The Primacy of Christ and Honoring the Islamic Invitation

Editorial FAITH Magazine January-February 2008

Honouring the Letter and the Transcendence of God

Last October, on the first anniversary of their robust reply to the Pope’s Regensburg lecture, Islamic leaders issued another “Open letter”. As an attempt to reach out to the Pope and other Christian leaders in order to find common ground, made on behalf of all the main Islamic schools, this latest open letter is unique in the history of Islam.

In the letter, A Common Word Between Us and You, 138 Muslim scholars invite Christian leaders;

“to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love ...Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us”.

A direct Christian theological response to this proposal concerning our love for God and neighbour would involve the idea of the Son of God becoming Man, which is a stumbling block for Islam. As we will suggest below, this is such a big block mainly because of Islam’s approach to the transcendence of God, as well as its rejection of the Holy Trinity. For this and related reasons a certain Catholic preference has emerged for responding in a manner intellectually more straightforward and culturally more urgent, that is, for dialogue concerning the dignity of the human person and its ethical implications.

Without losing this latter emphasis we would urge that our dialogue is actually likely to bear more fruit if it is based on the (theological) agenda generously offered by Muslim leaders rather than the (anthropological) one suggested by us. But so that such theological discussion does not fall at the first hurdle we need to have the confidence that we can present the redemption in a way which clearly supports the transcendent nature of God. This, we will argue, means seeing the human nature of Christ, body and soul, as the cornerstone, source and summit of Creation. Such an approach is present in all three of the main articles in this issue.

A Papal Reply

The Pope himself has replied to A Common Wordthrough a succinct and graceful letter signed by his Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone. It acknowledges some of the Open Letter’s key themes in stating that:

“...we can and therefore should look to what unites us, namely, belief in the one God, the provident Creator and universal Judge who at the end of time will deal with each person according to his or her actions. We are all called to commit ourselves totally to him and to obey his sacred will.”

The Cardinal suggests that actual dialogue should be based upon the “common ground” of:

“...effective respect for the dignity of every human person, on objective knowledge of the religion of the other, on the sharing of religious experience and, finally, on common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation.”

He says that the Pope believes that such dialogue could lead to us cooperating “in a productive way in the areas of culture and society, and for the promotion of justice and peace in society and throughout the world.”

Such anthropological discussion and hoped for actions are somewhat more specific than, though overlapping with, the more theological dialogue proposed by the Islamic scholars who suggest the call to “total devotion” to the one God as our starting point.

For the Vatican to attempt to steer the debate in such a specific direction offers a clear route towards active cooperation against secularism. At the same time, it takes on board the important task of directly challenging some of the thinking which lies behind the violence and coercion associated with Islamist groups and Islamic states. Sandro Magister, the prominent Vatican commentator, has said that the Vatican letter “is asking Islam to make the same journey that the Catholic Church made under pressure from the Enlightenment. Love of God and neighbour must be realised in the full acceptance of religious freedom.”

He has also suggested on his website that the theological gap concerning the doctrine of God may be unrealistically wide at this juncture. Furthermore, Magister reminds us that the Pope had already made a proposal concerning the dignity and rights of every human being on December 22nd, 2006, which Muslim leaders seem to have ignored. Cardinal Bertone’s letter implicitly makes a similar point in quoting the Pope’s “Address to some Muslim Communities” at Cologne, on 20th August 2005, concerning shared “fundamental moral values.”

Is love the same thing in both religions?

Perhaps this cautious and challenging Catholic response is also spurred on by the recognition that what we mean by love is somewhat different from the Muslim understanding. Although A Common Wordacknowledges that love is “generosity and self-sacrifice” it maintains the Islamic lack of emphasis upon the fulfilment of love in friendship and, ultimately, communion with and in God. God’s love for us is not mentioned in the Letter, and only twice in the Qur’an.

A Common Wordstates that the Commandment to love is “part of the very foundational principles of both faiths.” Whilst it is foundational to living out the Christian faith it is not quite so foundational to the gift of faith itself. Rather God’s love for us is. His Self-giving is the foundation of His commands.

As the First Letter of John has it:

“Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us...” (1 John 4:9-10)

Caution about caution

The Cardinal’s honest letter presents a much needed and fairly gentle challenge to the Muslim understanding of the nature and rights of Man. However, we would suggest that the Church should also be clearly open to dialogue on the theological level requested by A Common Word. If, as Magister suggests, we can discern a lack of willingness on the part of Muslim leaders to play to the Vatican’s agenda, why force their hand at this seminal stage by refusing to enter into dialogue on the terms they suggest? They might quite sincerely say no – or take part with greater reservations – and an unprecedented opportunity for dialogue might be compromised, if not lost.

