Interreligious dialogue with edge and purpose

George Weigel

The evening of September 12, 2006, was, in a word, memorable. My wife and I were having dinner in Cracow with two of John Paul II’s oldest friends when my mobile phone rang and an agitated Italian journalist started hollering in my ear, “Have you zeen zees crazee speech zee Pope has given about zee Muslims? What do you zay about it?” I replied that I wasn’t in the habit of commenting on papal texts before I had read them, which only drew the further plea, “Yes, yes, but what do you zay about it?” I finally asked my caller to e-mail me the text and call again the next day.

The “crazy speech” was, of course, Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address, which, far from being crazy, was a lucid, penetrating description of the challenges facing Islam in late modernity – an analysis lost in the media scrum over Benedict’s (arguably imprudent) quoting of a robust exchange between an Islamic ruler and a Byzantine emperor, many long years ago. What Benedict outlined in 2006 remains true eleven years later, however: In order to live in peace with “the rest,” Islam must find within its own religious and intellectual resources a way to affirm religious tolerance, and to distinguish between the institutions of religion and the institutions of politics; Catholicism took several hundred years to traverse that path; reflecting on that Catholic experience of finding a Catholic rationale for religious tolerance and free politics might help Muslims who wish to move beyond the intellectual stagnation in which they find themselves on these crucial questions; a conversation exploring how Catholicism’s wrestling with political modernity may or may not be applicable to Islam should focus the Catholic-Islamic interreligious dialogue for the foreseeable future.

There was no media blowback after Pope Francis’s fine address at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on April 28. But the money quote from the Holy Father’s speech fit neatly with what Benedict said at Regensburg in 2006:

“As religious leaders, we are called…to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than an authentic openness to the Absolute. We have on obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God: Holy is his name, he is the God of peace, God salaam. Peace alone, therefore, is holy, and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God for it would profane his name.”

What kind of Islam could “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity” – and more than “unmask” it, condemn it and drive it to the peripheries of the Islamic world? Precisely the Islam that had taken Benedict’s Regensburg advice: that had dug deeply into its religious, philosophical, and legal traditions and had found there warrants for religious tolerance and a clear distinction between religious and political authority.

This approach differs in kind from suggestions that jihadist terrorism will only cease when Muslims become good Western liberals – which too often means good secular liberals. That just isn’t going to happen across a complex religious world that now numbers more than 1.6 billion souls. Moreover, secular warrants for religious freedom are not as sturdy as religious warrants, as we’ve discovered in the West in recent years. The secular defense of religious freedom crumbles when lifestyle agitations (“gay marriage,” the LGBT agenda) reach critical mass politically. By contrast, people who believe it’s God’s will that they be tolerant of those who have other ideas of God’s will are more likely to defend the religious freedom of the “other” when social and cultural pressures for intolerance (and political correctness) intensify.

Catholicism didn’t embrace religious freedom as a fundamental human right by surrendering core Catholic convictions to secular liberalism; Catholicism came to affirm religious freedom by recovering an ancient conviction that had gotten encrusted with political barnacles over the centuries: the conviction that (as the 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation put it, luminously) “God wishes to be adored by people who are free.” Can Islam make such an affirmation? That is the Benedictine/Franciscan challenge to 21st-century Islam, and it ought to frame the future of the Catholic-Islamic dialogue.

COMING UP: In new Denver school, Byzantine spirituality meets Montessori method

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.- With the goal of encountering children on a more personal level to meet their academic and spiritual needs, a Montessori school influenced by the Byzantine Catholic tradition is opening in Denver, Colorado.

Pauline Meert, who co-founded Sophia Montessori Academy along with Irene O’Brien, said the two “wanted to combine Montessori and Catholicism because it just made so much sense.”

Meert said the school aims to help children fulfill their God-given potential, and that “the Montessori message really makes that possible for each child, not just for a classroom as a whole, but for each individual.”

Students in Montessori schools work in periods of uninterrupted time – ideally three hours – having the freedom to choose from an established range of options. The Montessori Method uses hands-on techniques in presenting concepts to individual children, rather than a group oriented, lecture-based approach to learning. The student’s involvement in his or her own work then gives the teacher the freedom to spend time with each child and cater to each of their needs.

Sophia Montessori of Denver is in its final stages of its development, pending licensing and a few business inspections. But classes for children aged between three and six are expected to start in the fall of this year, and both Meert and O’Brien hope the school, currently with 11 families enrolled, will grow in number and into the high school level.

When asked about the origin of the school’s idea, Meert discussed her connection to children and her dream helping bring about a child’s full potential. She began her Montessori training in high school, and later envisioned Catholic teaching and the Montessori Method together.

Meert said the school has been four years in the making, but that she added the Byzantine spirituality aspect within the past year after she became a parishioner at Holy Protection Parish in Denver.

“The Byzantine faith is going to be the foundation,” she said, noting that the day will begin with a form of the Jesus prayer.

Montessori schools often begin the day with the “silence game,” in which children learn how to be calm and quiet in a time period of about 30 seconds to two minutes. Many schools have interpreted this freely, but she expressed a desire to tie this into the Byzantine’s Jesus Prayer.

“The beauty about being Byzantine is that we do that through the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on us, your children,’ she said, “You know because it’s kind of hard to call them sinners right away.”

The school will also have the kissing of icons and will teach according to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a very hands-on way of teaching the children about who Jesus is in time and space: through the parables, through infancy narratives, and through learning the nomenclature of the church.”

Children want to be a part of the world of adults and understand the liturgy, she said, and so the teachers aim to give them direct experiences related to the tabernacle and liturgical seasons.

“If we just tell them to be quiet and read a book during mass and during liturgy then we are not meeting their needs. They just want to know, they just want to be a part, they want to be welcomed by the church.”

She said many people would be surprised at the theological discussions she’s had with four-year-olds as well as the harmony created in the classroom. The environment is “surprisingly peaceful and calm, even though there are 20 three-to-six year-olds together.”

Meert also described the trust needed to allow children the freedom to make choices within prescribed limitations. “Three year-olds can do so much!” she said.

Meert defined this freedom as “not the freedom to do whatever you want, but…the freedom that Saint Thomas Aquinas talks about – having freedom within responsibility, within boundaries and within awareness of other people.”

In her interview with CNA, she also voiced her hope to establish afternoon classes for homeschooled kids and support for parents.

“We want to give parents tools and support. Some of the Montessori approach is common sense, but sometimes it’s a little trickier and parents just need extra support (or) someone to bounce ideas off of,” she said.

“We really want to be that support with those tools, and create a community that is often missing in our life.”

Featured image by Natalia Zhuravleva – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47443889