Published in Stephen  R. Goodwin, ed., World Christianity in Muslim Encounter:  Essays  in Memory of David A. Kerr (London/New York: Continuum, 2009) 84-95.

 

 

The Abrahamic Faiths in their New Context.

David B. Burrell, C.S.C.

Hesburgh Professor emeritus in Philosophy and Theology

University of Notre Dame / Uganda Martyrs University

 

               

                Although Louis Massignon first suggested the umbrella title of “Abrahamic faiths” for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the phrase has perdured, for reasons which I shall outline in this homage to a person who introduced me to this new world more than a quarter century ago.  In the summer of 1980, after a brief “roots journey” to Edinburgh and to Glasgow (to taste the “Burrell collection”), my overland journey to the Holy Land began with Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, where the director of the Christian-Muslim Study Center, David Kerr, welcomed me into the next and most creative stage of my life of inquiry.  He did not know he was doing that, of course, but then mentors never realize what their welcoming portends.  I had just completed a decade as chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in America, where we had creatively incorporated a Judaica position into our faculty by reconfiguring Hebrew scriptures, new testament, and early church under the rubric:  Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity.  (Ironically, if ours had been a ”Religious Studies” faculty, we could easily have engaged someone to teach rabbinics without  any reconfiguring at all.  As it was, we learned to welcome a Jewish colleague into a theology faculty.)   Fresh from that experience of collegiality, and imbued with the realization that Christianity could never be what it is without an intrinsic link to Jews and to Judaism, I still felt something missing.  Following a favorite American philosopher, Charles Sander Peirce, who invariably introduces triadic relations to overcome the dualism inherent in bipolar relationships, I had a premonition that Jewish-Christian relations, like any bi-polar relationship, could easily become stuck.  (That is what employs marriage counselors, after all!)   So before beginning my trans-European backpacking trek to Jerusalem, in an effort to slough off nine years of administration, I had planned a visit to David Kerr’s Center.  My destination was the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, where I had been deputed to serve for the year as it rector, with the mandate to find my successor and the promise of a sabbatical as the incentive.  Founded in 1967 by the then-president of Notre Dame, Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., at the behest of Pope Paul VII, Tantur’s brief was inter-Christian ecumenism, Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant (including Anglican), yet it was located between two societies—Israeli and Palestinian—in which Jews or Muslims predominated.   That geographical fact was to shape the rest of my life, and gradually to open fresh perspectives for the Institute itself    

 

                My introduction to the world of Abrahamic faiths had begun in 1975 at Tantur itself, when an American sister, Marie Goldstein, RSHM, with the assistance of the Lilly Endowment, had gathered a group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims for a summer in the Holy Land, to learn their respective faiths from each other.  At that time few had the foresight to include Muslims in such exchanges, so we participants have always been grateful for that opportunity.  Lasting friendships grew out of this shared experience in holy land.  In that same year, serving our Holy Cross religious community in Bangladesh had introduced me to Islam in the Asian subcontinent, an experience which made me want to learn yet more about this multi-dimensional faith.  So the prospect of an entire year in Tantur drew me to ask advice across Europe regarding ways to undertake the study of Arabic so as to expand Jewish-Christian exchange to include the logical third, Islam, following Peirce’s general recommendation, and so enter a new world of “Abrahamic faiths.”  Yet all this was quite inchoate when David Kerr and I first met in Selly Oak.  He had, as I recall, some astute advice about learning Arabic, yet could say little more, since my mind was a virtual tabula rasa with regard to Islam.  Yet we had met, and I was later to look to him for direction when he and Gunn were living in Hartford, Connecticut, at the Duncan MacDonald Center for Muslim-Christian Relations.  When they had returned to Scotland, we always promised to get together in Edinburgh, a prospect which pleased me no end, but David’s insouciance about email inhibited pursuing that invitation any further.  So this invitation to celebrate his role in my life, on the larger screen  of “contextual Christianity in the twenty-first century,” offers an unexpected yet serendipitous opportunity.  As a philosophical theologian, with roots in the exchange among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in a medieval period formative for all three religious traditions, the prospect for “comparative theology” looms inescapable in the century facing us.  There simply is no way forward other than dialogue;  not as an “extra” but as constitutive of inquiry in each of our Abrahamic traditions.  Medieval precedents show us how our traditions have already engaged in significant exchange, carried out when the climate for “interfaith relations” was far less propitious than it has become after the challenge of the Vatican Council II, of Nostra Aetate, to all Christian churches, and as intellectual inquiry in the west began to move beyond an Orientalist cast.          

