CARDIFF, Wales, JUNE 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s talk to the Muslim Council of Wales on June 9 at the University of Cardiff.
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“Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Interreligious Dialogue”
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is very good to be here with you today. It is a pleasure to come to Wales, a land whose history, language and landscape have inspired powerful music and striking poetry, from the tales of Taliesin and Owain Glyndwr long ago to the eloquent frustration of the Anglican priest-poet R.S. Thomas, who is typical of generations born here who felt alienated from their language and culture. The situation is quite different today; the Welsh language has a much higher profile and the Welsh Assembly looks after much of the country’s political business. I feel privileged to have been asked to come and address you on a theme that is close to my heart, that of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. I hope it will become clear that I am thoroughly committed to enhancing and maintaining this dialogue not only in Wales and the rest of Britain, but also throughout Europe and in the wider world.
The Muslim community in Cardiff is important for several reasons. When men from Yemen and Somalia came to work on the coal ships, many of them settled in the Tiger Bay area and married local women, so from the start it was an integrated group. The mosque they built in the 19th century was probably the first in the United Kingdom, and the replacement that was opened in 1947 was made to look like a Yemeni “mud mosque”. The fact that the mayor of Cardiff was at the opening ceremony shows that Muslims were already a well-established and respected religious community here, and what is more significant is that in those days religious groups seem to have lived happily alongside each other. The city of Cardiff looks quite different now, and the 1947 mosque was replaced in the Butetown redevelopment, but I hope the religions in Cardiff will always be aware of the humble but proud beginnings of the Muslim community here, and that everyone will work hard to maintain the tradition of peace and respect for each other that is a precious element in Cardiff’s civic heritage. That is also, of course, a model for any civilized community. Cardiff could easily be the beacon for the rest of Britain in terms of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.
“What the world needs now …”
Religion is very much back on the agenda in international organizations like UNESCO and the United Nations, and in national governments throughout the world, while it was previously regarded, to be quite frank, either as a nuisance factor or as an enemy of enlightenment. What is on their agenda is not so much the content of religion, what we believe, but the effects religion is perceived to have on society. In the run up to the year 2000, police departments around the world were asking religious groups to help them identify sects that might be planning dangerous events to mark the beginning of the new millennium. This concerned Christian and Jewish groups first and foremost, and the atmosphere in and around Jerusalem was particularly tense for the security forces and police at that time. Since 2001 the spotlight has been locked on to Islam. This has obviously created an atmosphere where ordinary Muslims feel very uncomfortable and unfairly singled out by people who often seem not to understand them at all.
The positive side of current preoccupations with the social role of religion is that our various religions are all much more visible. We are often challenged to contribute in various ways to social cohesion, and thinkers and policy-makers have had to question earlier notions that religion might naturally fade away in our enlightened society. For reasons we may not like, they have to take us much more seriously than was the case ten years ago.
One person who realized a long time ago what was going on is Pope Benedict. Let me tell you why I say that. Early in the year 2004, the man still known to the world as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is a distinguished theologian in his own right, agreed to meet the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas for a public discussion in Munich. They met as representatives of two sides of a discussion that has been going on in Europe for some 200 years. Religion, represented here by a theologian, and reason, represented by a philosopher, are often seen as competing elements in western culture. Advocates of western secular rationality are very keen to point out the pathological elements of religion; while the cardinal recognized that religion does have this negative side, he also asked the philosopher to admit that reason has a similar weakness, particularly if it gives religion no room and tries to make it a totally private affair. According to the cardinal, if either side in the debate in Europe ignores the need to be open to learn from the other, the results can be catastrophic.
I think it is significant that Cardinal Ratzinger went on to say that we should not allow ourselves to focus exclusively on Europe. Seeing other cultures as inferior or insignificant would be an example of “western hybris, for which we would — and to some extent already do — have to pay dearly.” He also made the point on that occasion that every major culture has the same tensions as Europe; he referred explicitly to Islam, with its “broad rainbow” of adherents. He addressed the same theme in his talk in Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006. His main point, of course, as we know, is that there can be no real identification between authentic religion and violence.
I agree with Pope Benedict XVI and want to take the point a little further. Many of you will remember a song that was popular when I was a lot younger. Burt Bacharach wrote the music and Hal David wrote these lyrics: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s much too little of.” Those words are true, but only up to a point. For me, love is not “the only thing that there’s much too little of”; I think the world needs belief or faith, too. If I did not believe my faith made a difference in this world, I could not stand here and speak to you. If the members of the Muslim Council of Wales were not convinced their religion can do enormous good in the world, they would not have organized this evening. We all believe not only that there is a God, but also that our religion commits us to working for good in the world, in a thousand different ways. There are still tendencies in some quarters to make sure religion has no public voice, but this takes no account of the fact that many of our contemporaries are searching for meaning and purpose; our culture is in search of its spiritual identity, some would even say its soul.
