Thursday, October 16

Saint Francis and the Sultan: Models for Interreligious Dialogue

There is an interesting story in the Jewish Talmud about two rabbis and a Gentile. The Gentile asks the two rabbis to be taught the entire Torah - one of them gets angry, and the second replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” This is the essence of the Judeo-Christian message of loving your neighbor. In the modern context, we may speak of loving “the Other.” Unfortunately, however, this has not always been carried out by Christians, and one of the wounds that remains by Medieval Christianity is the Crusades.

The five Crusades are some of the most bloody and brutal battles fought in human history. There was a great number of political, social, geographical and economic reasons for the Crusades, but Christian soldiers were enlisted via the idea that the Holy Land had to be reclaimed. Unfortunate and unspeakable violence occurred on either side, but even in the midst of this swirling chaos, there still remains a beacon of hope, of light, and of peace. In the year 1219, during the fifth and final Crusade, St. Francis of Assisi went to Damietta in Egypt and preached to the Saracens (a medieval term for Muslims), particularly to the sultan Malak al-Kamal. 

Why is this important? First of all, there is modern Palestinian conflict is between Jews, Christians and Muslims. In order to heal the wounds caused by both the past and the present in order to form a better relationship in the future, dialogue and praxis need to occur. For this to occur, boundaries need to be crossed so that interreligious dialogue can take place. But how can this be accomplished? One would argue that the encounter between St. Francis and Sultan al-Kamil provides a proto-dialogue that can teach today’s believers invaluable lessons. In order to do so, foundations need to be laid, sources must be sifted, the encounter needs to be reconstructed, and the importance of this encounter, as well as how the relationship stands between Christians and Muslims today, need to be examined in order to foster better understanding not only of this historic event but how Christians and Muslims understand one another today, and how we can begin to heal the broken bonds and work side by side interreligiously. 

Providing a Backdrop
In 1213, Pope Innocent III issued an encyclical, Quia maior, which put forth his plan for a fifth crusade. Unlike the previous four, however, this crusade was not begun by kings or rulers – but by the Pope. As such, this meant that both the Papacy and the entirety of Christendom was to be in support of this final effort to retake the Holy Land. At the time, Pope Innocent III felt that in order to respond to the call to “love your neighbor,” he had to free fellow Christians from the Muslims in the Holy Land. As a result, excluding Muslims from this love of “neighbor” meant that they were the Other, and they were dehumanized. 

The situation from a geopolitical perspective was not much better. Nearly the entirety of the Levantine coast was now controlled by the Ayyubid dynasty. There were still a few isolated areas that Christians held since the previous sultan Saladin had removed them from Jerusalem. At this time, there were merchants, farmers, knights, priests and others who inhabited these Christian areas, and one of the more important historical feats they are responsible for is the formation of three different military orders: the Knights Templar, which was created to guard the temple of Solomon, the Teutonic Knights, and lastly, the Knights Hospitallers, both of which were created to fight and serve by caring for the hurt and wounded. 

By the year 1218, when Crusaders moved into the delta, Sultan al-Aldil (who was the former Sultan Saladin’s brother) was taken off guard and sent one of his three sons - Malik al-Kamil, to go against the invaders. Sultan al-Aldil had prepared the entire empire against this Fifth Crusade, and al-Kamil helped to raise an army in Cairo. Soon after, however, there was a little island in the delta that was lost. This island held a huge tower that had previously been heavily guarded, but it was the loss of this tower that seemingly broke the Sultan’s heart and led to his sudden death, which left his son, al-Kamil, as the new Sultan of Egypt. By this point, Christians decided to attack the port and powerhouse of the Saracens at Damietta in Egypt, and the city of Acre had been captured by the Christians, which St. Francis was to soon land. 

St. Francis had tried before this point to travel to the Muslim world. Now that he had finally made it, he left in June of 1219 from Ancona and landed in Acre not long after, which - as aforementioned - had just recently been captured by the Christians. After visiting some friars who had been in Syria, Francis and his companion, Illuminato, went to the camp outside of Damietta. This camp held soldiers, assassins and mercenaries from twenty European countries. These individuals tended to join the Crusaders more for sport or pleasure than religious reasons. There is one appalling and violent account that sufficiently illustrates this. In August of that year, eight Saracens were captured and had their ears, lips, noses and arms chopped off, and one of their eyes was taken out. A few of these men were sent back to Damietta as a visual warning to the Saracens, while the rest were hanged on fortifications as if they were scarecrows. The Christians, who long ago had their founder crucified, were themselves doing the crucifying. 

By the time Francis entered Egypt, the Crusades had been going on for about 120 years. A number of early chronicles write that Francis was absolutely horrified by the violence of the Christian army, but by the time he arrived, the fighting was at a brief lull. He began talking to those who were sick and wounded while also helping to nurse them back to health - as much as they could be helped - and at the same time was watching as King John and Cardinal Pelagius continued to fight over the next move. Undoubtedly, this reminded him of his earlier experiences with war, from which he seemed to have a kind of survivor’s guilt. 

As a young man, Francis took part in a local war against Perugia, was imprisoned and kept in prison for about a year. He later went on to have an experience where God spoke to him, he renounced his father, his wealth, heritage and inheritance, and took on beggar's clothes and began to rebuild churches, as well as gathering a following that led to the formation of the Franciscans after approval from Pope Innocent III. His experience with war made him deny the attraction of power, wealth and prestige. For example, in his Testament, he wrote "May the Lord give you peace." This may be seen as a positive sign that Francis wanted peace, not war. Indeed, after the war we do not see him condoning any form of violence whatsoever, but embraced love for lepers, the poor and the marginalized. By the time he was in the middle of the action at Damietta, these experiences must have been on his mind. 