 

Christian mission

 

                David Kerr’s consuming interest in world church helped me to appreciate the intellectual fertility of studies in mission.  My own Catholic religious community of men and women, the Congregation of Holy Cross, was founded by a French priest, Basil Anthony Moreau, in 1837, developed in North America, and then followed the founder’s missionary impulse to establish a presence in ten countries in Asia, Africa, and South America in little more than a century.  An initial visit to Uganda in 1975, enroute to my first teaching assignment in our initial mission, Bangladesh, whetted my intellectual interest in missionary strategies, as well as confirming my recent appreciation of Christianity’s internal relatedness to Jews and to Judaism. This first visit to the African continent took me to Mbarara in the southwest of the country, in the heart of East Africa’s “great lakes” region, to celebrate 75 years of Catholic Christianity in Uganda.  I was stunned to realize that 1900 marked an “Acts of the Apostles’” situation;  that is, conveying the message of Jesus to people with no background for it at all.  “What did they do?” I asked an older “White Father,” the French Missionaries of Africa who had been first to evangelize this region.  Not that my interlocutor had been there 75 years ago, but religious congregations have an ongoing lore which I wanted to tap.  His response was telling:  “we were told that the first ones listened to the people’s stories.”  Two good marks:  they learned the language and they listened.  He went on to say that his predecessors could then respond:  “we have stories like that;  there was this man Abraham… .”  So Paul’s insistence, in the Letter to the Romans, that pagans who came to believe in Jesus were like “wild olive shoots grafted … to share the richness of the olive tree” (that is, of God’s original people Israel) found a startling verification here.  For without those “stories,” what meaning could “Jesus” possibly have?   Besides this lesson in Judeo-Christian  theology, the vibrancy of the celebration in Mbarara bespoke a freshness whose resonances I later came to discover and savor.  

 

                On to south Asia, where the tiny minority of Catholic Christians (about 0.3%, that is, less than 1%) was virtually eclipsed in a predominantly Muslim populace (92%), yet everyone had been united in their battle for independence from Pakistan, culminating four years previous, in 1971.  Their independence movement was cultural-linguistic in character, brutally yet unsuccessfully put down by the Pakistani army, eliciting an incursion by Indira Gandhi’s Indian regulars to stop the massacres of civilians.  In one of the few candidates for a bona fide “just war,”  Indian troops broke the siege, demanded the removal of  Pakistani troops, and returned home after establishing a modicum of order.  Originally united as East and West Pakistan after 1947 partition, the sole link between the physically separated regions had been a Muslim plurality in each, yet anyone familiar with Islam knows that it presents a variety of cultural faces.  Bengali can justly claim to be the literary language of the Asian subcontinent, while the ways of the Bengali people reflect the delta in which they live;  whereas the Punjabis of the west inhabit a semi-arid landscape, sloping up to the mountains of Afghanistan, so could boast of being the mainstay of the British imperial army.  Moreover, of a piece with these climactic differences, Islam had been brought to east Bengal by Sufis with cultural roots in Persia.  One senses a “softness” in Bengali Islam, a willingness to share their faith with other-believers.  It is also a non-Arab Islam, reminding us that 80% of Muslims are not Arabs, suggesting ways of living together which tend to distinguish Asian forms of Islam.  And our people—Holy Cross priests, brothers, and sisters, now in east Bengal for more than 150 years—had responded in kind.  Living at first in Christian villages, where we were asked by Rome to assume the responsibility of once-Portuguese missions, we soon established educational institutions, gaining an influence in the entire society quite disproportionate to the size of the Christian community.

