The first meeting was in the morning of Thursday 15 November at the House of Lords, at the invitation Lord Alton, for an invited group of religious policymakers, scholars, and representatives of civil society. The second was a public lecture and discussion, cosponsored by Heythrop College and the Catholic Union, in the afternoon of the same day, in the Loyola Hall of Heythrop College, Kensington Square.
Oasis is an International Foundation created in 2004 to encourage mutual understanding and opportunities for encounter between Christians and Muslims in contemporary societies. To this aim Oasis publishes a journal in several languages (including English, Arabic and Urdu), a newsletter and two series of books. The events in London follow the presentation at the UNESCO in Paris (2005), the dialogue with the rector and professors of Al-Azhar University of Cairo (2006) and the conference at the UN Headquarters in New York (2007). Oasis believes that interreligious dialogue involves intercultural dialogue, because religious experience is always lived and expressed through the medium of culture: not merely on the theological and spiritual level, but also on the political, economic, and social levels.
Further information about Oasis is available here: http://www.oasiscenter.eu/about-us. The talks are available on the Oasis website. For health reasons, I was unable to travel to London, but I have been receiving reports and copies of papers. What follows is mainly my summary of the Cardinal's two papers, followed by an extracts from responses.
The private briefing to religious leaders and intellectuals at the House of Lords was introduced by Lord David Alton. In his opening remarks Lord Alton said:
The Oasis foundation has a vast network of relationships: a board of promoters including Cardinals and Bishops, from the West, but also from the countries with an Islamic majority, and a scientific board, which meet every year, alternatively in the West and in the Middle East. Its conception has proved providential, coming at a time when – as we all know – tensions between Christians and Muslims have been on the rise throughout the world. But the foundation’s greatest and unique strength, I believe, has been to recognize the complexity of these tensions, offering intelligent, profound and effective responses to the challenges faced in – what His Eminence has rightly called – our "hybridized" societies. Oasis goes beyond mere intellectualism, and seeks to transcend usual labels such as multiculturalism and reciprocity and the usual “moderate–radical” epithets. All of this is to be applauded, and I am sure we will learn much more about this invaluable and greatly needed approach today.Lord Alton then introduced the three scholars who were to lead a debate after the lecture: Dr. Karim Lahham, a barrister and an expert in Islamic Law who completed his doctorate at the University of Cambridge; Professor John Milbank, a theologian who lectures in religion, politics and ethics at the University of Nottingham; and Ian Richard Netton, Shariah Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. (Professor Netton was recently appointed Consultor of the Vatican Commission for religious relations with Muslims.)
In his address, His Eminence draw on his experience of Oasis, the focus of which is not inter-religious or theological dialogue, he said, but rather the cultural interpretation of the faith. It is this that determines the interaction of these communities, for better or worse.
He began by admitting the “problem” posed by Islam to the prevailing status quo in Western societies; namely that Islam introduces a difference that is somewhat greater than the existing distance between the various Christian confessions. The historical slide towards secularism and the separation of Church and State was an attempt to accommodate this range of belief – soon extended to include Jews and non-believers – within civil society. But the secularist solution to the difficulties caused by religious diversity often required participants to dilute or soften their incompatible truth-claims and political ambitions. Those groups that would not do so were effectively suppressed or went into voluntary exile (to the Americas, for example). Islam could not be so assimilated, since it exceeded the existing differences and in any case was unwilling to compromise. Thus by their mere presence, as individuals and as communities, Muslims today pose the unresolved problem of the coexistence of different universal world visions in the public sphere.
Cardinal Scola’s proposal was that we should consider this problem from a cultural rather than a theological point of view – from the viewpoint of a “métissage of civilizations and cultures”; that is, a de facto mixing-up or fluid interaction, a "hybridization", of diverse traditions. Earlier in 2012, Pope Benedict seemed to adopt this approach when he said of Lebanon that “It is not uncommon to see the two religions within the same family. If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole of society? The particular character of the Middle East consists in the centuries-old mix of diverse elements.”
We all want to limit violence, but we do not need to fear diversity as such. Cardinal Scola said we need to go a little beyond slogans of the type “we all believe in the same God”, or “the problem is not religions, but the politicians who exploit religions”, arriving instead at a fundamental principle of communication. This locates the primary political fact in an exchange of narratives with a view to mutual recognition at a basic human level. Our notion of the common good cannot be derived from a shared vision of the world, but we can start one stage further back, with the very fact of a common existence, or what he calls the practical good of being together.
The principle of communication, the Cardinal argued, offers a basis on which to challenge “distorted practices of religiosity like fundamentalism”, and makes possible (though without resolving) the endlessly fascinating debate between religions on important matters of anthropology, ethics, and theology. A practical consensus on the basis of our shared humanity “ought not to have as its goal the development of a super-religion that is a replacement for historical faiths, but that of an enriching coexistence between the faithful of the various religions,” within which these matters of concern can be discussed.
All of this brought Cardinal Scola to make a final point that, while the principle of communication or of “being together” can serve as a starting point, it is not an end, for the question of truth – of reality – remains unsolved, and cannot be replaced with merely pragmatic or utilitarian concerns. The continuing economic crisis serves as a powerful reminder that we need to address the question of truth if we are to survive at all. He concluded that we “have to refocus on the question of truth, in its vital nexus with freedom. It is in this rethinking that I believe we shall see the cultural impact and the contribution that believers, Christians and Muslims in particular, can offer today: to each other and at the same time together with each other, for the common good.”