This was perhaps one of the many reasons why his encounter with the Sultan was so welcome. Sultan al-Kamil is rumored to have been a member of the Sufi brotherhood, which may be another reason for the hospitality, but this fact is hard to prove. Regardless, it seems that whatever the case may be, St. Francis had seen enough violence, enough bloodshed and enough hurt in his life, and decided to make his own move toward peace. Before examining a reconstruction of this historic encounter, however, it is necessary to examine the sources of said encounter in order to ascertain what can be known and what is left to guesswork.

Sources of the Encounter
There are 15 accounts in the 13th century that mention St. Francis and the Sultan. It seems that the later they are, however, the more confrontational they became. Later accounts represented controversies in the Franciscan tradition, and due to the scarcity of the sources (most repeat the same information), it is not the easiest task to determine what actually happened at Damietta. There are only a number of writings from St. Francis himself, but a bulk of material from later sources, mainly legendary and hagiographical material. Unfortunately, there is no contemporary Muslim source that refers to this visit.  

The only kind of contemporary Muslim reference is an inscription on the tomb of the Sultan's adviser, that says "remember his adventure with the monk." But the Sultan knew a lot of monks, even Muslim monks. As Muslim scholar Muhammad Abuelezz points out, however, it may be that it was simply well-known among Muslims. At that time, Christians in Egypt had met the Sultan before and the Qur'an encourages dialogue. 

Paul Moses, author of The Saint and the Sultan, believes that Jacques de Vitry (known elsewhere as James of Vitry) wrote the earliest and most credible account. Jacques de Vitry (1160-1240) was a preacher, historian and church leader, and he witnessed many important parts of the early Franciscan movement. In 1220, de Vitry had been at Damietta, and in Letter VI he wrote, “...[Francis] was so inflamed with zeal for the faith that he did not fear to cross the lines to the army of our enemy. For several days he preached the Word of God to the Saracens and made a little progress. The Sultan, the ruler of Egypt, privately asked him to pray to the Lord for him, so that he might be inspired by God to adhere to that religion which most pleased God.” 

Following this, de Vitry wrote his History of the Orient between AD 1221-1225. In chapter 32 he wrote of the Franciscans, “even the Saracens and people in the darkness [of unbelief] admire their humility and virtue, and when the brothers fearlessly approach them to preach, they willingly receive them and, with a grateful spirit, give them what they need.... the founder and master of this Order, Brother Francis... was so moved by spiritual fervor an exhilaration that, after he reached the army of Christians before Damietta in Egypt, he boldly set out for the camp of the Sultan of Egypt, fortified only with the shield of faith. When the Saracens captured him on the road, he said: “I am a Christian. Take me to your master.” They dragged him before the Sultan. When the cruel beast saw Francis, he recognized him as a man of God and changed his attitude into one of gentleness, and for some days he listened very attentively to Francis as he preached the faith of Christ to him and his followers. But ultimately, fearing some of his soldiers would be converted by the efficacy of his words and pass over to the Christian army, he ordered that Francis be returned to our camp with all reverence and security. At the end he said to Francis: ‘Pray for me, that God may deign to reveal to me the law and the faith which is more pleasing to him.’”

Thomas of Celano (pronounced Chelano) wrote a short account of Francis two years after his death, and then wrote a sort of sequel in 1247. In his First Book of the Life of Francis he wrote, “Now, in the thirteenth year of his conversion, he journeyed to the region of Syria, while bitter and long battles were being waged daily between Christians and pagans. Taking a companion with him, he was not afraid to present himself to the sight of the Sultan of the Saracens... Before he reached the Sultan, he was captured by soldiers, insulted and beaten, but was not afraid. He did not flinch at threats or torture nor was he shaken by death threats. Although he was ill-treated by many with a hostile spirit and a harsh attitude, he was received very graciously by the Sultan. The Sultan honored him as much as he could, offering him many gifts, trying to turn his mind to worldly riches. But when he saw that he resolutely scorned all these things like dung, the Sultan was over-flowing with admiration and recognized him as a man unlike any other. He was moved by words and listened to him very willingly.”

Writing forty years later, and displaying at least some reliance on the account by Thomas of Celano, St. Bonaventure also added to the corpus of texts related to this encounter. According to St. Bonaventure's account of the encounter, Francis and the Sultan were two rivals who spiritually wrestled, and Francis was the victor. However, the early accounts of Thomas of Celano and James of Vitry do not portray the encounter in this way. It is interesting to note that both Thomas and James were part of the Fifth Crusade, so the fact that they mention this peaceful discussion between Francis and al-Kamil speaks volumes. Further, St. Bonaventure was the first to mention a trial by fire. He wrote that Francis dared the Muslims to walk across fire, and prove whose God was the real God. The Sultan declined, and the incident did not transpire. 

But in examining these early sources, the fire incident - though popularly portrayed in the Franciscan art tradition - comes under much scrutiny. First of all, this seems to be either inspired by or directly derived from the narrative in 1st Kings 18, where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a trial by fire. Although it could be argued that Francis simply had this in mind when he challenged the Sultan, there is further reason to doubt this incident. Moses argues in his article, “Mission Improbable” (adapted from The Saint and the Sultan) that challenge to the trial by fire goes against both the edicts from the Fourth Lateran Council, and also against what Francis says in his own writings about living peacefully with the Saracens. Francis was very attuned to the edicts of the council, which banned trial by ordeal. Francis was not one to disobey the church. The idea of Francis challenging trial by fire likely was not historical, and as noted, also does not fit with the image in his own writings. St. Bonaventure wrote more theology, it seemed, than history. Later accounts made the encounter much more confrontational, and claimed that Francis said that the Saracens may kill the two friars if they could not prove that Islam was true. 

