Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Islam and the Extraordinary Form

A glimpse of a transcendant mystery.
Today I am publishing a new Position Paper from FIUV, on the subject of Islam, on Rorate Caeli. Go over there to read it in full.

It sets out a very simple argument which seems difficult to deny. It goes like this.

1. Engagement with Islam (whether with a view to mutual understanding or evangelisation) is facilitated by common ground with Islam. The more common ground one has, whether cultural or theological, the better one can talk productively with people of other religions.

2. There is a great deal more common ground between Islam and that aspect of Catholicism exemplified by the Traditional liturgy, than there is between Islam and what is manifested by the reformed liturgy. In this, the Traditional Catholics are close to the situation of the ancient Christian churches in majority-Muslim countries.

What do I have in mind? Well, the ancient liturgy, and to a large extent the people who attend it, like the ancient churches of the Middle East, take (more) seriously the differences between the sexes; they use a sacred language, chant, and ritual; and they have more to say about fasting. The Novus Ordo has, from a strictly liturgical and also from a cultural standpoint, systematically eroded this common ground with Islam, just as it has eroded the common ground with the Oriental Churches.

Another point the paper makes is that Evangelical Christianity has its own approach to engaging with Islam which takes the opposite tack. They have common ground with Islam in placing great emphasis on a holy book, and in downplaying sacramental and incarnational theology and practice. They have an interesting, if adversarial, dialogue with Muslim apologists, in which the Muslims criticise Evangelical Christianity for giving God a super-human 'partner' and mediator, Jesus Christ, and the Evangelicals criticise Islam for giving a role in religious practice to a holy place (Mecca), and for an attitude to the Qu'ran which places its sacredness as a text (for example, in ritual proclamation) above its comprehension.

This approach is obviously not available to Catholics, and it is apparant that the general atmosphere and attitude to be found in the Church today falls between the two stools. It neither engages effectively with the ritual, aesetic, and 'family values' side of Islam, nor with what we might call the 'Low Church' side of Islam. Even the common ground the Holy See finds with Muslim countries in debates in the United Nations, notably about 'reproductive rights', is undermined by liberal Catholic attitudes to moral questions.

Since Islam is clearly going to be of major importance in the West as well as in traditionally-Muslim countries for the forseeable future, this is of no small importance.

A historical issue which is worth noting along the way is the retreat of Sufism and the advance of Salafism and Wahhabism in Sunni Islam in the 20th century. Until the early 20th century Sufism was a major and normal part of Muslim life in the Sunni world. Like Shia Islam, Sufism acknowledges 'saints' and encourages pilgrimages to their shrines. It elaborates Muslim ritual, most famously with the 'whirling' dances of the Dervishes. And its mystical theology emphasises a disinterested love of God, and the possibility of union with God, which contrasts with a literal-minded reading of the paradise offered to good Muslims in the Qu'ran. Like syncretistic 'folk' Islam in Africa and Asia, this is opposed by, and to an extent, has been successfully cleared away by, the purifying, reformist project represented by Salafism and Wahhabism.

It would be simplistic to look at this through the lens of Catholic and Protestant conflict within Christianity, but the net result is a form of Islam where the common ground with Evangelical Protestantism has been somewhat expanded, and the common ground with Catholicism somewhat contracted. In engaging with Islam, it is worth bearing in mind that some of the things Muslim apologists criticise in Christianity, and particularly in Catholicism, can be found in widespread Muslim practice of the recent past.

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    1. I do not disagree that having a proper form of worship within the Catholic community is important for converting anyone. I think it is as important as maintaining a community that upholds Catholic faith and morals. All of this would make it more encouraging/helpful for a person when they do decide to become Catholic.

      However, I am not so sure that such things play a primary role in getting people to consider the Catholic faith. The common ground you point out is something that Muslims expect. Some Muslims I have met even think that the Bible is a subset of the Koran with mistakes. In their narrative, Christians and Jews are simply people who have corrupted the faith. Seeing some common aspects merely acts as confirmation from them rather than make Christianity look attractive.

      I think converting Muslims (or any other religion) must start with the elephant in the room. Catholics need to make it clear that they are not persons who are merely clinging to the religion because they are attracted to what it offers. Rather, they have to make it clear that they believe in it because there is good reason to think that it is from God, while no other religion can give good reasons to think the same.

      In regards to reasons, we are speaking of historical reasons like the death and resurrection of Christ. In contrast, the founder of Islam is merely a person who is claiming he is a prophet and wrote a book (something even I could do). This same man contradicts what is historically established. So why bother listening to him? No intelligent Muslim should remain a Muslim as far as I can see unless they take the Protestant position of being anti-reason.

    2. Well they do remain Muslims, most of them, don't they? So it is well to think of what aspects of Catholicism can engage them positively, and what puts them off, and making the best of the situation for the task of evangelisation.

    3. Yes, they do remain. I was trying to say that it was due to the Church playing down the need to pick a religion carefully (on reasonable grounds). The Church is allowing religion to be thought of as merely continuing ones traditional family allegiance (or picking what one finds most attractive, which is a bit rare in any of the Eastern countries that are more focused on family ties). So a Muslim (or any other religious faction) tends to focus on merely preserving ones allegiance to the faith of their families.

      I think you see a similar dynamic in countries like Japan where growth of Catholicism is pretty much stagnant. The Japanese do admire Catholic aspects (architecture, art, some aspects of the faith) and you find them scattered in most of their media. But they do not convert because ultimately, religion is merely seen as a continuation of ones family heritage rather than an intellectual choice.

      I could be wrong in this assessment.

    4. Oh I see. I think you are quite right about the attitude in the Middle East and Japan. I'm not so sure it makes sense to say that Church presents herself in terms of family tradition in the West. It's more of a lifestyle choice, and there is a lot of 'churn' between denominations.

      In order to attract people who see religion as (merely) part of family life one needs not only to make the point that religion is more than a set of family customs, but also to make sure that Catholicism is going to work, culturally, for people in their own cultural context. So there has to be an understanding of parents passing it on to their children, of stages of initiation of children and young people into it, of a connection with family relationships (eg the system of godparents), a place in the weekly and seasonal calendar, visibility in the home, and so on.

      That's what the Eastern Churches have, and it is what Traditional Catholicism has, but it's a lot less evident in the bog-standard Novus Ordo situation.