Prior to global positioning satellites, celestial navigation determined a position on the globe based a reading of the stars. With a sextant three intersecting lines are charted, derived from star fixes above the horizon. The intersection was ideally a point or at least a very precise triangle. Triangulation in the political world is similar. It plots a marketable middle ground—by posturing between otherwise conflicting positions.
Solzhenitsyn, survivor of years in the Gulag, commented on this post-modern game of triangulation and intersectionality: “We have lost the clarity of spirit which was ours when the concepts of Good and Evil had yet to become a subject of ridicule, shoved aside by the principle of fifty-fifty.” Others, less perceptive, refer favorably to the conceptual middle-ground as a “new paradigm” of undefined and evolutionary “cultural anthropological change.” Better this than reading goat entrails.
Encounter: Interreligious or intercultural?
How does this mind game work in inter-religious or maybe inter-cultural dialogue between the West and Islam?
With the optimism behind the Second Vatican Council stressing the “analogy” of different religions? With avant-guard theologians positing an internal “hermeneutics of discontinuity”? With Pope Francis’ reset toward “fraternity” with Muslims, ambiguously linked to a “plurality” of maybe equivalent religions as such? Or, with emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and his more measured place allotted to “discontinuities within continuity”?
Comparisons across religions, especially with Islam, are uneven and ragged, not symmetrical.
Scriptures? The correct comparison is not between the inspired Bible and the Qur’an. Rather, the symmetry is between the Incarnation as the eternal “Word made flesh,” and the Qur’an as the ostensibly “uncreated” and dictated word-made-book.
Founders? Christianity and Islam do not feature two different (but equivalent?) founders. The Church begins with the self-donated and resurrected Christ—and is the Mystical Body of Christ. Islam begins with “recitations” (translation of “Qur’an”) delivered to a prophet to correct the alleged blasphemies of Israel, e.g., the golden calf, and the later “polytheism” of Christianity, i.e., the Trinitarian mystery: 1+1+1=1.
History? Christianity looks through history to the Second Coming while Islam would restore a previous Golden Age, as with Shari’a Law now to be administered by “executors” within a fused mosque-state. In the West the permanent truth of innate natural law is distinguished from later divine revelation (Rom 2:14-15), leaving breathing space for history and for fallen and yet graced “persons” acting as protagonists in the shared cause of human flourishing. Islam does not accept original innocence coupled with original sin, and in this theological error (not unlike Rousseau’s compulsory application of the General Will) is its conflation throughout history of peace with violence.
Creed or Culture? The early ecumenical councils resolved the “indwelling” of the Spirit with the “hylomorphic composition” of the incarnate Christ (the Nicene Creed as further unfolded in later ecumenical councils). But, unresolved in Islam is a primitive and centrifugal sectarianism between leadership succession by blood line (Shi’ite) or instead by wider clan membership (Sunni).
Spirituality? Christianity (especially Catholicism, with its celibate orders) stands apart from Secularism in its asceticism, while pre-modern Islam is weirdly convergent with the pagan, post-Christian West on this point. “Islam has not wanted to choose between Heaven and Earth,” wrote Jean Guitton in Great Heresies and Church Councils. “It proposed instead a blending of heaven and earth, sex and mysticism [….] Islam proposed a blending of the spiritual and the temporal worlds which neither in Islam nor among the pagans have ever been divided.”
Islam, therefore, is less creedal and more of a cultural “way of life,” aligned with a folk leader/prophet, while Catholicism aspires to fidelity and then sacramental incorporation into the singular and risen Christ. A taproot to our fading Western culture.
To now shift Church-Islamic dialogue to the middling “cultural” level does offer practical benefits to a disrupted and volatile world, but—as a possible “fifty-fifty” accommodation?—does it also concede the very Triune nature of Ultimate Reality (to a less relational and more monolithic monotheism) and, therefore, also concede our own human nature as the gifted capacity to respond to a self-disclosing and, indeed, self-donating God? What, exactly, is the foundation for any mutual “fraternity” among fallen and redeemed persons?
Rather than intersectionality, an interesting parallel
Believing that it comes before and above history, Islam is vindicated by what drops into history: the first century of conquest spanning from Andalusia to the Hindu Kush; repulse of all but the first Crusade; conquest of impregnable Constantinople in 1453 (fatally weakened first by plundering crusaders in 1204); the Twin Towers of 911, surely righting the defeat at Vienna on September 11/12, 1653 and a later repulsed foray (the drive to establish an outpost north of the Danube) on September 11, 1697.
With such expressions of divine approval, what further need to engage Muslim belief with reason, as in the Christian faith in the Incarnation as both the divine Will and the reasonable Logos?
The ideology of “anthropological cultural change” is more in step with random parallels in history than it is with triangulation as a new cover story for moving “forward”. Take as a good example, Hung Hsui-ch’uan who led the Taiping Rebellion in nineteenth-century China (1851-1864):
Biography? Like the (possibly epileptic) orphan Mohammed in need of tribal protections, the orphan Hung also sought security and advancement, into the scholar-gentry class. He suffered a nervous breakdown and an epiphany, more-or-less parallel to Mohammed’s formative experiences in the cave at Mount Hira.