It seems that one of the earliest accounts, written by French Bishop James of Vitry, portrays Francis as not being confrontational with the Sultan. Elsewhere, he portrays Francis as reckless and Muslims as ogres, but not here. Even St. Bonaventure's account of the life of Francis did not portray the friar in such a light, necessarily, and when he proposes the fire incident, the Sultan declines. But this peaceful approach seen in the early sources can be further evidence by Francis’s own writings. In chapter sixteen of his Regula non bullata, “Those who are going among the Saracens and other nonbelievers,” he describes how the friars in his Order are to approach nonbelievers and engage with them. This chapter was formed by his experience with the Sultan. Francis already had a precedent for his treatment of “the Other,” such as lepers and beggars. By engaging with Muslims, he took it one step further. The Franciscan Rule of 1221 details this simple, peaceful, non-violent life of the friars. Francis never asked anyone to take up arms - indeed, he asked quite the opposite. The friars were also not to judge others, to be kind and gracious to others, and to be a servant to others. Along with this, the friars were called to preach the Gospel. They were asked to live among non-believers, such as the Saracens, as if they were part of their community, and if the Lord prompted them - then they would preach. 

As a final point concerning sources, in the authentic writings of St. Francis, we find no condemnation whatsoever of the Muslims. Yet in a 14th century text, St. Francis seemed to instruct his followers to attack the law of Muhammad. Also, once he learned of the death of the Franciscan martyrs in Morocco, he exclaimed, "Now I can truly say that I have five brothers!" But if Francis truly had an attitude of wanting martyrdom, why do we not find him provoking the sultan or attacking Islam in front of the sultan? It seemed that martyrdom was not a motivating factor. In fact, this text - and two "exempla" of Francis, wherein his motivation appears to be the liberation of the Holy Places from the Muslims - are both later accounts, not from St. Francis, that more accurately represent 14th century prejudices toward Muslims, not the true Franciscan approach. 

Reconstruction of the Encounter
It is not an easy task to piece together what actually happened. But we may surmise quite a bit, gleaning what we can from the few sources that we do have. Moses, the aforementioned author of The Saint and the Sultan, lays out a helpful and plausible reconstruction. By the time he went to Egypt, Francis believed that God warned him to tell the others of an attack planned by Cardinal Pelagius - it would not end well. The Cardinal did not listen, and his words came true. Shortly after this time, in September of 1219, Francis set out for the sultan's camp. He agreed with the Cardinal that his actions were his own, and that he alone was responsible for them. But Francis wanted peace. Francis and his companion Illuminato set out for Damietta. 

Over forty years later, his companion Illuminato related to St. Bonaventure that while he and St. Francis walked toward the Saracen stronghold, they chanted Psalm 23, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Illuminato also claimed that they saw two lambs, at which point Francis quoted a passage from Matthew about being sheep among wolves. Shortly after this, both men were found and seized by the Saracens, and only one phrase came out in response to the Saracens questions - “Sultan.” Francis and Illuminato were beat, chained and led to a post. The Sultan soon allowed an audience, which was significant, as he had quite recently offered to provide a gold Bezant for every head of a Christian that was brought to him, as recorded by St. Bonaventure. 

Kamil and Francis were around the same age, though Francis was about a year and a half younger. As was his normal greeting, Francis may have began with, "May the Lord give you peace." The Sultan returned the greeting, and asked if he had come to become a Saracen (a Muslim) or if he had come in response to the call for peace - the Sultan had told the Christians that for the surrender of Damietta, he would give them Jerusalem and the True Cross (which he likely did not have, frankly). But Francis and Illuminato, somehow crossing the language gap, responded they had had come representing God, not the Cardinal, and that they desired the conversion of the Sultan to Christianity.  

The Sultan particularly enjoyed discussions, debates and dialogue. He was known for holding discussions, usually on Friday evenings, so that his encounter with St. Francis likely took on more of a form of dialogue than a one-way preaching. In fact, we read in early sources that the dialogue continued on for multiple days, so there was likely a number of participants in this exchange of beliefs and ideas. We are told elsewhere that those who criticized the Qur'an and Muhammad generally tended to lose their heads, and the fact that this conversation continued on for several days bears out the fact that this was a peaceful conversation, and goes in line with what St. Francis himself wrote about the Saracens in his Testament. 

As noted by Steven J. McMichael in The Cambridge Companion to Francis of Assisi, through Francis's own writings we may be able to determine his focus on the encounter with the Saracens: he may have placed great emphasis on the Trinity, the human and divine nature of Christ, the Eucharist - to which Francis had a special devotion, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary. Muslims believed that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was a great prophet, that he ascended into heaven, and had a special place in God's plan. But they do not believe that he was divine, that he was crucified and resurrected, or that God exists as a Trinity. Francis likely tried to engage them at these points of contact.

At one point, though this point is debatable - it seems the Sultan may have sent for Muslim preachers. When they arrived, they were appalled at Francis’ attempt to convert, as well as the Sultan’s willingness to listen. So the thinkers - according to this possibly apocryphal source - made a trap. Evidently, there was, according to biographer Adrian House, “An ornate carpet with crosses woven into its design [that] was laid out in front of the sultan, so that when Francis approached him he must either set foot on the crosses, dishonoring Christ, or would decline to, so insulting al-Kamil. Unsuspecting, Francis walked straight up to the sultan, but when reproached for sacrilege, he immediately replied he was guilty of no such thing. Christians carried Christ’s cross in their hearts; he had merely trodden on the crosses of the thieves who had died with him - the only one to which Muslims could lay claim” (211-212). 

As he left, the Sultan offered Francis gifts - but it seems that he only accepted one gift, an ivory horn. This horn was used to call people to hear Francis preach, according to a later inscription to the horn. Some sources say that the Sultan desired to convert, but was afraid of causing a revolt or being stoned. He therefore asked Francis to pray that God would show him the right path. Finally, it seems that Francis and the Sultan had eaten together at meals, essentially breaking bread - which is of course of great significance in Christian tradition - showing the bond, the peace and the love between the Christian and the Muslim.