 

Yet predominantly Muslim students and their families never experienced us proselytizing.  Prudence could well have dictated such protocol in a predominantly Muslim area, yet I suspect  something deeper to have been at work.  A clue came when I visited a friend of my friend, John Noonan:  George Zeidenstein, then directing the Ford Foundation in Dhaka.  After listening to me for a while, he said:  “you talk like a missionary!”  Taking his measure as a conventional American Jew, I wondered what he might mean by that, yet when I asked, he responded quite simply:  “You sound like you have time;  we have to finish projects by the end of fiscal whatever.”  That, of course, is what a continuous multi-generational presence of religious communities can bring:  time;  what one begins, another will carry on.  For the seed of witness, like friendship, takes time to germinate, so our people tried to live the gospel, primarily Matthew 25—the parable of the “last judgment” where no one is asked whether they know Jesus, but only how they have treated the least advantaged among them.  As a result, after a few decades, those who came to know us through our works would regularly tell us:  “you are doing what we should be doing.”  During my first extended stay in a Muslim country, Bangladesh, I experienced a palpable sense of the presence of God in “ordinary believers,” finding that we shared a faith in God;   however different the faith-traditions may be, our God was clearly the same.

 

From ecumenical to interfaith endeavors

 

This experience had become part of me by the time I set out for Jerusalem, meeting David Kerr enroute in England.  So besides the programmatic insistence of Charles Sanders Peirce that triads were less troublesome than dyads, I needed to come to know as much about Islam as I had about Judaism, to enrich the initial attraction of the 1975 semester in Bangladesh by intellectual inquiry into Islam.  The opportunity would present itself before long, as the culturally Jewish milieu of west Jerusalem drew me to the figure of Moses Maimonides, who had been on the periphery of my consciousness since completing a study of the philosophical theology of Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas:  God and Action (1979).  On arriving by ferry from Piraeus, I entered an ulpan immediately, hoping to gain a working knowledge of Hebrew as a stepping stone to Arabic.  I have always been grateful for that step, for mixing with Persian Jews emigrating to Israel in the wake of the Iranian revolution offered me a rich sense of the mosaic of Jewish culture, often eclipsed in Israel by dominating European (or Ashkenazi) Jews, and in Jerusalem by their black-coated “ultra-orthodox” counterparts.  The presence of “Sephardic” (or “Arab”) Jews in an Israeli institution for linguistic assimilation (ulpan) would contrast with their virtual absence among Israeli intellectuals whom I would later encounter in Hebrew University.  The “pecking order” of this fledgling Israeli society began to emerge, and I became acutely conscious how it betrays a fatal flaw in the Zionist dream, whose bizarre result has turned out to resemble “a bit of Holland” in the Middle East.

 

Fortunate to identify within a few months my successor as rector at Tantur, a distinguished English Catholic academic and spiritual activist, Donald Nicholl, I could then relish the inherent advantages of this ecumenical institute:  located on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a thirty-five acre walled-in oasis at a checkpoint, poised between the worlds of Israel and Palestine, so sandwiched between Jewish and Muslim majorities.  I came to love the place itself, in part because its prescient location meant one dared not overlook either population or cultural group, and because its largely Palestinian staff evidenced a quality of hospitality and dignified longsuffering which would teach me how to jettison my native American optimism for something more theologically tenable:  a perduring hope.  Over its thirty years of existence, countless scholars have discovered what one of its founding lights, Oscar Cullman, found:  Heilsgeographie is every bit as instructive as Hielsgeschichte.  My role as rector also introduced me into the ecumenical’ atmosphere of Jerusalem.  In the wake of his  encounter with the “ecumenical patriarch,” Athenagoras, on the Mount of Olives, Paul VI had told my confrere, Theodore Hesburgh, that he wanted respond to the urging of the Protestant observers at Vatican II by founding an ecumenical institute in Jerusalem “where we had all once been one!”  Now as Vatican secretary of state, Montini certainly realized that Christians are nowhere more divided than they are in Jerusalem, so the witness of Tantur would have to be a gradual one, and for its rector often exhausting!  For me, the posturing of ecclesiastics in Jerusalem, often without substantive communities to serve, offered an X-ray vision of the major pitfall of progress in ecumenism:  property.  (Karl Marx would have predicted that as well, of course.)  So I found the immensely rich panoply of interfaith exchange, already tasted between generations at Tantur in 1975, to be far more attractive than ecclesiastical jealousies.  And as the following year of study was to reveal, the subject of my recent study, Thomas Aquinas, had found critical inspiration from both Jewish and Islamic thinkers for his sustained project of showing how “sacred doctrine” could be a proper “mode of knowing.”  Moreover, generations of western students of his thought had in fact failed to follow his citation trail to notice the role these Jewish and Muslim thinkers played in his work.  In the Mediterranean perspective of Jerusalem and then of Cairo, however, one began to see how his Summa Theologiae, the acknowledged syntheses of Christian theology, already represented an intercultural, interfaith  achievement.  

