In meeting with a Muslim delegation in Cologne, Germany, on Aug. 20, 2005, Pope Benedict began with, "Dear Muslim friends," and concluded as follows: "Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends. ... I pray with all my heart, dear and esteemed Muslim friends, that the merciful and compassionate God may protect you, bless you, and enlighten you always." From these statements and other of his writings, it seems to me that Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, has made dialogue with other religious traditions, especially with Islam and Judaism, a priority.
In view of this fact, the great puzzle is this: why did the pope in his lecture at Regensburg choose to quote a 14th-century Christian ruler who clearly associates Islam with violence? That is a puzzle I cannot resolve. However, I do know, as a professor, I often use quotes with which I strongly disagree in order to deepen a discussion. And it is certainly possible that, as a former professor speaking at his old university, this was one of the pope's goals.
A week later, on Sept. 20, 2006, in his general audience in St. Peter's Square, the pope made it clear that he does not agree with the statement he quoted from the 14th-century Christian ruler. Pope Benedict stated: "In no way did I wish to make my own the words of the medieval emperor. I wished to explain that not religion and violence, but religion and reason, go together. I hope that my profound respect for world religions and for Muslims, who worship the one God and with whom we promote peace, liberty, social justice, and moral values for the benefit of all humanity, is clear."
However we interpret Pope Benedict XVI's lecture at the University of Regensburg, this can be a historical moment to advance interreligious dialogue, especially between Christians and Muslims. Let me explain my understanding of dialogue. The aim of dialogue is not conversion or to reach agreement on core beliefs. The aim of dialogue is to listen to each other, to come to know one another, and hopefully to respect each other. The hope is always that authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims can bring healing in the long history of the conflict between these two great missionary religions. From the very beginning, these two Abrahamic traditions have fought not only on the battlefield, but also in the field of ideas. The aim of dialogue is not to blur or resolve the conflicting truth claims of these two traditions. Rather, interfaith dialogue can become a path to friendship and love and must become a priority for all religious leaders.
The aim of dialogue is not to lead Muslims to accept Jesus Christ as "the sole redeemer of humanity" or to lead Christians to accept the Qur'an as the final, true revelation from God. But dialogue can help us see that members of another religious tradition can have authentic faith in their hearts and can be genuine ethical, spiritual people. In spite of the radical theological differences between Christianity and Islam, there are also very strong affinities. Both traditions believe in a God who is merciful and just and dream of a world of peace, one in which every person has infinite value. A true encounter with the other can give us the ability to extend love to the stranger, to see the humanity and touch of divinity in the stranger, the member of a different religious tradition.
At this point it is difficult to say if the pope's address in Regensburg will harm or improve authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The most important positive development since the pope's talk was an open letter sent to him by 38 Muslim religious leaders and scholars from all over the world, including Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, who was Grinnell's Gates Lecturer in 1994. The Muslim leaders expressed their deep appreciation to the pope for making it clear that the negative quotation does not reflect his personal opinion and for his strong support of frank and sincere dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
Now more than ever in this urgent moment of crisis for the world's religions, the time has come to be open to the possibility that there is truth and holiness in other religious traditions. This is the official position of the Catholic Church. In dialogue we can come to see that different paths are in some ways instruments of God, and that diversity of religion is the will of God.
In his splendid book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, contends that "In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths." This seems to be what the Qur'an is saying in Sura 5:48: "If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but [He has not done so] so that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete with one another in good works. To God you shall return and He will tell you [the truth] about that which you have been disputing."
Originally published as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazoine, Winter 2006