The space for dialogue between our religions and our culture has to be a public one. In other words, religious communities need to be able to operate with a certain degree of autonomy. If politicians at national or local level — or even academics, for that matter — think they know what is best for religions, they will not act in our best interests, and could well be tempted to try to manipulate the ways we contribute to society. Generally, I think they treat us with great respect, but this is a difficult time for many people involved in governing and policing our society, and nobody should be blind to the risk of basing decisions about religious groups on sociological or security-driven criteria. Times of perceived crisis are not the best times for making or changing laws.
Of course we should not presume that people anywhere will respect us. We have to earn their respect, and when we have it we need to work to keep it. The Christian Gospels tell us that, while the people welcomed Jesus with songs of celebration when he entered Jerusalem for the last time, he made that journey on a donkey, which I take as an eloquent sign of the humility with which we can best play our part in the life of our country.
Being similar and being different — telling the truth about each other
I first heard about Islam when I was studying to become a priest in Rome. It may surprise you that every Catholic priest is expected to study not only theology but also philosophy, in order to grasp the concepts with which the Church expresses herself in different situations. The leading light in Catholic thought has traditionally been St. Thomas Aquinas, and we learned very early on in our studies that he was deeply indebted to the works of several scholars from the Arabic-speaking world, many of whom were Muslims like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, although we referred to them by the Latin versions of their names — Avicenna and Averroes. I mention that because it is proof that, in some periods of history, Christian and Muslim scholars did not hesitate to acknowledge their debt to each other, which is consoling in an age when people presume we eye each other with suspicion. This is simply not so.
As I have said, I am convinced religious communities have a role to play in British society, but that role can be played well only if the various religions are able to be open and honest about each other. One particular principle comes into play here, which is that I should never allow myself to be put into a position where I am telling other people what Muslims believe. I should automatically contact a Muslim friend and ask him or her to do that. Likewise, it is not good for Muslims to tell other people — or each other, for that matter — what Christians believe. It is always better to ask one of us. This is important if we are to avoid offering the world caricatures of each other, and it is necessary to avoid being tricked by prejudice into thinking we understand more than we do. Perhaps this is something that should happen as a matter of course in our schools, but here comes one of the major differences between us. In the case of the Church, it is obvious whom you should approach. Islam is organized in a quite different way, and it is never easy for even the most friendly outsider to know who is the best person to ask when an explanation of Muslim beliefs and traditions is needed. This obviously means we need to know each other personally, in order to build up the trust that is necessary for such delicate tasks to be done well.
The basic thing that unites us is not always obvious to people, but it is something Pope John Paul II stressed when he addressed a very large gathering of young Moroccans in a stadium in Casablanca in 1985: “Christians and Muslims, we have many things in common, as believers and as human beings. We live in the same world, marked by many signs of hope, but also by multiple signs of anguish. … We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection.” He spoke movingly to these young Muslims about his faith: “It is of God himself that, above all, I wish to speak with you; of him, because it is in him that we believe, you Muslims and we Catholics …” and he reassured them of the reason for his visit: “It is as a believer that I come to you today. It is quite simply that I would like to give here today the witness of that which I believe, of that which I wish for the well-being of the people, my brothers, and of that which, from experience, I consider to be useful for all.”
I really like the fact that the address to young Muslims in Casablanca stressed what unites Christians and Muslims above all else, and that is that they believe in the one God and see God as their creator. But one has also to be open to differences, for example in the ways Christians and Muslims understand what is meant by believing in one God. For centuries Muslims have been puzzled by Christians who claim to believe in one God like them, but then start speaking about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Anyone involved in theological dialogue between Muslims and Christians has to accept that the Trinity can be a stumbling block.
What is vitally important in any dialogue between us is our respect for the truth, especially in the sense of being faithful to our identity. Dialogue becomes fruitful only when everyone involved feels able to say what he or she believes, or what identifies him or her as a Muslim or as a Christian. This obviously requires a capacity to listen without correcting the other person’s standpoint, a willingness to accept diversity together with a desire to learn from the other without ever feeling one’s own beliefs are being belittled or criticized. If I look back to my schooldays, I remember there was a strong tradition of debating, where a cardinal rule was to have total respect for the other speaker, while feeling free to put his ideas to the test. Perhaps that was good training for true dialogue, where respect is of paramount importance, and there can be open and honest discussion of what everyone says. A very important text for Christians on this point comes from the First Letter of St. Peter, which gives this advice: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
What we do today will shape the world in which the children of tomorrow will live. What can we do together to ensure that tomorrow’s world will allow them to grow and develop fully as human beings and as believers? I have three simple suggestions to make.
1. My first suggestion is not really mine, but it is one I have taken to heart, and I think I know how we can develop it together. You may know that, from time to time, there are meetings for representatives of bishops from all over the world. These meetings are called synods. Pope John Paul II convoked special synods for each continent, as well. There were two European synods, and after the second one he issued a document called The Church in Europe, or Ecclesia in Europa. It contains an assessment of the current situation and some goals and objectives for the Church. “There is one need to which Europe must respond positively if it is to have a truly new face: ‘Europe cannot close in on itself. … On the contrary, it must remain fully aware of the fact that other countries, other continents, await its bold initiatives, in order to offer to poorer peoples the means for their growth and social organization, and to build a more just and fraternal world.’ To carry out this mission adequately will demand ‘rethinking international cooperation in terms of a new culture of solidarity. … Europe must moreover become an active partner in promoting and implementing a globalization ‘in’ solidarity. This must be accompanied … by a kind of globalization ‘of’ solidarity and of the related values of equity, justice and freedom.”