 

It would take a few more years to show that, with the supportive Dominican milieus of Isaiah House in Jerusalem (1980-81), with the inspiring presence of Marcel Dubois, O.P. (d. 2007), and of L’institut Dominicain d’etudes Orientales in Cairo, with its commanding presence, Georges Anawati, O.P. (d. 1994).  These mentors introduced me to the inescapably philosophical dimensions of interfaith work, Dubois with Jews and Anawati with Muslims, as comparative work will always involve entering into different traditions in such as way as to see how one fertilized the other.   And as the summer at Tantur in 1975 had shown us all, this begins with persons, for only persons can engage in dialogue, holding out the hope of moving forward “one friendship at a time,” as my Notre Dame colleague, Michael Signer, says and exemplifies.  In my own case, the twin Dominican venues in Jerusalem and Cairo encouraged me to enter a world of medieval exchange in philosophical theology, suggesting the shape of our task today.  The results have been presented in two books, Knowing the Unknowable God (1986) and Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (1993), supplemented by translations of three major works of the ”Islamic Augustine,” al-Ghazali.  But such historico-systematic inquires can but offer background for the drama of twenty-first century Christianity to be enacted on the world stage.    

 

Asia and Africa:  beyond European Christianity

 

                As he exemplifies it, David Kerr’s consuming passion is Christian mission;  that is, the ways the gospel continues to be transformed as preaching it in new milieus leads to discovering fresh faces of Jesus.  I am minded here of Jean Danielou’s reflections nearly fifty years ago.  In two slim companion volumes, Advent and Salvation of Nations, written in the relative obscurity of occupation to be published in 1948 and soon translated into English, Jean Danielou develops his engaged scholarship in early Christian relations, both to Judaism and to paganism, to find patterns germane to the continuing missionary activity of the church.[1]  (His perspective is decidedly European Catholic, yet that will prove instructive when encountering Tariq Ramadan’s inverse proposals in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.[2])  He proposes fascinating ways of using scripture to discern patterns for reflection and action today, as evidenced in the chapter headings:  Abraham and the Hebrew covenant, Melchisedech and the covenant of the natural universe, John the Baptist, the mission of the angels, the blessed Virgin and the fullness of time; culminating in the missionary meaning of the cross, the ascension and missionary expansion;  and concluding with a prescient reflection on Christ as prophet.  Such a use of scripture reminds us that missionary activity is God’s activity, not ours;  effectively removing an entire set of questions regarding the neuralgic issue of the “salvation of other-believers” from the agenda, since (one has to say) salvation is God’s business;  not ours.  Parallel to Thomas Aquinas’ deft definition of a teacher as an “inadequate secondary cause,” missionaries can at best catalyze and at worst hinder that divine activity:

