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Felix Körner SJ

Debating Dialogue

Where the Christian-Muslim Encounters Must Cut More Sharply


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 8/2008, p. 535-546


    In the face of fundamentalism and relativism a well-founded dialogue between Christians and Muslims is more urgent than ever. FELIX KÖRNER, lecturer in fundamental theology and theology of religions and director of the formation institute for interreligious experts at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, develops the theological desiderata in ten theses.


Dialogue is a word that can easily make us angry. Isn't it for people who lack the courage of their convictions, who don't have the energy to work out their own ideas about faith, preferring instead exotic meaningless exchange? {1}. Such views on dialogue between Muslims and Christians are easily uttered. But people who simply write off dialogue as a facile exercise of the "bleeding heart" may unwittingly be promoting extremist expectations. At first glance it seems that we could produce, by force, uniform, homogenous societies. Yet opponents of dialogue fail to ask how people will coexist on two sides of a confessional and cultural divide. They fail to see that uniformity is a chimera; societies with enforced homogeneity always seek new "others" {2} claimed to frustrate planned uniformity no matter how it is enforced.

Take Turkey for example. There, it is not so much the Islamic/Islamist but rather the secular press that regularly blows up at Christians as supposed threats to national unity, reserving particular venom Christian missionaries and converts. Free Church missionaries tend to respond according to the same pattern: The true religion of a Turk cannot be (supposedly Arabic) Islam; therefore in the near future the whole nation will line up for baptism, I was told.

In many places in Germany people are unwilling to acknowledge that Muslims are and will continue to be "with us". Arguments for suppressing that acknowledgment are like totalitarian ideologies, declaring that other kinds of commitment are the worst possible threats to the system. Yet the objective of social activism, whether on state or international level, should be lasting and constructive coexistence. Dialogue serves this goal well because it takes up the concerns of controversial positions without imposing preconceived solutions. But, some will object, is not dialogue just a euphemism for lacking adherence to one's own conviction?

If one gains clarity about the structure of Christian faith, then one understands that theologically reflected dialogue does not put Christian faith up for grabs. Dialogue is not relativism, but rather is based in an essential insight of theological epistemology: that the Church confesses the coming into history of divine life, something not immediately obvious and therefore in need of witnessing.



But since what we give witness to is more than what happened in the past, it appears as something new when illuminated by new events. That is why formulas of faith must constantly be understood in new ways.

The living church has always been characterized by a willingness to answer new questions with new formulations and forms of life; from the beginning, its witnesses revealed a remarkable willingness to become involved in discussions. St Paul found new words and new instructions depending on the objections and difficulties brought forward by his communities. For example, in explaining why the Church should be free in front of Israel's ritual law, he describes his own liberation as an inclusion in the history of Jesus, and in a novel formulation writes that he was "co-crucified" with Christ (Gal 2:19).

This kind of flexibility shows two things: on the one hand, Christians really were involved in dialogue, to taking up fresh questions and learning from them new things. Thus representations of faith in word and life were in constant flux. Yet on the other hand that flexibility was not a compromise, not a reduced loyalty to the Lord but a sign of greater faithfulness. The People of God had not accepted rigid forms and formulas but rather the reality testified by them. Since, however, that reality remained accessible in formulas handed down from earlier times, what was handed down had not been supplanted. Both Biblical Israel and the New Testament desire ever anew to understand, proclaim and realize their confession in loyalty to the formulations of old: we live, talk and make decisions in the awareness that God proves to be faithful in history.

Throughout history witnesses to the Christian message have faced two different groups of questioners. One group - the faithful - have asked questions which were taken up as constructive challenge and became included in the proclamations of the faith. But questions from the other group - the non-believers - were answered defensively, and did not cause a deepening of Christian faith. The dividing line between the two groups (and thus between the two types of answers) has always been in flux. The blurred boarders between inspiration and insitance are due to the believer's experience that critical questions are no mere refutations to be silenced, but rather, good questions. In 1964 Paul VI for instance declared in his inaugural encyclical that the Church had to get involved in the challenges of the people of today. He called not for apologetics against the attacks of a sinister world but for a "colloquium" (Ecclesiam suam, No. 14). Here an official Roman statement for the first time spoke of "dialogue".