Importance of the Encounter
This encounter evidently made an impact on Francis himself, but also quite clearly has a lasting influence today. Although the effects were not immediate, the Fifth Crusade was not halted, and the Sultan was not converted, St. Francis may have been positively benefited from the encounter with the sultan in 1219. As McMichael points out, he seemed impressed by the call to prayer via the use of bells, and instituted bells for prayer following this. He also seemed to have a greater emphasis on praising God, perhaps inspired by the 99 names of Allah. Some critics claim that this is not an example of interreligious dialogue, but one could beg to differ. Far from being a conversation denouncing Islam, this was a friendly conversation in which Francis simply preached the Gospel out of love.  

Another influence can be seen in Francis’ approach to the Holy Land. Some believe that when Francis went to Egypt he had also visited the Holy Places in Jerusalem, but there is slim evidence for this. Instead, as is evidenced by the Canticle of Creatures, Francis emphasized the sacredness of all reality. In a way similar to medieval liturgical drama, St. Francis celebrated the live first Nativity scene in Greccio after the Damietta encounter - and considered it a sacred experience and sacred place. Indeed, he felt that wherever the Eucharist was, that place was sacred. Christ was present everywhere. Around nine months after the experience at Greccio, Francis had an experience at Mt. La Verna. Later sources look at Greccio as Bethlehem and La Verna as Jerusalem. Christ appeared, so to speak, as a child in Greccio - but in a vision as the crucified Christ at La Verna. This is where, as the accounts say, Francis received the stigmata - the wounds of Christ. Why are these two events at Greccio and La Verna important in understanding what happened with the sultan at Damietta? Both events emphasized that Christ's birth and passion could be celebrated anywhere. We did not need to reclaim the Holy Land through war, because was present always. This experience of war continued to evidently have a lasting effect on Francis.

Further, Fr. Cusato, Professor through the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University, argues that we can see a clear impact on Francis’s later life at La Verna, even beyond the stigmata. “When he is at La Verna where he receives his Stigmata, he writes on a piece of parchment. On the front are praises of God, on the back are some very enigmatic writing often thought to be a blessing to brother Leo, one of his companions (the popular Blessing of Aaron). It seems he has very much on his mind, particularly a new military push that the Christian church launches on Egypt and the sultan’s men in 1224. He goes to La Verna and prays very hard about this. The text he writes is very similar to the 99 names of Allah in Islam. On this parchment, he draws a very strange head lying on its side, with a cross shooting out of its mouth. I’ve theorized that the head is the head of the sultan and that’s he’s praying for the sultan, to protect him from harm and accept Christ before it’s too late.” This incident alone clearly demonstrates the enormous impact that the time spent with al-Kamil had on Francis. 

Perhaps what is best taken away from this is that Francis trusted the Sultan. In order to work together with someone, you have to build up trust. The encounter between St. Francis and the Sultan can and does provide Christians and Muslims with a new sort of paradigm, specifically for encountering the Other, for dealing with the Other, as well as embracing and welcoming the Other. How, then, can we view Francis as a model for dialogue? 

Francis as a Model for Dialogue
People are made up of a number of influences, inspirations, and various people, places, and a myriad of other factors that can shape them. As Fr. Dan Horan wrote in a 2008 article, Trappist monk Thomas Merton was no different. He frequently mentions St. Francis throughout his writings, and in 1966, he wrote that "[I] will always feel that I am still in some secret way a son of St. Francis. There is no saint in the Church whom I admire more than St. Francis.” Also, Merton’s prayers, poems and theological views on poverty, the Trinity, the environment, Christology and interreligious dialogue all seem to have been influenced by Franciscan values. Merton is important as a modern figure in interreligious dialogue, specifically for his work between Christianity and Zen Buddhism in the 1960s. 

Evidently, then, there are aspects of the Saint’s approach that can be utilized for peaceful and loving dialogue. Today, we would hardly start dialogue by trying to convert someone. But there was not interreligious dialogue in the 13th century as we have today. So how did Francis go about engaging in dialogue with the Sultan? In what today may be called Franciscan interreligious dialogue, Horan points out that there are three major factors to consider: 1) The radical adhering to the evangelical value of solidarity; 2) The preferential option for the discovery of common faith; 3) The position of minority rooted in a commitment to lifelong conversion (49-50). 

Put simply, Franciscans have always put a great emphasis on the connectedness with all of creation, as is evidenced in Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures.” Francis recognized the Sultan and the other Muslims as part of God’s creation, and hence, they were brothers and sisters to Francis. By embracing this, however, he also became a stranger to his own culture, as this was quite different from what the Church of the time thought. Francis did not attempt to go against the Church, but he did try to live out the Gospel the best way he knew how. The second factor – the discovery of common faith – is clearly seen in chapter sixteen of the Regula non bullata. Some scholars believe that part of this chapter is either a mistranslation or interpolation, it seems, so that the way it ought to be read is that Francis wanted his followers to start from the point of doctrinal agreement – both Christians and Muslims believe in one God, who is the Creator – but to work up dialogue from there, in order that they may believe in a fuller understanding of God as a Trinity. 

To be sure, the encounter between Francis and the Sultan was not necessarily intended to be simply a dialogue. This fact needs to be remembered. However, as evidence by the sources and the reconstruction, Francis also desired peace, and it was his approach to al-Kamil that impressed the Sultan so much. This approach of brother to brother, friend to friend, person to person, is what needs to occur in interreligious dialogue. It is not simply a conversation between Islam and Christianity - it is interpersonal dialogue, or a conversation between people.

