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Finding religious convergence

Letter to the Editor | Monday, November 19, 2007

If you use current headlines as a barometer of Christian-Muslim relations, you may come to the conclusion that there is little convergence between Christianity and Islam. But if you suspect that it might be unfair to compare the ideals of one’s own religion (e.g., that the Beatitudes call Christians to be peacemakers, but we do not always live up to this) with the realities of another (e.g., that the extremists depicted in the nightly news may in fact be condemned by many Muslims as un-Islamic), then where can you go for a brief summary comparing Christian and Muslim beliefs?

In addition to consulting Muslim sources, a handy resource for Catholics is a short but significant document from the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christians), which is the first substantive conciliar teaching about Islam (and Judaism, for that matter). In its section on Islam, Nostra Aetate lists areas of theological convergence and divergence. Areas of convergence include belief in one God, judgment day and the resurrection of the body (ours, not Christ’s); it also mentions that both religions also honor Mary. The document singles out three practices Muslims and Christians share: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It also mentions points of disagreement, such as the fact that Muslims consider Jesus a prophet but not divine. Interestingly, the document is silent about two other significant points of Christian-Muslim divergence: the status of Muhammad as a prophet and the Quran as revelation.

Christian knowledge of these areas of convergence and divergence is not new; even 12th-century theologians who knew very little about Islam (and were critical of it) recognized that Muslims were monotheists who practiced prayer, fasting and almsgiving. So what is revolutionary about Nostra Aetate?

Nostra Aetate is significant as the first positive statement about Islam issuing from a church council. Its section three begins, “The Church regards with esteem the Muslims.” The importance of this phrase and what follows cannot be underestimated. While there are examples from history of individual theologians whose writings included sporadic praise of Islam – e.g., medieval figures like Ramon Llull, William of Tripoli and Pope Gregory VII – Nostra Aetate is the first unequivocally positive statement about Islam from the highest level of church authority, the Council.

Nostra Aetate is important for another reason. After outlining basic doctrinal similarities and differences, it concludes by exhorting Catholics and Muslims to “work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as promote” social justice, peace and freedom. The document encourages – indeed, calls – Catholics to enter into dialogue and collaboration with Muslims. Nostra Aetate is in fact the impetus for all Catholic interreligious relations: We do it not because it’s the “in” thing to do, but because it’s the Catholic thing to do.

Nostra Aetate’s call to dialogue over 40 years ago has since sparked many encounters: From formal discussions between bishops and imams in Rome and Cairo to grassroots meetings between Catholic and Muslim moms in suburban Bridgeview, Illinois. Unfortunately, these dialogues don’t make the headlines. But they should, because these ordinary encounters are in fact a supremely important kind of convergence between Islam and Christianity: One that is relational, not theological. After all, there really is no such thing as a dialogue between “Catholicism” and “Islam” – there are only relationships between Catholics and Muslims.

Rita George Tvrtkovicvisiting facultyDepartment of TheologyNov. 19