Indeed, in support of the thesis that the Open Letter’s “elusive and silent” character concerning the Vatican’s anthropological and ethical challenge is intentional, Magister quotes Aref Ali Nayed, one of the main authors of the Letter stating, in an interview with the Catholic News Service:

“Mere ethical/social dialogue is useful, and is very much needed. However... if religious revelation-based communities are to truly contribute to humanity, their dialogue must be ultimately theologically and spiritually grounded. Many Muslim theologians are not just interested in mere ethical dialogue of ‘cultures’ or ‘civilisations’.”

There might well be an avoidance of earlier Papal suggestions here, as well as the perennial downplaying of the role and relevance of natural reason. But the point of dialogue carried out in a charitable spirit is surely to create the conditions which enable such possible disagreements to be faced fruitfully, when the time is right. The Cardinal’s letter expresses the Pope’s “deep appreciation ...for the positive spirit which inspired the text”. It may take effort, time, sacrifice, but fruit will come from our own generosity in meeting our interlocutors ‘where they are at’. In tune with their Letter let’s do our level best to find things upon which we genuinely agree beforew e dispute or challenge. If we are confident concerning the overall coherence of our Catholic Faith we neednot approach with demands for safeguards etc., just complete faithfulness to our own doctrine –
and a desire to listen. Then we should trust that such dialogue will move in the right direction. The truth will out, and hopefully that’s what we’re all striving for.

The 138 Islamic leaders have made a constructive offer which should surely be responded to by Christians, with human openness as well as theological care. It may even make more sense to discuss with theists who believe in objective truth and universal moral norms rather than with the dictators of relativism. Our Road from Regensburg column later in this issue reports a prominent British Imam pointing out that the issue of infallibility, crucial for understanding Catholicism but anathema to the secular outlook outside and inside the Church, is an example of a good subject for discussion. It is in this spirit that we offer the below theological reflections, the accompanying articles on the Primacy of Christ, and a Muslim Professor’s intelligent and forthright Qur’anic exegesis onthe theme of love, which includes a call to objective theological dialogue.

 Starting with an aspect of love

In terms of Cardinal Bertone’s helpful summary of the Open Letter, the theological ground upon which we are being invited to build includes: “belief in the one God, the provident Creator... (and that) we are all called to commit ourselves totally to him...” From the point of view of the Catholic faith the latter is an aspect of love for God, an aspect even of communion.

To be offered this as “the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us” is, in some ways, a particularly generous offer. It is actually offering to play more on our ground than theirs. For love, as we have mentioned above, is actually at the heart of what we believe the nature of God is. Our tradition offers us much deep wisdom on the subject. Of course, our Islamic correspondents may not see their offer as quite so generous. It is undoubtedly true that the “complete and total devotion to God”, of which their letter speaks as being at the heart of Islam, is, on its own terms, an impressive feature of their faith and practice, from which we can learn.

But in the final analysis what we are being invited to consider is the rational and revelatory foundation and fulfilment of this call to devotion. The challenge for us Christians, particularly those in the Catholic Church, is to present that key stumbling block for Muslims, the Incarnation, as that very same foundation and fulfilment. What an invitation!

Meeting the Open Letter on its own ground

There are three related beliefs which are profoundly relevant both to the Open Letter’s presentation of the call to love God and to Christian orthodoxy: God’s transcendence of creation, a certain reaching out on the part of God to us and the existence of the human soul.

The Open Letter states:

“The central creed of Islam consists of the two testimonies of faith or Shahadahs, which state that: There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. These Two Testimonies are the sine qua non of Islam... Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad said: The best remembrance is: ‘There is no god but God’.”

The first tautologous Shahadah has been a key source of the Islamic emphasis upon God’s inherently inaccessible transcendence. This is a strong and influential tradition, with some input from late first Millennium neo-Platonism. Such a vision excludes Man’s love being potentially fulfilled in intimate communion with the love of God. As the Pope put it at Regensburg, in this Islamic emphasis God’s “will is not bound up with any of our categories”. This approach to transcendence is indeed one of the biggest theological gulfs between Islam and a religion which speaks of divine self-revelation and of a creaturely destiny in the life of the Creator.

But as our Road from Regensburg column has charted, the Pope has effectively challenged this doctrine and produced much helpful debate. Muslim contributions to the debate, such as the first Open Letter, have qualified this doctrine of transcendence, not least affirming God’s basic rationality in terms of basic categories intelligible to us.

