Islam is now our interfaith priority: all the same, debate on doctrine is futile

Pope Benedict at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2006 (Photo: PA)

In a recent lengthy and thoughtful article in the National Catholic Reporter, John L Allen, one of the few writers for that publication consistently capable of transcending its underlying prejudices, has ruminated on the fact (for such he takes it to be) that “the last decade has witnessed a historic shift from Judaism to Islam as the paradigmatic interfaith relationship of the Catholic Church”.

This is not to say, he continues, that Judaism has become unimportant, or that the Church won’t continue its interfaith relationship with that religion. It’s simply that now, it is Islam “where the bulk of the Church’s time and treasure is being invested”. This relationship, furthermore, is “the new template for all of Catholicism’s relationships with other religions”.

I won’t summarise the whole article, which is very long; it is also well worth reading in full. But he makes one point where I surmise that despite his admirable attempt at being simply a dispassionate reporter, he is uneasy about and possibly hostile to a tendency in the papal strategy which has clearly emerged, particularly since Regensburg. (If I have got him wrong I apologise.)

“Pope Benedict,” says Allen, “is notoriously [note the negative adjective] sceptical of interreligious dialogue, on the grounds that it can imply a surrender of identity on both sides. He prefers what he calls ‘intercultural’ dialogue, meaning joint efforts to defend shared social, cultural and political values – especially  vis-à-vis what Benedict has memorably described as a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ in the west.”

All true, and all, surely the only rational way to proceed. As Allen says: “In practice, that means that rather than debating doctrine, Christians and Muslims should work together on matters such as the right to life, care for the poor, multilateralism in foreign affairs, and a robust role for religion in public affairs.” In other words, an alliance against secularism and the exclusion of faith from the public square.

This sidelining (though not elimination) of doctrinal debate is surely now here to stay. It used to be taken for granted that in both inter-Christian ecumenism, and in what was called, in a memorable episode of Yes, Prime Minister,  “interfaith interface” (in which one character is an Anglican cleric who thinks that “the Bible is some sort of Christian version of the Koran”), the right procedure is to discover points of theological convergence and then to work on eliminating or somehow sidelining disagreements. This was, and is, an essentially liberal – which is to say intrinsically anti-dogmatic – approach.

But it is not, in the end, open to Catholicism, which unlike Anglicanism is an essentially dogmatic religion (that’s why, in the end, ARCIC foundered; there is only a marker buoy to record where it sank). So, incidentally, is Islam, even if its dogmatic content is more difficult to determine. But both religions believe that they have been given the truth by God; and while we are about it, we don’t even believe in the same God, since one non-negotiable Islamic belief is a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, along with the Incarnation, the Resurrection and much else besides.

But in the end, the most profound incompatibility of all was delineated in the Regensburg address. The firestorm over the Pope’s innocent quotation from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, about the prophet’s injunction to impose Islam by the sword, obscured the Pope’s real point: that Christianity believes that God is rational and Islam just doesn’t:

“The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: ‘For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.’ Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm [the 11th-century Andalusian theologian] went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.”

It may be true that Islam, not Judaism, now has to be our interfaith priority. All the same, I greatly regret it. At least one understands what the rabbis are on about. It seems, sometimes, that though they may even live on the same street, Muslims inhabit a different planet. We certainly don’t worship the same God.