By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
On the surface, Christianity and Islam seem to offer a stark contrast in their respective diagnoses of the human condition, a Catholic expert on Islam said this morning. For Muslims, all that’s needed to make things right is a prophet who clearly announces God’s plan. Christians, however, see a deeper problem, the solution to which involves more than revelation – it requires God’s very gift of self, which leads to the Cross.
For Muslims, in other words, human beings are simply forgetful and need to be reminded. Christians believe they need to be redeemed.
Yet probing beyond official texts into the broader traditions of both faiths, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Madigan said, things aren’t quite so simple. Islamic poetry and mysticism, he said, has a strong sense of God’s personal and self-giving love as a response to human weakness, while Christianity constantly struggles with the temptation to “reduce the gospel to a series of dos and don’ts” – as if all we need are rules, as opposed to deeper transformation by God’s “exaggerated generosity.”
Madigan, a former professor at Rome’s Gregorian University and now a member of the faculty at Georgetown, spoke at the annual conference of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Miami. He argued for a method of inter-religious study attentive both to differences and similarities between faiths, both to official statements of doctrine and actual life and practice.
Approaching things that way, he said, illustrates that different religions are “neither fraternal twins nor complete strangers.”
Madigan organized his remarks as a reflection on John the Baptist, a figure venerated in both Islam and Christianity. (As footnote, Pope John Paul II’s historic 2001 visit to the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus in May 2001 involved a moment of prayer before what Muslim tradition regards as the tomb of John the Baptist inside the mosque.)
For Muslims, Madigan said, John the Baptist is revered as one of the prophets who led up to Muhammad, the final prophet. For Christians, John is the “greatest of the prophets,” but his role was precisely to point beyond himself to one who is more than a prophet.
“Prophecy is important but still penultimate,” Madigan said, expressing the Christian view as embedded in the story of John the Baptist. “It’s incomplete, and insufficient to deal with the alienation of humanity from God.”
To put the point differently, Madigan said, for Muslims revelation is itself salvific. For Christians, however, clear proclamation of God’s word, however important, doesn’t do the trick. God has to “engage human sinfulness in a more personal and costly way,” through a sort of boundless mercy and love. Such a stance will seem foolish by the standards of the world, Madigan said, and it’s one of the reasons that in Muslim apologetics, Islam is seen as a rational middle way between the “mediocrity” of the Mosaic code and the “hopeless idealism” of Christianity.
Madigan pointed to the dialogue between a 14th century Byzantine emperor and a Persian scholar quoted by Benedict XVI in 2006, which set off a global firestorm – as Madigan jokingly put it, the dialogue has been “made famous by a certain German scholar.” In it, the Persian’s critique of Christianity is precisely that it demands a denial of self that is simply too much for most people to bear.
That, at least, is how things might stand taking into account simply the New Testament and the Qur’an. In fact, hopwever, Madigan argued, this amounts to a “caricature” of actual Islamic belief and practice.
In the hadith, referring to traditionally recognized collections of Islamic oral traditions, Madigan said there’s a strong emphasis on God’s “intimate involvement with humanity.” Muhammad is seen as more than a prophet, but an intercessor.
Medieval Islamic poetry, Madigan said, stresses God’s boundless love in contrast to human sinfulness, and treats Muhammad as the “eternal first-born of all creation” and the one “for whom the heavens were made.” Muhammad, in other words, becomes more than a prophet – he’s also, in some sense, a redeemer, as an expression of God’s infinite love despite human rebellion.
Madigan added that in Islam, spiritually themed poetry is not exclusively the province of a mystical elite, but rather a “treasured part of popular culture.”
Madigan quoted a contemporary Iranian scholar, who writes that “Muhammad is like us only in the sense that a ruby is also a rock.” He also described a Sufi poem by Farid ad-Din Attar in the 13th century called “Conference of the Birds,” which contains a story about a king who is ready to give up his own life in order to bring back his unfaithful lover.
In other words, Madigan said, broader expressions of Islam offer a nuanced picture of the human condition and God’s response to it, one which shares something in common with Christianity’s accent on God’s “tireless love.”
Meanwhile, he said, Christianity has not always reflected its official theology in its actual practice.
“Our history illustrates a temptation to reduce the gospel to a particular instance of generic prophetic religion, meaning a system of ethical rights and duties,” Madigan said. “There’s a tendency to eviscerate the gospel by making it a list of do’s and don’ts.”
Finally, Madigan said that his experience of teaching Muslim students in Rome brought home that Muslims struggle with the Christian doctrine of original sin. They have a hard time, he said, with the idea that one can “inherit” someone else’s sin, or propensity to sin. Instead, they want to see each person as responsible for his or her own choices.
In that light, Madigan said, Christians need to work out a presentation of original sin to meet that challenge. He proposed talking about it not in terms of some innate evil in human beings, but rather an innate tension between being “createdness and creativity.” We are creatures, Madigan said, which means that we encounter a “givenness” to creation. Yet we also share in the creativity of God, which creates a constant temptation to see God as a rival or a limit on our own power.
The all too frequent product of that tension, he said, is sin.