Theological dialogue can be referred to as dialogue about the foundation of being itself, the Absolute, God. The foundation of the dynamics of dialogue lies at the root of the human being and is shown in the existential analysis of the human being himself, as modern philosophers have pointed out. It has been pointed out that the human being is essentially the being of transcendence, the being open to the totality of being and oriented to meet its ultimate foundation and first origin, the Absolute.
The human being does not only exist but is also aware and conscious of his own existence. In this way, the human being is and experiences himself as the being of transcendence.
It is from this point of view that self-transcendence enables Christians and Muslims to engage in theological dialogue to discuss the significant truths about how God has revealed himself in their religions. This shows that, in as much as God reveals himself to individual persons, he also reveals himself to religions that are truly oriented to him.
As such, a major theme that run through several of John Paul II`s encyclical letters and speeches is that of the universal presence and action of God`s spirit in human history. His first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis speaks of “the firm belief of the followers of other religions as an effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the visible confines of the mystical body.” His strongest statement on the universal presence and action of the Holy Spirit is in his encyclical on the permanent relevance of the Church`s missionary mandate, Redemptoris Missio, which states unambiguously that the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, everywhere in the world, “affect not only individuals, but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions.”
It is clear that for Pope John Paul II, the many and varied religious traditions of humanity are much more than mere attempts by human beings to reach out to God. This necessitates theological dialogue through exchange of ideas on the understanding of God. As such, this theological dialogue shows that God`s spirit is present in, and works through other religions. It is surely legitimate to speak of these religions as playing a participatory role in the salvation of their followers.
The theological foundation of interfaith dialogue
In the contemporary world, religious plurality has become a reality. This is not one religion, but many religions. In this respect, communication and interdependence among various peoples and cultures have developed a greater consciousness of religious diversity, with the advantages that come with it. Despite the crisis, religiosity has not disappeared.
The Church asks all Christians to take a step towards reaching out to other believers through inter faith dialogue. This process of reaching out to believers of other religions is the theological foundation of inter faith dialogue. This step therefore, could be realized on the everyday life scale, through promoting common social projects among believers of different religions, through doctrinal speeches and sharing of religious experiences.
The mission of the Church
Christ has established the Church as a universal sacrament of salvation, as a sign of the salvation that God offers to all humanity. Jesus, when teaching the necessity of faith and baptism, affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church. This is “the special place of the action of the Holy Spirit.” As for the 2nd Vatican Council, the Church is related to the whole of humanity.
“All men are called to this Catholic unity of the people of God, this unity that announce and promote the universal peace, and to this unity are related in many ways, the Catholic believers, the others who have faith in Jesus Christ, and finally all men who are called to be saved by the grace of God.”
When mentioning those who are not Christians, the last Council distinguishes them in four groups: “the Jews, the Muslims, and those who, by no mistake of theirs, do not know the Gospel nor the Church, but nevertheless seek God sincerely, and try to accomplish in their acts his will that they know through the directives of their conscience.” Finally, “those who have not reached the final knowledge of God and try to live in righteousness.” The affirmation of the belonging of these four groups of non-Christians to the people of God, is based on the fact that the universal call for salvation, conceals in itself the call to the Catholicity of the unique people of God.
All this is based on Christ, “the unique mediator who is present for us in his body which is the Church. That is why the Church conceives her mission as the one that Christ has assigned to her, that is, to carry the good news of salvation to every man.”
This means that, if a person receives the Gospel by his own will, and confesses his faith in Jesus Christ, this person could receive baptism and become a member of the Church. The good news of God is always proclaimed and not imposed.
Interfaith dialogue is thus part of the mission and evangelization of the Church. This explains why Pope John Paul II in the 5th Chapter of his encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio, stated that, “the testimony, the proclamation of charity towards the ones who are in need, are ways of mission that means evangelization.” Moreover, in certain places, the practice of dialogue is the only testimony that we can give about Christ and the generous service toward believers of other religions.
Convergence and divergence
Both in the Qur`an and the Bible, Jesus is referred to as Word. Jesus is referred to as Word from God in three passages in the Qur`an. No other prophet has been described with such a title. “….O Mary! Behold, God gives you good news of the word from him, who shall become known as the Messiah, Jesus, Son of Mary…” (Qur`an 3:45) “…the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary was only messenger of God, and his word which he conveyed unto Mary….” (Qur`an 4:171) “….