In his response, Dr Karim Lahham underlined the fact that according to the most authentic schools of Muslim jurisprudence, Islamic laws should never be enforced against those that do not voluntary accept or adhere to them, and the rule of law must be upheld within any polity inhabited by the Muslim minorities. He picked up on the Cardinal's point about the relevance of Catholic social teaching, concluding:
The present economic crisis affecting much of Europe gives a great deal of scope for the delineation of an intelligent and combined response by both faiths. Since all serious political and sociological thinking reposes ultimately on a theory of human nature, it is this latter formulation that will render any socio-political reality intelligible. Our economic system currently rests on a theory in which the materialist idea of luxury, wealth and leisure are considered the main ends of man. This is attached to a false philosophy that views work as a necessary evil rather than a vocation, answering a divine call to service. An opportune response to this fallacy would be to respectively portray and clarify the relationship between belief and practice, intellect and act, idea and consequence, and thus uphold and empower man’s natural duty to intellectual and moral responsibility in the modern world. This is in line with the guiding principle that both faiths can recognize, namely that freedom can never be incompatible with discipline but will always be incompatible with irresponsibility.Part 2
In the public meeting at Heythrop College on the afternoon of the same day, cosponsored by the Catholic Union, Cardinal Scola revisited the question of the humanum – a human “universal”, the existence of a common or shared experience of being human – that would allow communication and translation across and between cultures.
With respect to relations between Christians and Muslims, the Cardinal identified four areas where the universally relevant question about what it means to be human find a particularly powerful expression today, and where questioning each other can end up being very enriching.
The first area is what he called the “nexus” of truth and freedom – the tension between individual freedom to believe and practice one’s own faith, and the striving for a truth that transcends individual subjective preference. “Can we be certain that something is objectively true, in itself and for everyone, while at the same time accepting that others do not share – or share only partially – this conviction of ours?”
It is a fact that “the teaching of the Second Vatican Council offers us the potential for a non-relativistic foundation for religious freedom.” However, “we need to be realistic about recognizing that this awareness is painfully slow to develop: either there is a tendency to relativism, even among believers, as happens not infrequently in the West, or else religious freedom is so limited as to be effectually suppressed, as in some states that define themselves as ‘Islamic’.” Here Oasis proposes a focus on the basic level of communication, of mutual presence and interaction, that includes “not just the question of violence, terrorism, and war, but also that of the conception of democracy and freedom of expression.”
The second area is the economic-financial crisis, which calls for a “broadening of the scope of economic reason, opening it up to the logic of the gift, of the gratuitous”, and calling perhaps for a new idea of Europe. The third area concerns the secularization process itself, which appears in some respects to be rampant within our societies, yet shows no signs of eliminating – and in many ways seems to be provoking – a growing awareness of the sacred and transcendent. The fourth area is that of ethics, or the working-out of answers to ethical questions that cannot be ignored and which concern all human beings equally.
Recent revolutions in Islamic societies (the “Arab Spring” etc.) seem, in Cardinal Scola’s view based on the experience of Oasis in the Middle East and North Africa, to fall outside the sterile polarity of “secular” and “religious”, in that they concern human dignity and the experience of a shared life. As such they represent an important signal. A “process of métissage now constrains us to receive the questions that come from history without any longer distinguishing between the Muslim world and ‘our’ world,” the Cardinal claimed. We need to put ourselves at the level of the new “shared language” of Christians and Muslims if we are to make progress in addressing these important questions.
The response by Dr Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad, the Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College) included the following remarks:
Although our history together is long, our serious mutual engagement has, in certain respects, still not achieved a sufficiently persuasive quality. In our own houses we have often been deep and selfless; in engaging with each other we often still, tragically, contrive to be the opposite. Politics has too frequently made us insecure, and hence shallow. There are exceptions, however. One must salute the efforts of great Catholic scholars of the past century, many writing in the wake of Étienne Gilson’s work on Averroism and other tributaries to the phenomenon of neo-Thomism, to emphasise that the common humanum which Muslims and Catholics trust, and on the basis of which they ground their universal ethics, may only be defined in terms that are thoroughly theological and philosophical.
The principle of a universal humanum, although stressed and abused in increasingly reductionist ways since the Enlightenment, is, as it is for Catholics, a principle dear to Islamic thinkers. We speak in terms of adamiyya – Adamic belonging – as the ground for all legal and moral rights. Rights such as the right to property and to establish a family are considered, by Islamic law, to be innate, unearned rights, and are also sacrosanct: we speak, in the Maturidi tradition most notably, of ismat al-adamiyya – the inviolability of the status conferred simply by being Adamic, that is to say, precisely, part of the humanum. Typically, too, our moral philosophers go still further by using the term hurma – the sanctity of the human being, created, for Muslims as for Christians, in the very image of God.
This categorically transcends any mere Enlightenment or romantic wishful thinking, which conjures up a numinous cloud of rights over an organism that secularity will naturally tend to regard as a product of blind biology. What distinguishes Muslim and Christian reflection about universals, and about what is universal in humanity, is the principle of hurma – what is sacrosanct, because invested by God in His beloved Adamic children.It is important for scholars in many disciplines to engage with the growing Oasis network to ensure the broadest possible conversation on these matters that affect us all.