Catholicism and Islam Today
This visit displayed several characteristics, such as hospitality, mutual appreciation, interreligious dialogue, open prayer, and lastly, gratitude. Through these characteristics and values, St. Francis paved the way for interfaith relationships in today's world, which was needed as much then as it is now. But where is the conversation today? Muslims come to the conversation bearing in mind what the Qur’an says about dialogue, “"Do not dispute with the People of the Book except in a manner which is best, barring such of them as are wrongdoers, and say, 'We believed in that which has been sent down to us and has been sent down to you, our God and your God is one [and the same], and to Him do we submit'" (Surah 29:46). Various surahs also directly call for dialogue with the nations. It also calls for reconciliation, bridge building, restoring relations and resolving conflicts. Within the prophet Muhammad's life, we also see a few examples of dialogue. The Christian king of Ethiopia welcomed Muslim refugees. There was interfaith dialogue with a Christian delegation from Najran close to Yemen. Christians were also allowed to pray in mosques. 

If Muslims come to dialogue bearing this in mind, what is the Catholic perspective? The groundbreaking Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (1965) notes that there are a number of similarities and shared beliefs between Christianity and Islam. There is One God, there is an esteem for Abraham and Mary - including the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Jesus is present in Islam (though as a prophet only, not as God), and there are similar ideas about judgment as well as praying, fasting and almsgiving. Further, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day" (841). This is itself a paraphrase from Lumen Gentium 16, another Vatican II document. These examples are sufficient to demonstrate textual considerations between the two religious traditions, but what about actual encounters?

Although the encounter between Francis and the Sultan was nearly 800 years ago, more recently, in 2008, the Pope and what can be considered the highest authority in Islam met together for a conference. As the "grassroots" of each movement, the people of both faiths are called to take after both the example of Francis and of the Pope and engage in kind, loving and honest interreligious dialogue. Sometimes, however, we find that we have either intentionally or inadvertedly said or done the wrong thing, and thereby caused hurt, but it is the duty of the Christian to try and create a positive from the negative. The example of Pope Benedict demonstrates this. 

In their book, In the Spirit of Francis and the Sultan, George Dardess and Marvin L. Krier Mich
relate a speech given Germany in 2006, during which Pope Benedict opened by quoting an emperor from the AD 1300s. His speech was on the relationship between faith and reason, and he used this quote - on Islam - to illustrate a religion that did not use reason. However, the Pope received much criticism for this, and a large number of Muslims wrote to the Vatican attempting to challenge this claim in a document titled A Common Word. As a result, 2008, the Vatican held a thirty-day conference inspired by this document. There was a lot of good done for, through and by this conference, and an emphasis was placed not necessarily on theology between Christians and Muslims, but on praxis. Both are called to solidarity, to help the needy, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the sick, the dying, the hurt, and others. It seems, then, that Pope Benedict's blunder became a blessing, echoing the age-old saying, "God can use bad things for a good purpose." 

When entering interreligious dialogue, both traditions at this point in the conversation can agree on one thing: Social Justice. Both Islam and Christianity address this. Jesus and Muhammad lived in unfavorable times, and although there are times in which good, interfaith dialogue and aid can and will occur, there are also issues of social justice that need to be addressed. Interfaith relations are good, but it must also show itself in praxis. One of the shared truths that Muslims and Christians can come together to work on is the poor. The Qur'an and the Bible stress this repeatedly. In order to carry out this mission, they have to live in solidarity - living with and experiencing the poor. It seems that the Abrahamic ethic teaches the love of God and the love of neighbor. In the Abrahamic traditions, for those who seek and desire justice, controversy and struggle surely follows. 

Moving Toward Interreligious Dialogue
Francis envisioned a relationship between Christians and Muslims built on peace, love, brotherhood, and the Gospel, and is therefore an excellent example of how interreligious dialogue can be done, and how we can live in peace, not war. To be sure, however, although much changed between the 13th and the 21th centuries, much has remained the same. There was (and is) still war, violence, unrest, racism, inequality, and all manner of injustices. As a result, we continue today to have the need to hear the voice of a stranger, of “the Other.” St. Francis helps us do just that. He still speaks to us today. Francis laid the path, and there are many - like the aforementioned Thomas Merton - who have demonstrated that this path is still used today. An internal, foundation and spiritual change is therefore called for. This affects everything – how we treat others, how and what we think about God, how we live our lives, and how we dialogue with those who hold other ideas. Through this, we begin to look at one another as brother and sister. We should not try to make the Other into our image or our likeness, but allow them to be perfectly themselves. This engagement of the Other does not mean an abandonment of one’s faith, but rather a genuine encounter with the Other. In order to bring love to the world and look on another as brother and sister, interreligious dialogue in the Franciscan way ought to be encouraged.

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Horan, Dan. ""Those Going Among the Saracens and Other Nonbelievers'': Thomas Merton and Franciscan Interreligious Dialogue." Merton Annual . 21. (2008): 44-66. Print.

McMichael, Steven J.. "Francis and the encounter with the sultan (1219)." Trans. Array The Cambridge Companion to Francis of Assisi. . 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 127-142. Print.

Moses, Paul. "Mission Improbable: St. Francis & the Sultan."Commonweal. 29 09 2009: 11-16. Print.

Early Christian Heresies and the Development of Doctrine

For many Christians today, early Christianity has been seen as a single, unified entity. However, references from early apologists such as Irenaeus ("the heresy hunter"), Tertullian, Origen and others demonstrate that this was not the case. Further, the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945 recovered several apocryphal - largely heretical - texts, such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John, and others. A "heresy" is a teaching that can be considered un-orthodox or opposed to what is considered "correct" teaching. Within the first few centuries of Church history, a multitude of heresies arose that forced those in the Church to develop doctrine, canon, and various other things.

One of the earliest and most well-known heresies is Gnosticism. "Gnostic" comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." Gnostics were not solely Christians, although Christian Gnosticism is a better-known branch. Within Christian Gnosticism, the material world was looked on as evil, and by gaining secret knowledge from texts or a teacher, one could leave this material world. Thus, in the infamous Gospel of Judas, Jesus is seen as representing a good god, and seeks to free others from the bondage of the evil Jewish deity. Another heresy, Docetism, picked up slightly on this, Docetics (from the Greek dokeo, "to seem") believed that Jesus was only seemingly human. Thus, around AD 200, Serapion of Antioch wrote that the Gospel of Peter should not be read aloud in church, as it seemed to support Docetic views.

