Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Setting Objectives for Christian-Muslim Dialogue and Cooperation

Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev

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No 149 (June 02, 2008)

Inter-religious dialogue, as well as dialogue between religion and secular ideologies, is a matter of necessity and urgency. The world is witnessing a significant re-shaping of its religious map. In some European countries, where not long ago an atheist ideology was officially imposed on the entire population, and where churches were heavily persecuted, we are now witnessing an unprecedented religious revival. In other countries, however, we see a clear decline in religious practice. Secularism is gaining momentum in nations which not long ago identified themselves as Christian, while the growth of Islam is also quite noticeable.

Against this background the initiative of the 138 Muslim theologians who addressed an open letter to leaders of Christian Churches should be regarded as highly appropriate and most timely.

His Holiness begins his response by thanking all the Muslim religious leaders and scholars who sent an open letter to representatives of Christian Churches and organizations. “Christians and Muslims,” says the Patriarch, “have many similar aims, and we can unite our efforts to achieve them. However, this unity will not occur if we fail to clarify our understanding of each other’s religious values. In this connection, I welcome the desire of the Muslim community to begin a sincere and open dialogue with representatives of Christians Churches on a serious scholarly and intellectual level.”

According to His Holiness, “Christianity and Islam are engaged today in a very important task in the world. They seek to remind humanity of the existence of God and of the spiritual dimension present both in man and the world. We bear witness to the interdependence of peace and justice, morality and law, truth and love.”

“Christians and Muslims,” continues the Patriarch, “are drawn together first of all by the commandment of the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor. At the same time, I do not think it is worthwhile for us to identify a certain minimum that seems to fix our convergences in faith and to be theologically sufficient for the individual’s religious life. Any doctrinal affirmation in Christianity or Islam cannot be viewed in isolation from its unique place in the integral theological system. Otherwise, one’s religious identity will be obliterated to give rise to a danger of moving along the path of blending the faiths. It seems to be more fruitful, therefore, to study the integral faith of each side and to compare them.”

His Holiness then turns to the understanding of God as Love as the key point of Christian theology. The Divine nature “has love as it’s most essential, characteristic and important property.” The Christian concept of God the Trinity is interpreted against the background of the notion of God as love: “A lonely isolated essence can love only itself: self-love is not love. Love always presupposes the existence of the other. Just as an individual cannot be aware of himself as personality but only through his communication with other personalities, there cannot be personal being in God but through love of another personal being. That is why the New Testament speaks of God as one Being in three Persons — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is the unity of three Persons who have the same divine nature, which belongs to each of them in its fullness so that they are not three but one God. God the Trinity is the fullness of love with each hypostatic Person bespeaking love towards the other two hypostatic Persons. The Persons of the Trinity are aware of themselves as ‘I and you,’ just as ‘...you are in me and I am in you’ (John. 17, 21), Christ says to the Father. ‘He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you,’ Christ says about the Holy Spirit (John. 16, 14). Therefore, every Hypostasis in the Trinity refers to the other Hypostasis.”

The Divine love is manifested not only in the communion of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, but also in God’s revelation to the created world. The incarnation of God in the Person of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the humanity was a manifestation of Divine love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John. 3, 16).

According to the biblical teaching, shared by the representatives of all the three Abrahamic religions, man was created in the image and after the likeness of God (Gen. 1, 26). This means, points His Holiness Patriarch Alexy, that “God’s love is communicated to human beings to become their inner property, their living force that determines, penetrates and forms their whole lives. Love in man arises in response to God’s love.”

As the Patriarch of Moscow further states, “the manifestation of man’s true love of God is possible only if man is free. This freedom makes it possible to do good by fulfilling the will of God by choice, not only out of fear or for the sake of reward. The love of God inspires in man the selfless desire to fulfill His commandments. For, according to St. Isaac the Syrian, ‘Because of His great love, God was not pleased to restrict our freedom but was pleased to draw us near Him through the love of our own heart.’ Therefore, human freedom increases, extends and grows stronger as human beings grow in love of God, which is the core of human religious and moral perfection. Those who love God seek to emulate their Creator in their actions: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5, 48).”