I think the idea of a globalization of solidarity is wonderful, and I am glad to say that CAFOD, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, has set in train a project called Live Simply, designed to help people live in solidarity with the poor. It has often struck me that Islam asks of its followers a similar commitment to solidarity with the poor. This seems clear in the idea of having a banking system that works in accordance with the basic principles of Islam. My thought is not that I should open an Islamic bank account, but rather that it may be time for Christian and Muslim economists to put their heads together to see what we can learn from each other in the sphere of genuine commitment to solidarity with the poor. Looking at the newspapers or the television news sometimes makes me shudder at the fate of so many people in the world who live in such a shocking state. But I feel uncomfortable and guilty if I cannot react. I do what I can; I imagine we all do, but I have a feeling that, together, we could do so much more.
2. A second thing we could undertake together to improve the state of tomorrow’s world for our children is to work for genuine freedom of religion. I have already mentioned that many British Muslims feel misrepresented or at least misunderstood in our media and in public opinion. You are not the only ones, but unfortunately in the present moment much more is being said about Islam than about Christianity or other religions. More than this, there are times when we may all feel that we are not exactly muzzled or silenced, but we are most certainly not free to express our deeply held convictions, sometimes simply for reasons linked to so-called political correctness. I think there are ways we can work with those who form public opinion to solve many of these problems, and I am certain that we should do this together. At the Catholic Church’s most recent major council, the second Vatican Council, which took place in the 1960s, many observers were very surprised that the Council’s declaration on religious freedom was not a plea for religious freedom for Catholics, but for everybody. Religious freedom is seen as a natural right of every human being, to be respected by every government.
People often seem surprised to hear that this is Catholic teaching, and they delve into history to prove that the Catholic Church has not always given the best example of respect for people’s rights in the religious sphere. It would be foolish and churlish to claim there have not been shocking failures in this regard in the past, but here we are looking to the future and the world in which tomorrow’s children will grow up. It would be equally inaccurate to ignore the fact that there are places where Christians are not allowed to practice their religion openly, or at all. On June 21, 1995, John Paul II sent a greeting to those present at the opening of the beautiful mosque that now overlooks the city of Rome. This is what he said:
“A grand mosque is being inaugurated today. This event is an eloquent sign of the religious freedom recognized here for every believer. And it is significant that in Rome, the center of Christianity and the See of Peter’s successor, Muslims should have their own place to worship with full respect for their freedom of conscience. On a significant occasion like this, it is unfortunately necessary to point out that in some Islamic countries similar signs of the recognition of religious freedom are lacking. And yet the world, on the threshold of the third millennium, is waiting for these signs! Religious freedom has now become part of many international documents and is one of the pillars of contemporary society. While I am pleased that Muslims can gather in prayer in the new Roman mosque, I earnestly hope that the rights of Christians and of all believers freely to express their own faith will be recognized in every corner of the earth.”
We prove that we believe in religious freedom when we are prepared to speak up for other people’s right to exercise it, and not just our own. If we can learn to act together in favor of religious freedom for all, we shall certainly influence tomorrow’s world for the better.
3. If you have ever visited a Benedictine monastery you will have been greeted silently. In prominent places in every Benedictine house you see a short Latin word, Pax, or peace. The atmosphere of silence that marks the monks’ day is meant to create a peace you can almost touch, but that is only a sign of a much deeper, inner peace. Among Muslims, the first thing a visitor would say is as-salaamu aleykum, Arabic for peace be upon you. Both Muslims and Christians traditionally, instinctively want to be at peace and to bring peace wherever they go. I thank the God who made us all that, in recent years, the leaders of all Britain’s major religious communities have stood together in front of politicians, in front of the media, in front of our fellow-citizens, pleading for those who have influence to do all in their power to achieve peace, rather than the catastrophic and obscene waste of life that so many news bulletins bring into our living-rooms. That is not what God wants and it is not what we want. There is always a better way and, as various Popes have said, war is never a good solution and always an admission of defeat. We all know the children of tomorrow’s world deserve better, and we know the human race can do better. As long as we continue to say this together, we shall be building healthy foundations on which future generations can build.
I want to conclude my talk this evening with something John Paul II said in January 2001, when the new ambassador of the Republic of Iran to the Holy See presented his letters of credence to the Holy Father. I think it sums up much of what I have been saying:
“In the dialogue between cultures, men and women of good will realize that there are values that are common to all cultures because they are rooted in the very nature of the human person — values which express humanity’s most authentic and distinctive features: the value of solidarity and peace; the value of education; the value of forgiveness and reconciliation; the value of life itself.”
I believe those are values that bring us very close indeed. Thank you![Text adapted]