Those whom the Holy Spirit takes hold of to be instruments in carrying out the works that will divinize the world are the prophets of the Old Testament, and apostles of the New: … There is always a sacred history going on, accomplished  by the Holy Spirit, whereby all spiritual creation is divinized.  This is a work of God’s quite beyond our minds to conceive.  And the Holy Spirit carries it out by means of chosen human instruments, whom the Holy Spirit must empty entirely of themselves if they are to be of any use.[3]

   

            Here we have the central thesis of Danielou’s reflections on mission.  To the extent that we become instruments of the Spirit we will have carried out mission authentically, yet a conventional way of thinking about mission can eclipse this central condition.  Were we to think of ourselves as “bringing Christ to India,” for example, we would soon discover, as we tried to do it, that we had brought Portugal right along with us!  So the only reasonable way to think about mission is to think of meeting Christ there.  And of course that is what happens to those open to the Spirit;  it is as simple as “reader-response” criticism:  whoever tries to speak of Jesus to someone formed as a Buddhist will be confronted with questions they will be hard put to answer.  So the Spirit has a chance to enter into that cognitive dissonance to reveal to us a new face of that same Jesus.  Is that not how mission becomes a continual learning process?  As Jesus himself foretold:  “the Spirit will lead you into all truth” (Jo 16:13), but only if we realize that truth can never be our possession, but ever calls us to a richer understanding of its immense reaches.  It is this capacity to reveal to us a new face of that same Jesus that makes mission indispensable to our attempts to follow him.

 

            From another side, let us consider Tariq Ramadan’s recent Western Muslims and the Future of Islam,  a study reflecting a person of faith:  “someday we are bound to come back to the beginning.  Even the most distant pathways always lead us inward, completely inward, into intimacy, solitude between our self and our self—in the place where there is no longer anyone but God and our self” (vii).  He sets out to explore ways in which Muslims might become enculturated in western society, as they have in so many others.  Displaying his grounding in traditional Islamic legal sciences, Ramadan finds few if any real obstacles to adapting Islam to a west which respects freedom of worship, so proving to be a “domain of witness” rather than a “domain of war.” Yet one obstacle emerges starkly:  the demand for “economic resistance..”  Despite his clear recognition that “the whole of the Islamic world is in subjection to the market economy” (175), and that “western Muslims live at the heart of the system” (176), he reminds us forcibly: 

The Northern model of development is unexportable:  a billion and a half human beings live in comfort because almost four billion do not have the means to survive.  The terms of exchange are unequal, exploitation is permanent, speculation is extreme, monopolies are murderous.  The prohibition of riba [interest] , which is the moral axis around which the economic thought of Islam revolves, calls believers to reject categorically an order that respects only profit and scoffs at the values of justice and humanity.  By the same token, the prohibition obliges them to consider and to work out a model that comes closer to respecting the prohibition.  In the West, as in the East, we must think of a global alternative, and local projects must be implemented with the idea of leaving the system to the extent possible and not affirming it through blindness, incompetence, or laziness (188).

On this issue, there can be no possibility of compromise:

The neoliberal capitalist system that has been imposed on the whole world represents a universe in the face of which Muslims must resist and propose an alternative:  this is for us an alam al-harb, a sphere of war, which promotes an economic logic responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands human beings every day (195).   

 

            It is unclear, of course, how many Muslims will be willing or able to acknowledge Tariq Ramadan’s clarion call to be faithful to their tradition in this critical arena, but does not his clear reading of the prohibition against interest remind us how another religious faith can call us to more stringent fidelity to our own?  John Noonan has detailed how Christianity deflected a longstanding prohibition against usury, while recent shifts in global economic policy have all but rendered nugatory the Catholic social teaching which inspired European social democracies.  Quite aside from those disingenuous apologists for “the neoliberal capitalist system” who try to persuade us that it exhibits Christian values, cannot the rest of us be convicted of “blindness, incompetence, or laziness?”  No wonder Islam can be perceived as a threat, in this case, to our tepid faith!  In fact, when Christians tried to ingest a new revelation to a human being in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, it proved quite impossible, so they could only think of the result as a “Christian heresy.”  Yet Gerhard Bowering, S.J., has suggested that the purpose Islam might serve, in the providence of God (whatever one may think of its status as a divine revelation), could well be to remind Christians of the truths of their faith!  And is not this what is happening to those of us who live and interact with Muslims?