Later in this issue, Professor Zilio-Grandi argues that the primacy of God’s love is not an idea completely alien to Muslim theology. This is notwithstanding Stephen Dingley’s point, also later in this issue, that Islam does not see God’s decrees, or revelation, as anything approaching self-revelation.

A certain qualification of the Islamic doctrine of absolute transcendence is also present in the Open Letter. The first Shahadahi s emphasised as the source of an important commonality between our religions, namely the aptness of the command to devote ourselves totally to Him.

The Letter suggests that in both faiths “God orders us” follow specific Commandments, in the light of the specific nature of Man. In neither faith does God command what is beyond the capacity of Man. For, according to A Common Word,

“…(human) souls are depicted in the Holy Qur’an as having three main faculties: the mind or the intelligence, which is made for comprehending the truth; the will which is made for freedom of choice, and sentiment which is made for loving the good and the beautiful… God orders people to fear him as much as possible, to listen (and thus understand the truth); to obey (and thus to will the good) and to spend (and thus to exercise love and virtue).”

All such partial qualifications of the unbridgeable distance between God and man depict a certain tentative reaching out of God to us. Through the call to understand his words and the command to love, God invites us to deep fulfilment.

A more beautiful vision

To found inter-faith dialogue upon a human nature which is profoundly fulfilled by obeying commands of God, which, moreover, are universal norms, is (again) to play more on the ground of traditional Christianity. We have some beautiful theology and anthropology filling out the traditional Catholic maxim “Grace builds upon nature”. In terms of the intellectual foundation of the dialogue to which we are being invited this is, it turns out, a central theme. Our generously created human nature is fulfilled by the generously offered grace of God. God’s self-sacrifice founds and communes with the “self-sacrifice” of Man which the Open Letter places centre stage.

Fruitful dialogue must surely involve us filling out this Christian insight. We need to be in a position to propose the plan of God as fulfilling our capacity for and need of true love through the incarnational, ecclesial and sacramental economy. The Catechism captures the vision thus:

“Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, his plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. (50) ...By revealing himself God wishes to make them capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity.“ (52)


“In the creation of the world and of man, God gave the first and universal witness to his almighty love and his wisdom, the first proclamation of the ‘plan of his loving goodness,’ which finds its goal in the new creation in Christ.” (315)

We could do worse than show that this “plan” of Creation and Communion is a garment woven without seam – completing our capacity to give full devotion, and maintaining the transcendence of God.

The Incarnation and Divine Transcendence

Why is it then that Islam, even when its traditional doctrine of transcendence is a little qualified as above, finds the core Christian claim that “God loved the world so much that He sent his only Son” so difficult? We know that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is firmly rejected in the Qur’an, and said to undermine the unity of God. This great gulf must certainly be faced, but to quite a degree one’s attitude to the truth of this foundational Christian doctrine rests upon the respective veracities of Muslim and Christian revelation. In our rational dialogue, where we have agreed upon the unity of God, the Creator, our first hurdle will be that understanding of God’s inaccessible transcendence, which is just not qualified enough to fit with Christian understanding.

We have seen how the doctrine excludes the possibility of the creature sharing divine communion. Similarly it depicts the divine unity as so incapable of sharing our limitation that He can act, forgive, reveal and even love without needing to fit into laws of created being, even those of created reason. Certainly He does not subject himself to these laws and limits in any way whatsoever, let alone through the human death of a Divine Person. The literal Incarnation of God presents the biggest stumbling block to the progression of our theological discussion.

The Primacy of Christ

In our participation in an open, charitable dialogue which responds integrally to A Common Word we need to be prepared to invite the sort of qualification of divine transcendence which the Letter makes to be taken to the ultimate degree. At the same time we must assure our Muslim friends that, even in the light of the Cross, this radical reaching out does not actually compromise the clear distinction of God from His creation. Developing a theology of salvation which coherently rejects any reduction of God’s natural transcendence is crucial to this discussion. We need to show that God’s nature is such that He does not need to come into our world, whilst at the same time the purpose and nature of his creation is such that it does need Him to come into it, not as a natural‘potential’ of it, but as its actual destiny and fulfilment. Creation and Salvation must be seen as a unity in the simple thought, or logos, of God. And the humanity of Christ needs to be convincingly presented as primarily the ground, not the subject, of created laws.

We just need to show that the Open Letter’s noble picture of God commanding us to love in ways that use our natural capacities to their full potential is beautifully completed by the fact that He loves us in ways that enable us, body and soul, to return it. He communes with us. Fr John Gavin’s piece in this issue paints such a picture for us.

