Multi-disciplinary faith

I’ve always been interested in multi-disciplinary science. It seems that in the process of bringing together two different disciplines, ideas are exchanged and I learn something new and profound. Two weeks ago week I attended a lecture by a Christian scholar who studies and teaches on interfaith dialogue, Dr Chris Hewer. The talk covered many ‘new and profound’ ideas (for me at least), that seemed to be borne out of the crucible of communicating across faith barriers. The talk highlighted interfaith dialogue throughout the ages, the progress made in the last half of the 20th century and the challenges we face at the start of the 21st. The lecture also contained one of the most novel explanations of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity I’ve ever heard.

A history of Islamic-Christian dialogue

The title of the talk was ‘Christian Lives Given in the Study of Islam‘, a book Dr Hewer edited a few years ago. However, he started the talk by reminding the audience of some history: how interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims went right back to the early years of Islam.

In the first years of the Islamic faith, the early Muslims were persecuted by the polytheistic residents of Mecca. A number of disciples were sent to safety in Ethiopia where they were received, interviewed and sheltered by a Christian king, the Emperor of Aksum. When a delegation of Christians from Najran (in Saudi Arabia near the border with Yemen) visited Medina in 631 they were permitted to pray in the mosque adopting their own practise of praying eastwards. While a glance at history shows plenty of examples of  interfaith violence, it didn’t start that way.

Dr Hewer pointed to the ancient city of Cordoba (in Islamic Andalusia, now Spain), as an example where, in the 10th and 11th centuries, the city’s university contained the two crucial conditions for inter-religious dialogue, a common language (Arabic) and a common philosophy (Aristotelian), were present.

Moving onto the 20th century and Vatican II, we looked at how the church reflected on Christianity’s role in the Holocaust, and how the acceptance within the Catholic doctrine of the Jewish faith implied that the church had to look at other faiths. Vatican II was a paradigm shift in many aspects of Catholic doctrine and practise, but in the context of interfaith dialogue the key outcomes was the Nostra aetate.

Nostra aetate

The Nostra aetate was developed over four years of discussion. It’s opening passage is interesting because it reflects (even in the 1960’s) how the world was getting smaller:

In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions.

And goes on to state that

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings, which through different in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men.

As regards Islam it states:

The Church regards Muslims with esteem: they adore the one God, living and enduring, the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth who has spoken to people; they strive to obey wholeheartedly His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham did, to whose faith they happily link their own….Though Muslims do not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus, they revere Him as a Prophet. They also honor Mary, His Virgin-Mother; at times they call on her with devotion.

And some of these same sentiments were reflected more recently when Pope John Paul II visited Morocco in 1985 and said:

I believe that we, Christians and Muslims, must recognize with joy the religious values that we have in common, and give thanks to God for them. Both of us believe in one God the only God, who is all Justice and all Mercy; we believe in the importance of prayer, of fasting, of almsgiving, of repentance and of pardon; we believe that God will be a merciful judge to us at the end of time, and we hope that after the resurrection he will be satisfied with us and we know that we will be satisfied with him.

The same ideas of interfaith dialogue promoted after Vatican 2 were taken up by the World Council of Church and the Anglican Communion, leading to a dramatic rise in scholarly interest, from the Christian churches, in the Islamic faith and it’s foundational texts and doctrines.

Enter the scholars

Gradually, experienced Christian scholars migrated into the new area of Islamic studies. This was a significant undertaking because of the language and cultural barriers. Many were already members of religious orders given to intense academic study. An important aspects was the access to funding and material support by organisations, so that they could focus intensely on their topic.

Some of these men (and it was mostly men) were activists, many lived in the Middle East and worked in the communities there, sharing and receiving mutual support in partnership with Muslims on their spiritual journeys. In the end some became so accomplished that they were awarded prizes for their writings by Islamic schools.

