Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and Islam
This article originally appeared on December 23, 2006, in Die Tagespost, a German Catholic newspaper published in Würtzburg. The theme of that issue was “Is Islam Reasonable?” The translation is by William Skudlarek, OSB.
In 1974 the Vatican’s Secretary of State wrote to the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines with the Holy See’s request that monks assume a leadership role in interreligious dialogue. What was behind this sudden and unexpected appeal?
After Vatican II and the promulgation of its decree on interreligious dialogue, Nostra Aetate, a number of meetings had, in fact, already taken place between renowned scholars from the great religious traditions of the East and their Christian counterparts. These gatherings of intellectuals were usually held in a university setting and often resulted in the publication of interesting statements and better mutual understanding. However, more often than not, they did not serve to advance interreligious dialogue properly speaking.
On the other hand, prior to 1974 two large pan-Asian monastic meetings had taken place, the first in Bangkok in 1968 (it was there that the tragic death of Thomas Merton occurred) and the second in Bangalore in 1973. At these two meetings Christian monks and nuns entered into profound dialogue with monks and nuns from the great religious traditions of Asia. Their conversations were not about institutions or philosophy and theology, but about religious experience. Dialogue at this level was not only possible; it was mutually enriching.
These meetings led to the creation of a Christian monastic organization called DIM (Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique [Monastic Interreligious Dialogue]). Its purpose is to help Christian monastic communities become attentive to the religious experience of their brothers and sisters from the other great monastic traditions, some of which predate Christian monasticism by a millennium. It is also charged with organizing encounters to promote greater mutual understanding. Thus it has come about that Christian monks and nuns spend time in Asian monasteries, and monks and nuns from the great religious traditions of the East come to live for a time in Christian monasteries. On several occasions these visiting monks and nuns were granted an audience by Pope John Paul II, who expressed his admiration for their religious experience.
In its first years DIM directed its attention to the great religious traditions of the Far East, but it gradually began to pay heed to Islam. Even though Islam has no structured form of monasticism, Christian monastics who lived among Muslims or who studied their religious traditions quickly realized the importance of dialogue with their Muslim brothers and sisters. They soon discovered that it was not all that difficult to enter into communion with the religious experience present in some of the great mystics of Islam, in certain Islamic schools (especially Sufism), and also—maybe even above all—in the piety of the “little ones.”
As they pursued this dialogue in the Arab world and among Muslims living in other countries—in the Philippines and India, for example —they followed the enlightened and treasured guidance of engaged Christians whose fidelity to this kind of spiritual communion led to their martyrdom when they became a threat to the powers that be. They also received constant encouragement and wise advice from the President and other members of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue prior to its being joined to the Pontifical Council for Culture.
As Nostra Aetate is more and more being dismissed as ancient history, and as those who consecrated their lives to its implementation are regarded as wishful thinkers or naïve romantics, religious dialogue that is specifically monastic continues to be of great importance; indeed it is now all the more timely and crucial precisely because it takes place at the level of spiritual experience.
The suppression of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue as a distinct entity and its assimilation with the Pontifical Council for Culture signals a significant change in the way the Magisterium of the Roman Church regards interreligious dialogue. Ever since Vatican II there has been tension between the PCID and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. In every form of interreligious dialogue, and especially in prayer that involves non-Christians, the Congregation has tended to see a weakening of the Church’s mission to bring the Gospel to all people, as well as the danger of relativism. The tendency at present is to regard theological dialogue as impossible and useless, given the radically different understandings of God in the various religions. Dialogue, therefore, can only take place at the level of culture and respect for human rights. Recently a new line of thought has appeared: both parties need to reflect on the relation between faith and reason. Recent events have shown that these intellectual jousts will not be easy.
However, beyond social relations, beyond philosophical and theological systems, and even beyond religious structures and rituals, there is another level of human consciousness, that of religious experience where the true followers of all the religious traditions of humanity recognize one another with a facility that is in proportion to the depth and authenticity of their experience. There is only one God, whatever the name or names we give to this reality. Whoever has had a real experience of the true God, an experience that goes beyond all ideologies, senses a profound communion with every other person who truly searches for God. This is the kind of encounter that monastic interreligious dialogue strives to promote, and it is absolutely necessary if any form of dialogue worthy to be called “religious” is not to disappear.
Those who engage in the dialogue of religious experience are not interested in whether or not Islam is “reasonable.” As far as they are concerned, the importance of any kind of “reason”—be it Aristotelian, Platonic, Kantian, Cartesian, or even Hindu, Buddhist, or Islamic—is completely relative. Religious experience worthy of the name is neither rational nor irrational; it is beyond reason. God is greater and other than that which we can know, say, think or “feel” of God. Of that every contemplative, Muslim or Christian, is profoundly convinced.
At present there seems to be a wish to situate dialogue with Islam at the level of culture and respect for life and human rights. But even here interreligious dialogue at the level of experience is more necessary than ever. The West now tends to looks at Islam only through the lens of a radicalized form of Islamism whose religious dimension is superficial; essentially it is a political reaction to another form of radicalism coming from the West. Even in Arab countries and those in which Islam is the majority religion, Islamism distorts the image of true Islam. It may be that the only antidote to the diabolic appearance of a so-called battle of civilizations (those who affirm it are the very ones who run the risk of bringing it about) is authentic dialogue at the level of religious experience between persons of different religions and cultures who agree that an encounter with God is what gives meaning and purpose to life.
For the Christian monk and the humble Muslim peasant—Algerian, Moroccan, Filipino, or Indian—who work side by side in their garden, who help one another out, who lend a cup of milk or a couple cubes of sugar, who take part in a simple moment of prayer in a mosque or in the monastery chapel, questions about the relation between faith and reason simply do not come up. Without thinking about it, they share a common conviction that God is great, that God is one, and that God is “the merciful one.” Their understanding of the infinite mercy of God calls them to conversion, or, to use the Islamic term, to jihad, to the struggle against that which Christians call the old man.
This experience of God, this taste for God shared by simple Christians and Muslims whose hearts are moved by the utterance of the Name of God, gives them a common desire for peace and fraternal communion, even when all around them Christians and Islamicists are killing one another in the name of opposing and fundamentally antireligious ideologies. Muslims and Christians who share an experience of God spontaneously come together to look for ways to comfort this wounded world with the balm of mercy and pardon.
In a world where people tear one another apart because each side thinks its way of doing things is superior to that of the other and therefore needs to be imposed on the other, those who encounter one another in their search to know the living God recognize that their difference are so many facets of the indescribable beauty of God who is absolutely transcendent and yet very close to us.
In this world where the use of reason has brought about so many benefits, but has also led to innumerable battles and wars, it may not be all that bad that there are some people who recognize what they owe to reason but who do not wish to make an idol out of it or follow it blindly. They are the ones who from time to time ask reason to be silent so that they may meet one another and see one another in the light that is beyond reason.
 I am aware of Cardinal Poupard’s oft repeated statement that the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has not been officially suppressed, but that the two Councils, the PCID and the Pontifical Council for Culture, have the same president. However, the Vatican press release of March 11, 2006, made it clear that the presidency of the PCID is “united for the time being” to that of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Outside commentators say that this indeed indicates a kind of fusion, more or less short-term, and, even more significantly, that the approach of the “new president” of the PCID to interreligious dialogue is decidedly “cultural.”