 

            A theological interlude.  Ramadan insists that “the first and most important element of Muslim identity is faith, which is the intimate sign that one believes in the Creator without associating anything with Him. This is the meaning of the central concept of tawhid” (79), which he invokes to center his reflections on ways Muslims’ can enculturate and adapt to fresh cultural milieus.  It is worth reminding ourselves that the primary reason it took us four centuries to clarify the central Christian affirmation of faith in Jesus (via Nicaea and Chalcedon) was, of course, the shema:  “Know, O Israel, that God our God is one and beside Him there is no other” (Dt 6:4 + 4:35; Mk 12:32).  So far from tawhid contradicting Christian faith in divine triunity, such an uncompromising assertion of divine unity can only reinforce a rigorous orthodox Trinitarian affirmation, particularly in contrast to the bizarre candidates the Qur’an itself offers for Christian trinitarian faith.  In short, Muslim denial of a bowdlerized version of “trinity” reminds us of the centuries-long struggle our tradition went through to be faithful to the shema:  “that God our God is one and beside Him there is no other”—pace some recent Christian theologians enamored of a “social trinity”!

 

            Now what does an authentic trinitarian faith entail?  Let us turn to Jean Danielou again, to see how he distinguishes the prophethood of Jesus from that of others, including “the Prophet”:

Jesus … never acted as one to whom this knowledge had been revealed, but always as one who possessed it by right of nature, in as much as it was the Father’s secret, and the Father had given all things into the hands of his Son.[4]

Carrying this a step farther, we can assert this uniqueness of Jesus, which would lead to explicitly trinitarian affirmations regarding the creator, by reminding ourselves that he is God’s revelation.  Revelation for us is not primarily in a book but in a person;  and whatever may be worthwhile in the controversial Vatican document, Dominus Jesu, comes to this.  Moreover, not only is he God’s revelation, but the one through whom all things come to be (Jo 1:3).  This parallels Ibn al-Arabi’s insistence that the primal command of God is the one whereby  “God said ‘be’ and it is” (Qur’an 6:73), while prescriptive commands are secondary to that.  We might say:  the grounding gift is God’s freely creating all that is;  the second gift is inviting us creatures to participate in that creating life.  Here is where we realize the centrality of our trinitarian faith, all of which stems from the fact that Jesus is God’s revelation, and in being that revelation, sets us straight about free creation as well.[5]  Nothing more need be said about the distinctiveness of Christian revelation, except to note that those Christian thinkers and faithful who neglect this central fact, and tend to locate our revelation primarily in the words of scripture rather than in the Word made human, have in fact adopted the Muslim view of themselves as “people of the book,” and unwittingly placed Christian revelation on a par with Judaism and Islam.  

 

                How may we best appropriate and witness to the revelation given us?  There is no gainsaying, of course, the personal path enhanced by friendship.  But experience suggests another tried route to which we may have given little reflection:  institutional presence.  I have already sketched our Holy Cross presence in Bangladesh, yet the Islamic world is studded with schools, sponsored by Christian religious communities, which excel in educating youth.  A majority of their students are inevitably Muslim, as parents entrust their children to these schools because the personal care of teachers for students elicits better performance.  They also learn that proselytizing is simply not on the agenda of such schools, though ventures like “service-learning” may well be.  So the witness these institutions give is one of service, not of domination, with the additional benefit of distinguishing an authentically Christian witness from one which fails to respect the revelation already given to Muslims.  Indeed, living in Islamic societies has made it clear to me that any set of practices which fails to respect the faith of others can hardly claim to reflect the revelation God gives in Jesus;  while correlatively, institutions which do respect the faith of the students entrusted to them display a way of thinking which does justice to that revelation in practice.  And we all know how recurrent practices will display sophisticated understandings of a situation far better than attempts to articulate “mission statements,” especially when the practices are institutional.  From my experience in Bethlehem and in Cairo as well, I would contend that institutions of this sort effectively exemplify Jean Danielou’s teaching regarding the presence of the Holy Spirit in missionary endeavor, together with the requisite detachment from self required of any authentic missionary.  Similar things can be said of Muslim institutional presence in the west, which may offer the best way of implementing Tariq Ramadan’s proposals for “western Muslims and the future of Islam.”  For that reason, Muslim leaders in the United States resonated with Francis Cardinal George’s seminar at the Chicago ISNA meeting in 1999, when their affinity with Catholics emerged precisely around the question of institutions.  For much as nineteenth-century Catholic immigrants who entered a resolutely Protestant society in the United States felt the need to develop parallel institutions of schools and health care to serve their faithful (as well as empower it to assimilate into this society), so Muslims entering a society which beggars description at the beginning of the twenty-first century feel the very same need.  So the witness which Ramadan calls for, in this “domain of witness,” may best be an institutional one. 