Exit the scholars

However, this generation of scholars are getting old, and some of those who contributed to the book have died since they wrote their chapters. The idea behind the book was to record the experiences of these scholars before their voices are no more.

These scholars are not being replaced. There is a dwindling pool of candidates from universities and religious orders throughout the Christian world. Many young people who are willing to give everything up to live in divided communities are focussed on pastoral action, rather than scholarly study. And, inevitably money has become an issue.

Another factor is that the religious divisions in the Middle East have become sharper and sharper. In the 1940’s there were over 65,000 Jews living in Egypt: there are now less than 20. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 there were 1.5 million Christian’s living in Iraq: there are now less than 1/6th of that number.

It’s ironic that as the world is getting smaller, the dividing lines are getting wider.

The challenges of publishing.

This seems to me an important book in the Christian church’s understanding of Islam, and an attempt to convey many years of scholarly study (there may be approaching 1000 person.years of work in this book alone). We are over 50 years beyond the ‘drawing together’ that Vatican II highlighted, and so surely we need the voices of the men and women who have bridged the two faiths for so long.

However, publishing such a book was difficult and it was eventually taken on by an academic/university publishing house. Generally these publishers produce hardback books in small numbers for sale to university libraries and research institutions, setting a high price (in this case about £80) and only 500 copies were printed in 2012. They haven’t all sold and I picked up my brand new copy for £10 from Book Depository.

Gold from the crucible of interfaith dialogue.

For me dialogue is a critical as part of developing ideas and understanding. Dialogue is part of community, and Freire’s ideas of community learning are important to me in my understanding of how we – as a community – develop ideas. I’ve blogged about that before.

This holds true for multidisciplinary and interfaith work as well. In my experience, having to explain your faith to some one from another faith is both easy (in that they have a mental framework for understanding faith) and difficult (in that they have ideas that oppose and confront yours). Perhaps the hardest parts are the questions that interfaith dialogue brings along. It appears to me that when we talk within our own communities of faith we get group think (a bit like the ‘echo chambers’ of our social media groups), and there isn’t enough challenge to the ideas we  – almost by default – hold. That challenge we find in interfaith dialogue.

There was an amazing example of this in Dr Hewer’s lecture. He spoke about the issue of the Trinity: a key doctrine of Christianity but a fundamental challenge for Muslims. He gave a brief summary of the Council of Nicaea (where the doctrine of the Trinity was hammered out) and highlighted that the Trinity was device to protect the ‘Oneness ‘ of God. That the concepts behind God as Father, God as Son and God as Spirit are complex enough for some to start rationalising them by separating them into three individuals, or demoting two (what I’d see a part of God) to one key individual and two minor deities. The Trinity was the Church’s attempt to define and preserve the ‘Oneness ‘ of God.

My journey with the Trinity

What draws me to Dr Hewer’s explanation is that my experiences of interfaith dialogue with Muslims have brought me to ask deep questions about the doctrine of the Trinity. In my opinion the Trinity is particularly complicated issue because identifying and explainable, rational argument for it is difficult. That was the point of the Council of Nicaea.

Voicing my questions, and my uncertainty, within my community was a difficult experience, and with hindsight I consider it a mistake, borne from a naive understanding of what makes, glues and rules a community. (Of which I’ve recently written a bit about here.) I didn’t find the answers to the questions I had (I’m not sure I even had the right questions to start with), and I started to wind up and worry people.

In the end I had to find my own path to understanding the nature of God. I had to walk way from church doctrine and the wisdom of tradition as I had understood it (and please note that the italics are very, very important) to find my own deeper, more personal and more relational understanding for the nature of God.

While I haven’t fully digested Dr Hewer’s ideas, it might seems a bit ironic to get a clarification of Christian theology while at an Islamic centre. But that, for me, is a striking illustration of the power of multi-disciplinary, interfaith dialogue.

Christian Lives Given in the Study of Islam.

The audio of Dr Hewer’s lecture at the Andalus Centre is online here.



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