His Holiness specifies that his letter does not have the aim of setting forth the entire Christian theology. He is convinced, however, that “Christian and Muslim thinkers would benefit from regular studies of each other’s doctrines in their fullness.” In this connection, he muses, “it seems desirable to develop a doctrinal Christian-Islamic dialogue to broaden academic and research cooperation, to study doctrinal affirmations, to create an in-depth basis for developing multifaceted cooperation between our two religious communities.”

His Holiness notes that “the doctrinal dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Islam has considerably intensified recently. This happened not only because we have to communicate more intensively and to build societal life together, but also because Christians and Muslims have come to face the same challenges which are impossible to meet on one’s own.”

Among these challenges the Patriarch mentions “a pressure from the anti-religious worldview that claims universality and seeks to subject all the spheres of life in society.” I would like to comment on this assertion by pointing out to the fact that, indeed, militant secularism and atheism, quickly gaining in numbers in Western world, lays claims to a monopoly on world views and remains intolerant of competition. Today’s liberal humanists and atheists believe that there is no place for God in the public domain. For them, to mention God in documents of public significance, or to wear religious symbols in public places, violates the rights of unbelievers and agnostics. They forget, however, that the ban on mentioning God and wearing religious symbols discriminates equally against believers, who are refused the right to openly express their religious convictions. Thus, anti-religious worldview becomes a challenge for both Christians and Muslims alike, as well as for the representatives of other traditional religions.

Another challenge, states His Holiness, comes from “attempts to assert a ‘new morality’ that contradicts the moral norms supported by traditional religions.” This statement refers, in particular, to the norms related to sexual ethics, and I would like to make a short excursus here in order to better understand the concerns of the Russian Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader.

In all traditional religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, there exists the notion of marriage as a divinely-established union between a man and a woman. Christianity insists on the uniqueness of marriage and the principle of its indissolubility, viewing divorce as a sin (although there are a number of exceptions to this rule). Traditional religions condemn all forms of fornication, adultery and marital infidelity, as well as prostitution and promiscuity.

Until the second half of the twentieth century the norms mentioned above were considered generally accepted in the majority of Western countries. However, the “sexual revolution” which followed the Second World War and the outbreak of the feminist movement in the 1960s led to a radical transformation of family and sexual ethics. The avalanche-like liberalization of legislation concerning morality began and continues to this very day. The monumental social break with the past, unprecedented in scale and brought about by the sexual revolution, affected practically all Western countries. In less than half a century the traditional notions of the family and sex were overturned, making way for “progressive” norms based on the liberal world-view. Not only did this radically change the entire face of Western liberal civilization, but it also created an unbridgeable gulf between it and those religions in which traditional family and sexual ethics continue to be adhered to.

One of the “accomplishments” of the sexual revolution was the change of the traditionally negative attitude toward homosexual relations and other forms of sexuality which until recently were considered sexual deviations (e.g. bisexuality, transsexuality). This change is the result of well-planned action taken over the course of many years by advocates of the rights of sexual minorities to win over popular opinion and liberalize legislation in the area of sexual ethics. In each country events have unfolded according to the same scenario. First advocates for the rights of sexual minorities call for tolerance toward their lifestyle, and then obtain the legalization of homosexuality at the legislative level. This is followed by the battle for the full equality of homosexual unions with heterosexual ones and the recognition of the former as equal to marriage. Finally, homosexual couples manage to win the right to adopt and rear children. In various Western countries this process has taken place with varying degrees of speed, but nevertheless with the same, clearly visible general tendency toward the abolishment of all prohibitions and limitations in the area of sexuality. For the time being there remains one final frontier: the official sanctioning of the seduction of minors has not yet been given. But will activists of sexual freedom have to wait long to overcome this last hurdle?