Such an approach should never take away from the amazing nature of this ultimate work of God for us, of which Muslim disbelief reminds us. Indeed this seems to be one of those cases which, as C.S. Lewis points out, involves the person who finds the Incarnation too incredible being much closer to the truth than the person who finds it too boring and predictable.

The Redemption and ‘Risks’ to God’s transcendence

In the light of the impressive Islamic reverence towards absolute, transcendent divinity we can empathise somewhat with their exasperation at some theologies of Incarnation and Redemption when these latter do indeed seem to compromise the dignity of the divine nature. Most obviously, such inadequate approaches include those whereby creation is seen as in a dialectical tension with the Creator, such as forms of Process Theology and Panentheism. Also inadequate to this theological dialogue will be some Protestant suggestions that the angry Father could not and would not have his anger satiated without a lot of justifying pain.

Furthermore, those approaches, sometimes found in Catholicism, which tend to depict God’s coming as Man and his agonised death on the Cross as more than was strictly necessary or as under the primary control of evil are insufficient for meeting the modern challenge of allowing God to be God. The former is the case with some poetic approaches which suggest that God could have saved us by a pin-prick in the hand of Christ and so in fact did something more than rationally required. The latter seems to be the case with theologies which insist that God would not have sent His Son had there not been sin. This seems to involve the divine dropping of his original plan in favour of a radically new rescue plan. It seems to suggest that the identity of the transcendent Divine Person, which is trulyone with His human nature, is determined by the prior created order in its prior fallenness. For the person who has become physical, Whose Body we physically touch, is Divine, yet sin is not.

What, then, is happening when the effects of sin impact upon Him?

Redemption and the identity of Christ

Answering that question is not trivial. We need a renewed understanding of the concept of ‘natures’ which enables us to see the dual nature of Christ as a harmonious phenomenon, especially in the light of modern knowledge of matter. We need a vision whereby the very identity of Christ, in his human and divine natures, as the physical and spiritual centre and fulfilment of creation, is the basis of his active redemption of us since sin.

The Pope at Regensburg offered a way to develop this vision. He pointed out that all God’s actions are according to His eternal Logos– which “means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.” To some extent this wisdom, which is written into creation, is discovered by our human mind o r logos, our spiritual soul, which is in God’s image. Union and communion of the minds of creature and Creator is possible.

To be a personal union it must be effected through human nature, body and soul, according to human laws of growth and encounter. Indeed the purpose of all this is that Man may be fulfilled by the Self-Gift of God Himself, in the Incarnation. The Incarnation is ontologicallynecessary for us, not for Him.

With the help of St Paul and St John we can apply this to the Redemption. As we have emphasised Christ is “the first-born of all creation; ...He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:15-16). He is the “Logosmade flesh”. He is the person who makes sense of the universe, including matter and the body-soul nature of Man. He is the original self-gift of God, destined from the beginning as the fulfilment of creation. Because of this and in the face of the tragic sinfulness of Man, his faithfulness to his original mission heals and redeems. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:10-11). As the “first born of creation” he can become “thefirst-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. ...reconciling to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (1 Col.18).

It is because of Jesus’s ontological identity as God and Man, body and soul, that his faithfulness to death can heal us and raise us up. His acceptance of suffering and sin is an acceptance of the wounds upon the creation of which he is the Cornerstone. The creation is not what it might have been, but He actually becomes more than he might have been. His redemptive faithfulness, even to death on a Cross, is an act of greater love than we could possibly have imagined and yet a beautiful part of the Logos of love.

The depth and coherence of such divine love revealed to us through the Cross is perhaps most beautifully captured by that ancient hymn the Letter to the Philippians:

“...Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

We can also show that such a logos of love is a wonderful gift of the truly transcendent God. Again we emphasise that it means seeing the whole of the Plan of God from Creation to Salvation as a Unity, as the result of the one Thought or Logos of God, the Word who is made flesh as the centre of this work, and the high point of the Gift. Ultimately it means articulating the spiritual nature of Man and the physical nature of matter as that which is part of the coherent whole, according to the one “Unity Law”, as well as an aspect of the wonderful gift. It will mean for instance depicting science and metaphysics not as explaining away things, but as uncovering the amazing, generous Thought of God as it plays out in the history of the cosmos.

Such a development of Catholic theology and philosophy would need work, prayer and guidance from the Spirit. It is not just required to meet and surpass genuine Islamic yearnings for peace, but also to help salve the restless heart of modern man.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2008