When faith is understood not as a private arrangement of an individual world view, but as a testimony to reality, then newly discovered aspects must be met with interest. Dialogue is, thus, found in the Biblical tradition and as such is also recognized by the Church. In the context of debates on the relevance of dialogue theologians need to develop new perspectives. Since many a Muslim-Christian dialogue has been criticised rightly, we should wonder: what has been missing?



The results of dialogue cannot be fixed in advance: precisely the recognition that one does not wholly understand the faith one professes is dialogic. Dialogue means taking risk, the risk that one might perceive reality in a new way. The view of my interlocutor, after all, can change my view of the world. Tradition sheds light upon current events, and current events and questions shed light upon tradition. That is why the results of dialogue cannot be planned. But one can formulate precisely the themes that should be dealt with and who should take part. In what follows I present the theological desiderata of the Christian-Islamic dialogue in ten theses.


Talking about the other

1. In dialogue, you may also speak about the other's religion.

Among scholars in religious studies we often encounter the opinion that we can argue about the contents of a religion only from the insider's perspective {3}. Thus a Christian should never say that a Muslim woman is not obliged by the normative sources of Islam to wear the headscarf, and a Muslim must not argue that professing One God in three persons seems conceptually problematic.

Critical thinking need not end at the boundary of one's own religion. Yet the practice in religious studies to keep distance from other religions is indeed based on a true intuition: nobody can become the teaching authority of a different religion. Still, arguments can be found and presented across the boundaries of religions, with the understanding that the decision of how a group lives its faith is its own decision. One should, however, not underestimate the perspective of the outsider: outsiders can inquire about inconsistencies and show potentials for development to which the faithful may be professionally blinkered.



2. Dialogue should be conducted without the illusion that Muslims and Christians must come to an agreement in matters of faith.

If a person engaging in dialogue assumes that both sides basically think the same way, we should not impede such a preconception. It does not impede dialogue. Yet as they get to know each other better, Muslims and Christians may discover that what they assumed at first was completely wrong. Thus much will depend on whether partners in dialogue can rise above ideas which prove to be untenable in the course of the discussion.



Muslims usually understand revelation as an ensemble of stipulations communicated by one of God's prophets to regulate life and belief, providing the "right guidance" (hudâ). By contrast, according to Biblical testimony revelation is history, in which God entrusts himself to Creation. That the concept of revelation is defined differently by Christians and Muslims appears to be a difference in terminology which can be clarified, yet behind this difference we discern other, fundamental differences in the understanding of reality. Islamic and Christian theology differ in their view on the role of history and thus of the function of individual acts in relation to God's divinity {4}.

It is not failure but rather a valuable outcome of dialogue when differences come more clearly into view. For upon the background of the other the profile and value of one's own view of reality become visible. But does a dialogue that reveals differences not burden the future of living and working together? I don't believe so. Firmly believing members of different religions can live together productively. Religious differences are no fundamental obstacle for coexistence.

Muslims are particularly concerned lest fundamental differences be revealed between Christianity and Islam. The Koranic theology of religions is based on the idea that God sent prophets to many peoples, conveying to all the same divine instructions. Muhammad is one of those messengers (sura 3.144), differing from predecessors only in the particular reliability of the message's transmission. That is why no prophets are necessary after him; by reading the Koran one can learn the proclamation of all other prophets before being distorted by later generations. Consequently, Muslims generally think that one can delimitate the universal contents of all religions.

This Koranic conception of harmony is attractive, but it harbors serious problems by making the Koran the truth criterion for other revelations. Religious communities like Jews and Christians, whose "books" are accepted as sent by God, are tolerated by Muslims, but their doctrine - like the doctrine of all other religions - is subjected to a clear standard: every prophetical message that does not correspond to the Koran is claimed "distorted" (muharraf).

According to the Koran Jesus's self-understanding was that of another prophet in the line of prophets (4,163, see 5,116f.).



