muslims "are like monsters", before going on to state- "I hate these people."

In a post during Christmas, Notes from Eurabia, I quoted a Dutch seminary professor, a lay Christian, who said of the situation in his country, "we would have nothing to fear from Islam, if we were Christians. And it often seems that today the Dutch are afraid of everything: of having children, as they are of immigrants. But fear is the exact opposite of faith." This stands in stark contrast to hate-mongering rooted in fear of the other. It is a good day to remember JPII's motto and constant exhortation: Be not afraid!

Predictably, all too many Muslims in Afghanistan were eager to live up to the worst stereotype, which is the lens through which people like Schatz view all Muslims, just as people like Schatz, Sapp, and Jones are all too representative of Christians in the minds of many. Today riots continue in the country where, the AP reports, "Anger over the burning of the Muslim holy book at a Florida church fueled a second day of deadly violence half a world away in Afghanistan, where demonstrators set cars and shops ablaze Saturday in a riot that killed nine protesters." The report continues that the outrage "even brought violence to the normally peaceful northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday, when a crowd of protesters — apparently infiltrated by insurgents — stormed a U.N. compound in an outpouring that left four Afghan protesters and seven foreign U.N. employees dead."

All of this makes very timely an interview that appears in the current issue of Christianity Today, which arrived in my mailbox just yesterday. The interview, conducted by CT's Mark Galli, is with Protestant theologian Miroslav Wolf, who teaches at Yale Divinity School. The occasion for their sitdown was the publication of the professor's new book, which I am eager to read, Allah: A Christian Response. The title of the piece is Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? Of course, for Catholics the answer is unequivocally, Yes.

How can I use the word "unequivocally" when answering this question from a Catholic perspective? In the first instance Allah is simply Arabic for "God". Arabic-speaking Christians use the word in liturgies that pre-date the advent of Islam. The Shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, when translated in its entirety (i.e., we don't translate it into, say, English except the word "God"), is "There is no God but God". More explicitly and definitively, we look to Vatican II's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. (par. 3)
Volf, in answering Galli's question, "Okay, then- do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?" says something notable: "First, all Christians don't worship the same God, and all Muslims don't worship the same God." He goes on to clarify by saying, "I think Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to... the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God."

This brings up a great question, namely what normative Christian tradition do Jones and Sapp embrace? I also wonder whether I worship the same God in whose name they claim to act.

Volf insists that there are several things that should never be forgotten when engaging the question about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The first is that for both Christians and Muslims God is one. Secondly, God is merciful. Thirdly, God is just. Volf goes on to give a very good lesson on God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- one God in three divine persons: "Some Jews and Muslims accuse Christians of being idolatrous for believing the Trinity." Volf rightly points out that Jews and Muslims who think this "fundamentally misunderstand the Christian understanding of the Trinity. It's not that we worship three distinct entities who sit on three thrones next to each other; we worship one undivided, divine being who comes to us in three persons" (no doubt Volf is not implicitly endorsing modalism here- he is walking the tight rope of orthodoxy). He goes on to say that the explicit denials of the Trinity found in the Qu'ran "are denials of an inappropriately understood version of the Trinity". Hence, what Muslims deny about God as a Tri-unity of persons "ought to be denied by every right-believing Christian".

Volf ends the interview on a note very reminiscent of Pope Benedict's take on these matters:
We've come up with this idea that Muslims are our enemy, and the Muslim terrorism and extremism are the most important enemies we should be combatting. I think this is bogus. Terrorism is an important issue, but it pales in significance compared to the hedonistic character of the culture we inhabit. to have Muslims as our allies in combatting de facto hedonism is a very important thing.

To have a robust conversation between Muslims and Christians about what provides for good living, a life that's an alternative to hedonism, is what's required of us at this moment. Just like evangelicals at one point discovered Catholics can be their allies, I think in a much more attenuated sense (because we are dealing with two religions) , Muslims can be our allies in struggles for a proper way to live in the world today.
I would add that any meaningful Christian/Muslim dialogue must also include a serious discussion about religious freedom, which JPII put right after the right to life as the most fundamental of all human rights. The deliberate and even constitutional denial of this right in many Islamic countries, even to the point of persecution unto death, must begin to be rectified. By insisting on this, let's not forget that it was not until Vatican II, specifically the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignatatis Humanae, that the Catholic Church formally made this important concession. It began with acknowledging something that was not new, namely that "[t]he truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power". (par. 1)

Building on the axiom above, the Catholic Church then formally recognized- the oft-repeated "error has no rights" notwithstanding- "that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits." (par. 2) The council also declared "that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right." (par. 2)

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis


  1. I LIKE VOLF!!!

    How I missed your Words...

  2. It's nice to hear from you. I hope things are well. Volf is a great theologian. He was something of sensation some 7-8 years ago. His work, while theologically creative and sound, is very accessible.