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: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.