That the Jesus before Easter could have understood himself differently, namely as the turning-point in history, is regarded by Muslims as a distorted message, even though not only Christians hold it; an agnostic historian can also conclude that Jesus understood his appearance as God's entry into Creation {5}.}. The claim that this conception of Jesus is distorted is difficult to maintain; here we see the Koran passing judgement on historical evidence.

Further consequences follow. If one accepts the idea of harmony between religions according to Koranic standards, then nothing besides the Koran as universal authority can make an original contribution to revelation. Everything that goes beyond the alleged core message of religions - de facto beyond the condensed Koran - can then be expunged as historical accessory, myth, folklore. This kind of general human religiosity is then ready to be harnessed to the cart of an ideological doctrine of a uniform society - and that is precisely what happens, with the field of consensus already staked out precisely: belief in one god, eternal life, ethics {6}. Anyone who wants to introduce anything new into such a society that goes beyond the general demands of decency and piety is immediately branded a troublemaker.

Turkish state authorities, for example, sees Free Church missionaries, according to their own information, {7} just as dangerous as terrorists. Such a classification is not a necessary consequence of Koranic theology, but it can make reference to the Koran: What is obligatory for society was revealed by the prophets and since the time of Muhammad has been handed down without distortion; everything beyond this is tampering with the word of God and dividing mankind.

Now the question arises: Does dialogue make sense if you assume from the outset that you will not come to an agreement? Does openness to discussion not imply the will to consensus? Objections such as these are legitimate but must be formulated with greater accuracy. For one thing, Muslim-Christian dialogue has to find solutions that both sides can support, though only so far as practical issues of coexistence are concerned; for example, whether animals may be slaughtered without first stunning them. Secondly, one's partners in dialogue can sincerely hope that you take note of their belief as they present it themselves. Formulations of any consensus that emerges need not begin with words such as : "We believe together..." but can acknowledge continuing differences, for example: "Christians believe... - Muslims believe..." Thirdly, it is true that the desire to reach consensus is a precondition of dialogue, also as far as the contents of faith are concerned. This desire results from the more general experience we have made that everyone tends to regard his own position as completely valid before the dialogue begins. The intention is then to show partners in interreligious dialogue not only their misperceptions of the other, but of reality as such.




3. The participants in the dialogue are allowed to be missionary.

No one can be regarded as incapable of dialogue simply because he wants to win others over to the view he considers best. The joy in trying to convince others gives life to a conversation and liberates discussants from being uninterested for fear of encountering others. It is quite natural that a person who thinks his belief unique and beneficial will hope that all recognize those qualities. As soon as both sides recognize such a hope as legitimate, then the question of criteria will arise, and suddenly one finds oneself in the middle of dialogue. As long as the dialogue is conducted transparently and the partners remain open to changes within themselves, attempts to convince others through argument are legitimate.

But conventional warnings against missionary behaviour do point up an actual problem. People who use prefabricated tactics involving psychological tricks do not desire dialogue, and those who believe they have already found the best forms for expressing truth fail in fact to enter a conversation. Criterion for a genuine openness in dialogue is interest in the other person, even if that person is not a candidate for conversion. Whoever believes a conversation was in vain because he has failed to convince the other of his own point of view is stuck in his tracks; dialogue begins precisely at the point where people do not want to share the view of others, and there is an urgent and worthwhile need for consensus far beyond the question of whether or not one's interlocutor decides to switch religions.


Theological Sociology

4. Dialogue should discuss theologically also the practical issues of how to lay out state, society and law.

Can social questions really be strictly separated from theological ones? Those who want to keep theological questions and methods out of the social discourse between Muslims and Christians usually do so because of very specific misgivings. They note that conversation bogs down when arguments are made not from reason but from claims of revelation; in such cases, a fear of unduly claimed authorities is justified. Therefore it is appropriate to divide the issues for discussion into practical matters that are negotiable and doctrines of faith that are not.

But a radical exclusion of theological questions from the social and political discourse is likewise dangerous. Theology's scope of work and working methods are sometimes misrepresented by other disciplines.



