1219 CE: St. Francis and the Sultan
This year marks an important date in interfaith history. Eight-hundred years ago, as Christians and Muslims were in the midst of fighting the fifth crusade/jihad, St. Francis of Assisi had a remarkable visit with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt. You can read more about that historic event here.
What I really want to talk about is another, much more recent, historic meeting. Last month, Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and met with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque. What transpired is just as momentous as the meeting of St. Francis and the Sultan.
2019 CE: The Pope and the Imam
On February 4, Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb signed a document on improving Christian-Muslim relations called “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. It begins:
In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace . . .
By beginning this way, the document (hopefully) puts to rest the idea that we do not worship the same Deity, whether we call that Deity God, Allah, Ground of our Being, or Nameless One.
The really stunning part comes two-thirds of the way down. Tucked into a list of convictions essential for upholding the role of religions in the construction of world peace, is this statement:
The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.
(I know. I have to temporarily suspend all of my convictions about exclusively male language for God. But the implications of the statement are too big to ignore.)
It’s Been Done Before
While potentially provocative, it’s not the first time the Catholic Church has made such a declaration. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Regarding Islam, it said:
The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Remember the brouhaha at Wheaton College a few years ago when one the professors was fired for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims? It was also about quoting the Pope: “As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Her reference was to: Meeting with the Muslim Community at the Central Mosque of Koudoukou, Bangui (Central African Republic) on November 30, 2015.
There has been criticism of these pronouncements. In 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued a warning about the danger of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.” In “Dominus Iesus,” the future Pope Benedict XVI said
This truth of faith (that Christ is the salvation of all humanity) does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism “characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.
Of course, the Protestants also got into the act. Hank Hanegraaff, known as the “Bible Answer Man” on his radio show has said that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” And the evangelical Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry unequivocally states that Christians and Muslims do not adore the same God, and that the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam.”
Now granted, these are positions from the Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity. I have problems with both sides on issues other than this one. But I applaud the efforts of Pope Francis to further our interfaith awareness and acceptance.
What Does Progressive Christianity Say?
As a progressive Christian, I agree with the second point of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity:
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.
The INTRAfaith Conversation
Agreeing to this statement, though, doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the dilemma that exists within these statements, pro and con. I give Cardinal Ratzinger just a tiny bit of credit because he attempted to engage the elephant in the living room: what about Jesus? I don’t agree where he comes down, but he did engage the question. Pope Francis and Sultan al-Malik al-Kami didn’t get into knotty questions, such as the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity.
They were all about peacemaking – and props to them for that!
It is left to us to wrestle with our inherited Christologies (as well as doctrines, creeds, liuturgies, hymns, prayers, etc.) in light of our desire to live in peace and harmony with our religious neighbors. As Kristin Johnston Largen wrote in Finding God Among Our Neighbors, “. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.” In other words, who/what is Jesus in an interreligious context?
Such wrestling is what I attempt to facilitate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?
Pope Francis and the Imam have given us a lot to think about.