Around this time, in AD 144, a man named Marcion began another heresy. In an attempt to sever Christianity from its Jewish roots, Marcion - like the Gnostic Christians - claimed that the God of the Old Testament was not the god of the New. Thus, in an important doctrinal event, Marcion removed the Old Testament and used portions of Luke's gospel, as well as some of Paul's epistles. This decision would force development that is still felt today. While dealing with Gnostic and Docetic apocryphal texts, the "Great Church" began to see that Marcion's decision called into question what texts would be considered Scripture. This, in turn, led to further development of the Biblical canon, which reached its peak in the late AD 300s when the canon was finally decided upon.

While these various controversies progressed, Christians of every kind began to come under the threat of persecution. In AD 249, the Roman Emperor Decius put forth a decree that spelled trouble for Christians. Decius felt that Rome needed to return to its ancient religion, so he decreed that the gods must be sacrificed to. Within the Church, some immediately sacrificed, others forged certificates of proof, and others wavered, but returned to the faith. Those who lapsed became known as the Lapsi. During this Decian persecution, some Christians would not give up their faith but instead openly confessed it during torture. This group became known as Confessors. The Lapsi were going to these Confessors and being re-admitted into the Church - but individuals such as Cyprian of Carthage and Novation disagreed with this. When Pope Fabian died, there arose a dispute between Cornelius and Novation. In the end, Cornelius became Pope, and Novation, as Antipope (much like the earlier controversy with Hippolytus). Novation felt that the Church needed to be pure, and Pope Cornelius was too lax with the unity, the schism remained for several generations. 

In fact, the Novation controversy not only called into question the authority of bishops and confessors - but also as they felt that the baptism given by some was not valid. This idea carried over into the post-Diocletian period, when the Donatist controversy arose over those who had handed over sacred objects (traditores). As a result, the Novation schism and later Donatist schism forced the Church to refine and define its doctrines on sacraments, particularly on baptism. This is why today, largely due to the contribution of Augustine of Hippo, Catholics are not re-baptized if the original baptism was the correct form and matter. 

Around this time, three other major heresies cropped up, that of Nestorianism, Arianism and Pelagianism. The latter heresy was another that Augustine had argued against. A British monk named Pelagius disagreed with Augustine's doctrine of Original Sin, and taught that Adam simply set a bad example, but Christ set a good moral example for us to follow. Pelagius placed on emphasis on Free Will, believing that Christians could choose to sin or not to sin. This forced Augustine to refine his concept of Original Sin, so that he also began writing about the Will and the Evil Will. At the same time, however, Augustine was trying not to cross over into dualistic thinking, which his Manichean background had held. But Augustine was not the only struggling with dualism. 

In fact, controversy began centered on the dual natures of Christ. While some held that Jesus was fully human and fully divine - suggesting an image, perhaps, of wine and water mixed together in a glass - others such as a man named Nestorius held opposing news. Nestorius believed that Christ had two separate natures - suggesting an image more along the lines of water and oil in one cup, unmixed. This debate took on the form of monphysitism and dyophysitism, one that would shape theology for generations. The Nestorian view was more widely held in the East, but primary questions of the nature of Christ had been ongoing in the Church. 

The Arian controversy is another example of this question. An Egyptian priest named Arius read passages such as "the Father is greater than I," and believed that while God the Father was eternal, God the Son was not. Arius spread his views in catchy tunes, so that even boatsmen on the Nile were singing these catchy theological heresies. But the Church was not content with this. In AD 313, Emperor Constantine had made Christianity legal. Various effects came about as a result of this action, but aside from some immediate effects - Pope Miltiades was given the Lateran Palace, bishops and clergy enjoyed non-taxation - one major event occurred that had yet taken place: the first major Church council. Constantine allowed bishops the use of imperial posts, and what is now recognized as the first ecumenical council met in AD 325 near the Emperor's new Capital of Constantinople. It was the Council of Nicaea. This was authority of the bishops led to the formation of the early Nicene Creed, as they felt it better to produce a formal creed against Arianism continued, these were big steps for Christianity.

From this brief overview of early Christianity, it can be seen that much of theology arose as a reaction to or against heresy. Christological views were developed, the Biblical canon was developed and refined, sacramental views changed, and various theologies emerged. It has been said in theology that clarity comes out of confusion, or order out of chaos. As the early Christian movement grew, it took on new ideas, new concepts, and new understandings. Although Acts of the Apostles identifies the early Church as "The Way" it seems that this "Way" was - and is - in a continual ebb and flow progression, development, and discovery.

Thursday, August 14

Christianity: Other Religions and Religious Pluralism

What is religion? Etymologically, the word comes from the Latin noun religio, but there are three verbs that are associated with this, including relegere (meaning “to turn to constantly” or “to observe conscientiously”), religari (meaning “to bind oneself [back]”) as well as reeligere (meaning “to choose again”). If religion is defined as a response to and perception of the reality of God, then questions abound. Why are there so many religions? What does this mean for Christianity? What is the current relationship between Christianity and Judaism? What is the relationship between religion and society, or religion and institutionalism? When discussing Catholicism, these and other questions arise. There is also a question as to whether or not someone can be Christian and not belong to a religious group. This is perhaps best seen in "non-denominational" Christianity, a movement that has been around since the 1990s. These Christians have more of a spirituality than a religion (Note: This article is based on chapter ten in Richard P. McBrien's book, Catholicism, as well as Christianity and Other Religions by Ian Markham).