In both Islam and Christianity there is a scholarly reflection that strives to demonstrate the rationality of the respective religion as being internally consistent and in harmony with reality as such. We should therefore not expect that theologians taking part in panel discussions are capable only of irrationally listing revealed quotations.

On the contrary, there is much to be said for listening to the social discourse of Islamic and Christian theologians. Believers can hardly be induced to change their views in practical matters of life if they are not shown how that change goes along with the basis of their own religion. Anyone who, for example, takes the view that Muslims are not obliged to enforce a Sharia state must justify this from Muslim sources.

It is true, however, that theological justifications have become discredited. That's why three strategies of reasoning in theology should be distinguished. The first could be called "quote and do", consisting in quoting the wording of revelation as instruction that can be put into practice directly. Whoever only justifies his views in the words "It is written" overlooks the fact that wording is but a sequence of signs; in order to uncover the meanings a process of understanding is needed. Every application involves as active participant the person seeking understanding. That's why a quotation alone is never enough. One must always specify how the quotation is understood today.

The second strategy of giving reasons could be called "anachronism". It works with projections backwards in time. For example, democracy is presented as something Koranic by reference to the Koran verse asking for a "council" (sura 3, 159) {8}. Those who might detect in that passage constitutional sovereignty of the people are overloading the text. Those wanting to conduct a discussion of social questions of this sort can therefore object to a supposedly historic proof, while those who use a proof in this way will presumably not admit that they are distorting the meaning of the text.

The third strategy of reasoning proceeds "anthropologically," asking about the conception of the human being implicit in the text. It can, for example, be argued that the Koran has high expectations of individual freedom because, on the one hand, it demands of humans a personal-existential decision; and on the other, Islam preserves existing customs ('urf) of the respective peoples. Accordingly, a social order that wants to refer to the Koran must guarantee the freedom of choice of the individual in private, religious and public matters and must not claim that all legal questions can be clarified by the Koranic regulations. The Koran does not make itself absolute in that way.



Christians have to proceed in a similar way when they want to theologically underpin attitudes that cannot be directly elicited from the wording of the original text, as for example in questions of the prohibition of slavery and religious freedom. Here too the intervening concept is the conception of man testified by the Bible.



5. Grievances which can be associated with a religion must not be taken off the list of themes to be discussed solely on the grounds that the present interlocutor cannot be held responsible for them.

Occasionally Christian interlocutors demand that the policy of a George W. Bush must be kept out of discussions because they do not have to answer for the mistakes of former US politicians, and European Muslims sometimes call it unfair when an interreligious conversation shifts to talking about the human rights situation of minorities in the Middle East.

It is true that persons not involved in an act cannot be accused of complicity. Still, political radicalism and injustice should be discussed even among moderate partners in dialogue. One can request three things: first, credible consternation over and public condemnation of inhuman proceedings; second a common search for reasons, not shirking the question of where in the respective religious tradition motivations for violence and unequal treatment might be found; finally, willingness to influence one's own brothers and sisters in faith at home and abroad.



6. Participants in academic dialogue ought to be well-informed, linguistically skilled, serious scholars and open to honest self-criticism.

Dialogue often fails because the participants possess inadequate education and empathy. We often hear from non-Muslims that Islamic theology is not really theology {9}, and that therefore a true theological dialogue is impossible. As I will argue, this conclusion is based on misinformation {10}. Yet when dialogue in fact gets off the ground we often hear non-Muslims quoting with the formula, "As Muhammad says in the Koran...".

No one is obliged to embrace the claims of revelation that Muslims accord to the Koran. There is therefore no need to say in an introduction: "God says in the Koran...". Yet one ought to realize that the Koran does not claim that Muhammad is speaking. Rather, it would be scholarly acceptable to say that the Koranic proclamation is not Muhammad's finding formulations in his normal everyday consciousness; he was, rather, under the influence of non-conscious experience.



Muslims may well react with horror at the ignorance expressed in a phrase like: "Muhammad says in the Koran...". What resolution might there be? Perhaps this: a non-Muslim can introduce words from the Koran with the formula "The Koran says..." He does not thereby recognize in any way the Koran's character as divine revelation.