History? In his own (and the very common) inability to distinguish intuition from revelation, Hung discovered in his visions that he was not only a prophet but the younger brother of Jesus Christ. And then like Mohammed, who projected jihad against Mecca, Hung made his military move against the capital of China, Peking (Beijing).
Eclectic Christianity? Hung’s movement was a peasant-based political campaign (rather than trans-tribal), but it was also a religious war not entirely unlike jihad. (He baptized his troops with a firehose.) And, where Mohammed was possibly mentored by an apostate Nestorian monk (Bahira), Hung retained later fragments of Protestant Christianity from the prominent missionary Issachar J. Roberts.
Theocracy? As with the Islamic state, the revolutionary Taiping government was also theocratic. Hung’s binding power on his followers came directly from God. Where Mohammed rejected pagan idolatry of Mecca, Hung rejected Chinese ancestor worship.
The genius of early Islam is found in the extraordinary skills of Mohammed himself, and involved the snowballing unity of previously-hostile tribes allied together under Allah and his Prophet, all against the still-fragmented periphery vulnerable to an economy of plunder. Still, an Islam of well over a billion adherents today was not a given outcome in history. After all, the Western doctrine of evolutionary Progress is an ideology, as is Islamic deference to pre-destined Fate.
Things could have been otherwise and appear determined only in retrospect. Mohammed and Islam might well have disappeared in the desert sands like all the other thousands of “prophets” of early Arabia.
But for the marginally Judeo-Christian interpretation of Mohammed’s very-unclear experiences at Mount Hira, supplied by his wife’s older cousin who had been a pagan, then converted to Judaism, and then to (probably Nestorian) Christianity.
But for the favorable, regional power vacuum left after three decades of exhausting strife between Byzantium and Persia.
But for the timely invitation from a very few visiting followers to leave persecution in Mecca for a role in Medina (the Hegira, 622 A.D.).
But for the decision by his followers—after his death—to continue rather than not, to select a successor rather than not, and to re-pacify the coalition of Arab tribes that was already unraveling, rather than not.
Unlike Islam (and with up to twenty million fatalities) the Taiping Rebellion failed for several reasons. Among these, Hung lost internal unity, partly when two of his leading generals discovered that they were, respectively, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—a pagan-like triad, and yet a variation of the Islamic problem of leadership succession.
The genius of Islam involved the snowballing unity of allied tribes against the fragmented periphery vulnerable to an economy of plunder. In China the periphery of intruding Western powers chose to prop up the declining Manchu dynasty. (The famous “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum in the Sudan gained his reputation against the Taiping.)
Beyond making “a mess of things” today
Today the new hope, or good intention or fantasy, at this new pivot point in world history is this:
First, that cultural dialogue with Islam can frame some openings for cooperation, mutual respect and oases for enduring goodwill, while not being assimilated by an engulfing Islam.
Second, that the divided Church in China will have a more unified ecclesial life—if not assimilated by an engulfing Communist China.
Third, that in the post-Christian West, accompaniment can mean something more than capitulation and assimilation into the wallpaper.
For the immediate future, the best definition of “human fraternity” with Islam, at least, means dialogue not between Christianity and Islam, but rather between the witnesses to Christ and the followers of Islam—all first as “persons.”
What about some of the deeper contact points?
From the Second Vatican Council: “Christ the Lord…by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes). But, where Christianity anticipates the eventual deification, or theosis, of man, Islam finally recoils: “let God be God, and Man be Man.” Again, political errors (both East and West) are ultimately theological in origin.
From Pope St. John Paul II to all, as the negation of all ideologies new and old: “Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom” [and] “those principles of the moral order which have their origin in human nature itself” (Centesimus Annus, 1991 and “Ad Limina” address, June 27, 1998).
From Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI on the nature of dialogue: “Equality, which is a presupposition of interreligious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ—who is God himself made man—in relation to the founders of the other religions” (Dominus Iesus, 2000).
From the Qur’an: “The true believers, both men and women, are friends to one another. They enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil . . .” (Q 9:71); “Allah be worshipped and evil be shunned” (Q 16:36), and “God’s creation cannot be changed” (Q 30:30). Are these an echo of the permanent and universal natural law, or are they proto-Islam in service to only members of the umma (the multicultural family of Islam)?
But then, this from the Muslim el-Akkad (1956) who, in effect, suspected that the middle ground of “fifty-fifty” triangulation is a fiction, the toy of small minds:
It all comes down to knowing whether one should hold strictly to the fundamental religious values which were those of Abraham and Moses, on pain of falling into blasphemy—as the Muslims believe; or whether God has called men to approach him more closely, revealing to them little by little their fundamental condition as sinful men, and the forgiveness that transforms them and prepares them for the beatific vision—as Christian dogma teaches. (Quoted by Jean Guitton, Great Heresies and Church Councils)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!