Attempting to Define Religion
It is not easy to come up with a working definition of religion that encapsulates all aspects of it. In antiquity, such as Greco-Roman or Jewish areas, religion was inseparable from daily life, whereas today in the United States this is not the case. Some try to look at religion historically, sociologically, psychologically, philosophically, theologically, scientifically or through other means. For some, religion is seen as a sort of crutch, while others see it as necessary for society, as a necessary part of human experience. A working definition of religion therefore needs to include considerations from each aspect of religion. 

Early Christians linked Greek philosophy to the Christian concept of the Logos. St. Thomas Aquinas linked religion to justice as well as knowledge of God. Religion is seen as something that takes in all elements of the shared human experience, and appropriating these to a relationship between God and man, and this relationship comes about through Revelation. But this does not mean that every person of faith is religious. Indeed, some people are spiritual but not religious, while some are religious but not spiritual. Some have faith without truly perceiving their faith, and as such as oriented to God. Therefore, "We understand religion here as an individual, social, and institutional manifestation of some explicit faith in God" (5).

Characteristics of Religion
One of the major characteristics of religion is the holiness and sacredness of religion. What is holy is considered to be themysterium tremendum et fascinosum, that is, a mystery which at the same time overwhelms and fascinates us. But this also means that religion is not only concerned with the impact of the holy and sacred upon us, but also our response to the holy. It can produce such things as creeds, doctrines, teachings, morality, liturgical structures - and a community. A religious community often begins with a kind of charism, and once the founder or a leader has died, the community must decide what to do. At this point, it becomes routinized. Those groups who claim to be wholly charismatic are actually not, as they still meet at a set time, at a set place, in a set community. There is therefore an element of routine at work. But these communities ought to be consistently re-evaluating and reflecting on its foundations and what sets it apart, as well as how they live out their faith.

Criticisms of Religion
There are a number of criticisms from within religion and from outside of religion which concern the subject. Within, critics such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich have noted that religion has sometimes been an attempt of man to place religion above revelation, or that religion has been placed into an area separate from everyday life. Within Christianity, a great number of reform movements have been present from early on - monastic movements, schismatics, heretics, later Protestants, and others. Critics outside of religion say that those who are religious are simply regressing to a form of childhood understanding, or those who seek psychological comfort in something seemingly non-existent. Finally, there are those - such as Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others - who live a kind of religious individualism. It is individuals such as these who may believe in a deity but do not adhere to any kind of structured religion - a form of spirituality, perhaps, but not religion. 

Types of Religion
Starting from the notion that God is both transcendent and immanent, it is understood that there are religions that emphasize each of these. Those who stress the transcendent God put an emphasis on the otherness of God, as in Deism, whereas those who stress the immanence of God put an emphasis on the worldliness of God, as in Pantheism. Those who emphasize transcendence are Judaism, Islam and Confucianism, whereas those which are immanent tend to be Buddhism and Hinduism. There is also a point at which transcendence and immanence is pushed to the extreme, so much so that the transcendent turns into Atheism, and the immanent turns into Fetishism, as in black magic. 

Christianity and Other Religions
Today's world is markedly pluralisitic and diverse. This pluralism and diversity is also clearly seen in the religious world. The way in which we relate to God is sacramentally, which is mediated and communal. Revelation is seen in how the individual receives the given revelation according to context and understanding. As has been seen, there are a number of similarities between the various major world religions - priesthoods, a call to conversion, monastic life, the supremeness of God, liturgy, and so forth. Certainly, there are a great number of differences - but these many similarities can also encourage interreligious dialogue as well as greater brotherhood and understanding. From this, attitudes of both indifferentism as well as exclusivism have arisen in the Church. 

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1960s) is worth quoting here: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. It looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what it holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people. Indeed, it proclaims and must ever proclaim Christ, ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom everyone finds the fullness of religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things…(cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18–19)” (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, n. 2).

The relationship between Christianity and Judaism has had a long and sometimes extremely complicated history. There has been bloodshed on each side, certainly, and Christians for centuries blamed Jews for the death of the Messiah. However, Vatican II made it clear that Christians should not blame either all of the Jews living at the time of Christ or the Jews living today, but instead should realize the similarities, the heritage of the Hebrew Bible, our heritage through God's covenant, and that Jews are still the brothers and ancestors of Christians. 

The acceptance of religious pluralism has only really come about in a post-Vatican II world, so the history of Catholicism's relation to other religions can be seen through four different historical stages. The first stage was that only Jesus Christ is the sole means of salvation. The second stage was during the medieval period when the Church felt threatened by Jewish and Muslim presence, and there was thus a negative response. The third stage came about in the nineteenth century as a result of the idea that all religions are essentially equal. The Church condemned this kind of indifferentism. The fourth stage is that which has emerged out of Vatican II. Currently, the Church holds that other religions have salvific value, and that there needs to be interreligious dialogue - but that Christianity holds a unique position in the economy of salvation. Indeed, we may see Christianity as the fullness of revelation, whereas other religions may be seen as having partial revelation. The question then becomes - how do we have interreligious dialogue? In order to even begin to examine this question, Christians have to be settled in their own mind about what view they take on other religions. 

Religious diversity and pluralism has at times created a multitude of problems for Christianity. Even in the very beginning, there was the looming question of just how Jewish the faith had to be. Was there much continuity? Was there a radical break? Where was the line drawn? The first Church Council, the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was called to answer this very question. Christianity's relations to other religions became much more complex as it developed. However, it also owes a great deal to other philosophies, religions and traditions. For example, St. Augustine noted that Platonic influence on Christianity, whereas St. Thomas Aquinas utilized Islamic thinkers (who had been used Aristotelian thought). Certainly, whether consciously or unconsciously, Christians have been influenced by other religions.