Muslims note shortcomings among German non-Muslims, whose knowledge of Islam may derive from 19th century novels rather than from a critical desire to learn about the other. Yet many imams in countries like Germany speak the local language too poorly to engage in public events or academic meetings; and those who do know the local languages, are almost always theologically uneducated. In Germany and Austria academic courses are underway in Islamic theology and this is a promising start, even though we do not know yet whether the degrees granted will be recognized in the Islamic community. Theological faculties in Istanbul (from 2007) and Ankara (from 2006) have begun enrolling ethnic Turkish students who have grown up in Europe, and that is a welcome sign, especially for its promise to educate informed interlocutors for the dialogue within Europe. Still, it is important that academic courses of study in Islamic theology be expanded within Western Europe.

A number of German Christian theologians now spend sabbatical semesters at Muslim theological faculties, and in principle it is possible for Muslim students to study at Christian theological faculties; for example a special institution was established for this purpose at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome {11}. Such centres can complement courses of study of one's own religion, but cannot replace them. It's also a good idea for people involved in interfaith dialogue to know about the other religion in majority and minority situations. Yet this in turn creates new challenges.



7. Partners in dialogue should strive for official positions in their own religious communities, in order for their views to become more representing and influencial.

Views uttered in interreligious dialogue are sometimes rejected by one's own community as a heterodox compromise; for example, Catholic and Protestant experts on Islam are often thought to profess watered-down doctrines not properly reflecting their churches' true positions (12). ). One has to look at individual cases to see whether that is true. Certainly, interfaith professionals of the established Churches tend - in contrast to Free Church missionaries - to express a kind of reticence and reverence in the face of the earnestness with which Muslim interlocutors express their awareness of living in the presence of God.



On the other hand it is surprising that even months after it was made, an offer of October 2007 to hold discussions with Christians by 138 Muslim scholars {13} was scarcely known among Muslims, even theologians. If theology does not try to get backing among theologians it makes itself irrelevant.


Openness in Terminology

8. One cannot wait until the parties concerned accept a common terminology.

If people call for full preliminary consensus as to the meaning of particular terms - for example "salvation" - then dialogue assumes the atmosphere of an undergraduate seminar. Often, misunderstandings are perceived only in the course of a very long dialogue. It is scholastic superstition to imagine that once a few definitions are set, the discussion can commence without requiring further clarification.

The process of dialogue will also permit greater clarification of what one oneself believes. If one does want to set up some rule regarding language, then perhaps this one: at any phase of conversations the inadequacy of terminology may be recognized and corrected in a comprehensible way.


Jewish Interlocutors

9. Islamic-Christian dialogue also has to be open for Jewish interlocutors.

Muslims and Christians need to talk to each other, and that need is better served if the discussion does not become too expansive; "interrelgious" does not mean that one always has to invite representatives of many religions. However, the testimony of Israel deserves a special place in a discussion between Christians and Muslims because the Jewish people stands for the belief that God exposes Himself to risk in history by choosing certain people as His witnesses. Thus no human being can gain communion with God by his/her own efforts.

Jewish interlocutors can be especially helpful when, for example Germans and Turks discuss. Ideologies that assume the uniformity of a nation are dangerous, and we are in need of a constant reminder. In today's Turkey the most widely spread maxims in society and state are not racist; yet sometimes "unitarianism" {14} asserts itself, even in religious policy, according to which minorities, foreigners and conversions from Islam are all destabilizing.

Proposals to include Jews to interreligious discussions can trigger counter-reactions, usually for two different reasons:



For one thing, people ask whether a discussion in which mission is not taboo will not become a mission to the Jews. Yet here a point applies which always applies in dialogue: whenever a Christian speaks of his faith he will assume that the history witnessed in the Bible is universally salvific; and he will do this open-mindedly, ready to learn from others, without triumphalism or proselytising.