 

                Yet the primary “institution” for Muslims is the community [umma], of course, as for Christians it is the church.  So what I am saying, quite simply, is that the witness expected of each group, in the current “domain of witness,” is for each to live the life their respective revelation enjoins.  We have seen how the centrality of tawhid for Islam can be translated into the centrality of trinitarian faith for Christians.  The only sure test of superiority, as the Qur’an implies, is their quota of “good works.”  And such animadversions seem particularly apt when speaking of Christianity in the west today, be it in Europe or (in a quite different key) in north America.  Yet the tone of discourse from ecclesiastical leaders can exude nostalgia for a “past glory,” which in fact meant hegemony and exercise of power.  The vitality of African churches reflects a people without power (though individual Africans seek power where they can gain it, like people everywhere), as Christians in west Asia (which is only ‘middle’ or ‘east’ from London!) can teach a hope quite detached from optimism, because they are bereft of power.  (When I asked my friend, Alex Awad, dean of the Bethlehem Bible College, how it felt to be utterly powerless, he could only remark:  “it brings us closer to Jesus, doesn’t it?”  So a Palestinian Baptist reminded me, an expatriate Catholic, how much I still longed for power!)  What if the “future of the church” were in the hands of the powerless?  Is this not what Christians in the north and west have to learn form the south?  So mission returns to its origins, for “what goes around comes around,” as a fresh face of Jesus may be re-discovered in those regions which have long thought of the faith as their possession, once they come to realize that no one can possess faith, especially when the “message” is found in the person of Jesus.  There are signs that some in western Europe are realizing this, evidenced in a work sponsored by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, which reaches out to both Jews and Muslims for a renewal of religious life in Europe.[6]  So we may infer that the revelation of God in Jesus has the capacity to be ever-new,  as the lives of persons, together with the institutional presence they exhibit in their work, can put the lie to an all-too-human nostalgia for “past glory.”  For that glory was of a Christendom securely in power, regularly marginalizing Jews as the “other” in its midst while demonizing Muslims as “the enemy.”  We can thank Vatican Council II, with the Spirit who inspired it, that such “glory days” are a thing of the past.  Ought the “future” not better be left to the powerless?

 

               

   

 


 

 

 

 

               

 

               


 

               



[1]  Danielou, Jean,  Advent, tr. Rosemary Sheed ( New York:  Sheed and Ward, 1951. [Original 1947)];] Salvation of Nations, tr. Angeline Bouchard.  (Notre Dame IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1962 [Original 1848]). 

[2]  Ramadan, Tariq,  Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2004).  

[3]  Advent, 176.

[4]  Advent, 171.

[5]  See Aquinas’ observations of the “necessity” of a trinitarian faith to understand free creation correctly, Summa Theologiae 1.32.1.3.

[6]  :  CENTRO INTERNAZIONALE STUDI E RICERCHE OASIS  (Dorsoduro, 1, 30123 Venezia, Italia) [www: http://www.oasiscenter.eu e-mail: oasis@marcianum.it].