Seeing Other Religions as a Problem
Other religions need to be viewed within their own context and set of beliefs and teachings. In order to make a judgment on a belief or teaching, you must first understand what is actually being taught. There is thus a first step of trying to understand the Other. One of the problems in modern times has been seeing Christianity in light of science, history and other religions, which have at times seemingly made more sense to some. If, for example, God is loving, why would he send 68% of the world to Hell for not believing the Christian faith but another faith, even Judaism or Islam? The general response is that missionaries should go and convert these people. Statistically, however, there is a very small number of people who convert from one tradition to another, generally because religion is so often tied to one's cultural identity.

As a result of these and other considerations, there are three varying Christian responses to other religious traditions: pluralism, inclusivism and exclusivism. Pluralism is the idea that all religions have salvific value, inclusivism declares that Christianity is the true faith and that other religions have seeds and parts of the truth without knowing it, and exclusivism insists that Christianity alone is essential for salvation, and one must be committed fully.

The Pluralist Hypothesis
A good example of the pluralistic approach is seen in prayers. A number of prayers taken from the Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Islamic traditions are similar. A major supporter of this hypothesis, John Hick of the University of Birmingham believes that each tradition is all praying to the one God using the language, resources and traditions of that religion. Hick believes that different traditions are vehicles that have access to "the Real." But what about witchcraft and the occult? In this case, Hick declares that a religion that is totally ethically destructive should be excluded. He also believes that Jesus should be looked at as one who shows us God, and is not himself God - a functional Christology rather than an ontological Christology. Both the academy and the Church are highly skeptical of the Pluralist position for a number of obvious reasons.

The Exclusivist Position
The Exclusivist position is the normal position in most religions, particularly among Christian evangelicals. The emphasis is here on a commitment to Truth and a commitment to Revelation. If Christianity is true, all other religions are therefore false. If God revealed himself to Christianity, he therefore did not reveal himself to other religions. Thus, Christianity would have a claim of knowledge of "the Real" - of God. In order to allow other religious traditions into the fold, so to speak, loving your neighbor and perhaps dialoguing with them is how one wins the soul to Christ. But in revealed Scripture, the three-fold point should thus be made: many religions are guilty of idolatry and may be inspired by a force of evil (i.e., a fallen angel/demon beginning Islam), second, Christians have a responsibility to preach the Gospel to all nations (see Matthew 28:19, for example), and thirdly, Scripture does not fully reveal what happens to those who never hear the gospel. Therefore, there is still uncertainty in this area - which brings up Inclusivism.

Due to the large amount of those who will never hear the Gospel or have the chance to respond to the transformative nature of the Gospel, many Christians take an interest in this third approach - Inclusivism. According to Ian Markham, "Inclusivism is the view that even though salvation is exclusively in Christ, faithful adherents of another faith tradition may be saved through Christ, even though they do not realize it in this world." The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner was a large proponent of this. The best way to make sense of this view is in light of the Old Testament patriarchs: they were not under the Christian name, but indeed were all alive (and died) prior to the coming of Christ. God is therefore able to save some even without their realizing it, in a sense, in this view.

Further, consider how a Christian may view Islam through an Inclusivist lens. The Qur'an is addressed to Muslims, but also to People of the Book (Jews and Christians). It also mentions Mary, the mother of Jesus, more times than in the New Testament. It refers to Jesus as the Word of God and as the Spirit of God, and also calls him the Messiah/the Christ. The title used of him in Mark 6:3, "Mary's son," is the most common Qur'anic title for Christ, "Jesus, son of Mary." His virgin birth through Mary is also seemingly found in the Qur'an, and other Biblical figures such as Adam, Satan, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and others play a large role. The eschatology is extremely similar, and many phrases, concepts and ideas are highly Scriptural. "Allah," the god that Muslims pray to, is simply Arabic for "The God," and in fact, Arabic Christians pray to "Allah," as anyone in another language would address God. As a result, an Inclusivist may feel justified in saying that a Muslim is their "brother" or "sister," and that they are believers, in a sense.

Examining the Positions
However, there are many Christians and non-Christians who are critical of these views for a number of reasons. For example - how can knowledge of God be possible outside of Revelation? In the pluralistic view, some say that we must become post-pluralistic, in the sense that to impose such a view on others would be imposing a Western view, and thus a form of inculturation. Christians in Europe and the U.S. therefore need to consider theologies of other countries - for example, Christians in India have used Hindu insights to help their understanding of the Trinity and of the Incarnation.

Most religious traditions will not and do not take up the Pluralist tradition, as it would be giving up the essentials of their religion. However, Inclusivism seems to be present in some. For example, as aforementioned, the Qur'an calls Jews and Christians "people of the book." Although the Muslims believe they have the full truth, they do believe that Jews and Christians have partial truth. The Hindu Bhagavad Vita claims that other religions finding gods are really finding Vishnu. Christian tradition would seem to imply that Jesus as the Logos had a prior influence on Greek philosophers. 

Learning about God from others is perhaps what we need to take away from this. The Christian knows that Christianity had a Jewish and Hellenistic influence given the context it came about in, just as the Muslim recognizes the relation to Judaism and Christianity, Buddhists know the links to Hinduism, and Sikhs know that Sikhism came from a clash between Hindu and Islamic cultures. Therefore, Christians need to delve deeper into their understanding of other religions. We must let God be God, so that God in Godself does His work - and not us. This article was intended to present, not argue, three of the major Christian theological views of other religions. The Catholic Church takes a kind of Inclusitivist position, whereas a Non-Denominational believer may take an Exclusivist position. For some, Inclusivism would constitute as heresy. For others, they are limiting God's love and depth and making him into their image, not His, by claiming that they alone can be saved. These matters are not simply abstract theological concepts, but have very real consequences on the world around us, how we treat each other and how we view other people groups. Therefore, Christians should be mindful of differing concepts of other religions, their own view and understanding of each, but also be aware of the call to "love one another" and care for our fellow man, as we are all created in the imago Dei - the image of God.