Opening channels to Jewish interlocutors is sometimes criticized for another reason: Islam and Christianity are said to be much closer to each other because they get by without an elitist claim to being God's Chosen People. Yet here one must ask whether the idea of election is really arrogant. Election by God is, rather, the foundation of the testimony that addresses all and, indeed, is thus the basis of believing. One ought, furthermore, to remain sceptical in front of a dialogue intending an alliance of two against all.

It might be profitable to call in representatives of another religious community: the Bahâ'is. They believe in a post-Koranic revelation of God and thus contradict the Islamic confession. The participation of Bahâ'is therefore raises the theological problem of how Muslims justify the finality of the revelation communicated by Muhammad. Thus one might make progress in clarifying a question often asked by Muslims: Why do Christians not accept Muhammad while Muslims accepted Jesus? Looking at the Bahâ'is, Muslims often realize: if the revelation event that is decisive for understanding has already occurred, then no prophet can be recognized who claims to provide the criterion for interpretating history.


Beyond Revelation

10. Interreligious dialogue should also invite people who do not profess their faith in revelation.

When people meet in order to be among their own kind, the atmosphere easily turns musty. Sometimes people are looking for an interreligious dialogue to corroborate their view that certainn questions have been answered once and for all. Do they only want to speak to those who accept God's existence and that He has made revelations? Such a meeting would precisely not be a dialogue. One would be avoiding to hear the other and to be put into question.

When theology assumes its fundamental questions to be clarified for all time it becomes fundamentalist or a game of glass beads. Theology must expose itself to those voices which want to reject its entire project either through criticism or lack of interest. Theology wants to be in contact with human beings who are unsatisfied with the mere claim "that's how God wanted it." In discussions with such people theologians have to try to formulate new answers and examine their tenability. For only when things that are allegedly revealed are no longer taken for granted will people begin asking what conceptions of man and of the world mean for our living together.




{1} H. G. Rothe, Kuscheldialog oder Streitkompetenz?, in: Dialog im Wandel. Der christlich-islamische Dialog. Anfänge, Krisen, neue Wege, edited by B. Neuser (Neukirchen-Vluyn 2005) 7079, proves (in the same place 74) the reproach and warns against 'scolding dialogue' [Dialogschelte].

{2} See the mechanism of "othering" inter alia described by the arts scholar Irit Rogoff.

{3} J. Wach, Religionswissenschaft. Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftstheoretischen Grundlegung (Leipzig 1924), talks about "bracketing [Einklammerung] the question about validity (truth)" (26), quoted from D. Kemper, article Religionswissenschaft, in: HWP, Bd. 8, 771774, 773. A possible conception of oneself of religious studies is then made the standard of the encounter of religions; see F. Körner, Revisionist Koran Hermeneutics. Rethinking Islam (Würzburg 2005) 16-19.

{4} See about it F. Körner, Theologie des interreligiösen Zeugnisses (Stuttgart 2008) chapter 6, E.4.

{5} A conception of Jesus that can be held also by members of a different faith or unbelievers is presented by the Catholic exegete of the New Testament J. P. Meier in his book A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York 2001).

{6} So e.g. the Turkish theologian M. Öztürk; see F. Körner, Modernistische Koranexegese in der Türkei, in: Im Dienst der Versöhnung. Für einen authentischen Dialog zwischen Christen u. Muslimen (FS Christian Troll, Regensburg 2008) 1422.


{8} So e.g. Y. N. Öztürk, in: F. Körner, Alter Text neuer Kontext. Koranhermeneutik in der Türkei heute (Freiburg 2006) 225.

{9} See e.g. G. Ebeling, article Theology, in: RGG3, volume 6, 754769, especially 759761 (I. 3. b).

{10} See e.g. J. van Ess, Theologie u. Gesellschaft im 2. u. 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra. Eine Geschichte des religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam, 6 volumes (Berlin 19911997).


{12} For an examination of that reproach see: Klarheit u. gute Nachbarschaft. Christen u. Muslime in Deutschland. Eine Handreichung des Rates der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (EKD Texte 86, Hannover o.J.) 108.


{14} e.g. H. Uluengin, in: Hürriyet, 13.3.2007.


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