I would like to stress that traditional Christianity in no way demands the renewal of repressions against members of sexual minorities and does not call for discrimination against them. However, the Church resists attempts to present a sinful tendency as a norm and opposes all means of propagating homosexuality. A large number of examples bear witness to the fact that in societies where the propagation of homosexuality is forbidden, this phenomenon, although it may exist, does not reach mass proportions (as in the case of Islamic countries). On the other hand, in places where the systematic propagation of homosexuality is carried out, this phenomenon acquires a mass character. Today in the West the rules of political correctness forbid any criticism of homosexuality, while its propagation through the mass media and the school system is encouraged and welcomed. The inculcation of a positive image of “homosexual love” is one of the ideological paradigms of modern Western civilization, while the abolishment of “discriminatory” laws concerning sexual minorities is demanded of all countries wishing to enter the “civilized community.” These tendencies cannot but cause serious concern among traditional religions and should become a matter of special attention within the framework of the Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Setting objectives for such a dialogue, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church mentions that “some people among both Christians and Muslims have expressed fears that the development of interreligious dialogue may lead to religious syncretism, a review of the doctrines and obliterated borders between religious traditions.” His Holiness believes, however, that “a reasonable system of cooperation between religions helps to preserve and emphasize the unique nature and identity of each of them. Moreover, the development of appropriate forms of interreligious dialogue in itself has proved to be a serious obstacle for manipulations aimed to establish a kind of universal super-religion.”

The Patriarch then turns to the experience of co-existence between Christianity and Islam in Russia. He notes that in Russia the traditional religions “have never come into conflict while preserving their identity for a thousand years. Russia is one of those rare multi-religious and multinational states whose history has not known the religious wars that have plagued various regions of the world. The basic religious and ethical principles held by the traditional faiths in Russia invariably guided their followers toward cooperation with people of other religions and beliefs in the spirit of peace and harmony. Various religious communities lived side-by-side, working together and defending together their common Motherland. Nevertheless, they stood firm in the faith of their own forefathers, safeguarding it against encroachments from outside and often doing so together in face of invaders from other countries. To this day, our compatriots have not come into any real conflict between them based on religious grounds.”

The concluding part of the Patriarch’s response to the Muslim theologians deals with concrete issues related to the co-existence of Christians and Muslims in various parts of the world. “In many Muslim countries,” the Patriarch notes, “Christians have enjoyed invariable support and have the freedom to live according to their own religious rules. However, in some Islamic countries, the legislation prohibits the construction of churches, worship services and free Christian preaching.”

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia may serve as examples of places where the situation of Christians is desperate. In Iraq, the killing and abduction of Christian clergy is a daily reality. In Afghanistan, conversion to Christianity may lead to the death sentence. In Saudi Arabia, no single Christian church exists and Christian workers are not allowed to read the Bible or to come together for worship. Alarming news about the persecution and killing of Christians comes from Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, as well as from many African nations. The Patriarch of Moscow expresses his hope “that the letter of Islamic religious leaders and scholars proposing to intensify dialogue between our two religions will contribute to establishing better conditions for Christian minorities in such countries.”

According to the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, “on the practical plan the Christian-Muslim cooperation could be aimed at safeguarding the role of religion in public life, struggling with the defamation of religion, overcoming intolerance and xenophobia, protecting holy places, preserving places of worship and promoting joint peace initiatives.” This relates, in particular, to the Kosovo region, where churches are being brutally destroyed, and thousands of Christians are left homeless or forced into exile. Another such region is that part of Cyprus which is still unlawfully occupied by Turkish military forces, where churches are being ruined and Christian population continues to suffer excessively.

Turkey aspires towards membership in the European Union, while at the same time continuing to neglect the needs of its Christian population. Turkey’s refusal to reopen the theological school on Halki, in spite of repeated requests from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, is but one of many examples of such neglect. One hopes that Christian-Muslim dialogue will help to make sure that the Christian minority in Turkey will be treated according to civilized standards.

Concluding his response to the Muslim leaders, His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow states: “It is my conviction that it is precisely the Christians and the Muslims that should initiate inter-religious dialogue on regional and global level. Therefore, in the framework of international organizations, it seems useful to create mechanisms that make it possible to be more sensitive to the spiritual and cultural traditions of various peoples.” This is a clear call to concrete actions which will significantly intensify the Christian-Muslim cooperation and may lead to a breakthrough in the relationship between major world religions.

Read the entire article on the Orthodox Europe website (new window will open).

Posted: 05-Oct-2008

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