God gives you good news of (a son whose name) is John, (who comes) to confirm a word from God…” (Qur`an 3:39). Christians believe that in the first chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus is identified as the Word incarnated, or made flesh. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God…. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Indeed Jesus id given an honored status in the Qur`an and he has also been given certain titles and descriptions not given to other prophets, but they believe that Jesus was mortal. This can be summarized in the following verse:
“O people of the Book (Jews and Christians)! Do not exceed the limits in your religion, and do not speak lies against God, but speak the truth; the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, is only Messenger of God and his Word which he bestowed on Mary and a spirit from him; believe therefore in God and his messengers, and say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you; indeed God is only one deity; far be it from his glory that he should have a son, to him belongs all that is the heavens and that is in the earth, and God is all sufficient as a disposer of affairs.” Qur`an 4:171
This verse explicitly shows the main difference in the doctrine of Christians and Muslims. Muslims deny the divinity of Jesus and belief in the trinity. However, we Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus and we believe in the Trinity.
The Bible records the unique conception of Jesus by a virgin woman, Mary, as a fulfilment of a prophecy made in Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1:26-31 and Mathew 1:18-21. The Qur`an also records the vision to Mary and the virgin birth of Jesus in two passages in surah 3:45-47 and in Surah 19:16-22. The virgin birth is given constant emphasis in the Qur`an. No other woman is given such veneration as it says in Surah 3:42 that “surely Allah has chosen you and purified you, and preferred you above the women of the world.”
In Surah 4:171, Jesus is called “His Word.” In Surah 3:45 the Qur`an states that the angel, when announcing the unique conception of Mary, told her that Allah was giving her good tidings of the “Word from him.” The expression here used in the original Arabic, is kalimatimminhu. Broken up, it means Kalmia (word), min (from) and hu (him).
Jesus is the only human being who ever lived who is called Word from God. The same title is applied to him in the Christian Bible: “he is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God.” Revelation 19:13. Once again, Jesus is given a title in the Qur`an which the Bible gives him as well. Like the Messiah, this is a very distinctive and remarkable title. It is important to emphasize two specific features of this title. Jesus himself in his actual person is the word. Secondly, the source of this Word is God. Other prophets received messages from God, but Jesus, in a unique way, is himself the message of God to the world.
Additionally, according to the Bible, Jesus is the only person who lived without sin. The book charges all men from Adam onwards as being under the power of sin (Romans 3:9), and as having sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Only Jesus is exempted.
These passages record the sinless of Jesus; 1 Peter 2:22; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 John 3:5. On the other hand, the Qur`an also declares that Jesus was without sin. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce her conception of Jesus, he said: “I am only a messenger of your Lord, to announce to you a faultless son.” Surah 19:19. Faultless or blameless clearly means without sin. In this respect, the Qur`an confirms the Biblical teaching that Jesus was the only sinless person who ever lived.
Christians and Muslims both believe that there is only one God, and, their doctrines of God share some important structural similarities. However, Muslims and Christians also find themselves differing over how this God is one, with Muslims rejecting the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Qur`an asserts that God is one in several places (Qur`an 16:51, 44:8, 47:19, 112:1-4), and monotheism or tawhid is the foundational doctrine of Islam. Muslim criticism of the Christian Trinity then flows from the conviction that the Trinity comprises God`s unity and entails tri-theism. Once it is established that the Christian doctrine is not monotheistic, it is but a short step to censuring Christians for committing the unforgivable sin of associating partners with God.
According to the Muslims, “Christians wrongly give Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit a share in God`s exclusive rule of the world, and they devote worship to Jesus that is due only to God.” This is the main challenge. Moreover, Muslims justify their conviction that the Trinity violate God`s unity in a number of ways. We shall now survey the three major lines of argument which mainly are misconceptions about Christianity. The three are Qur`an are, namely; Qur`anic criticism, Trinitarian doctrinal development and rational deficiencies in the classical Trinitarian formulations.
The Qur`an include several verses often used to criticize the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Qur`an rejects a triad that consists of God, Jesus and his mother Mary: “ O Jesus son of Mary! Did you say to the people, worship me and my mother as two gods besides God.” Qur`an 5:116. This verse surprisingly includes Mary as part of the Trinity which is not the Christian understanding. This is really a great misconception. On the other hand, the Qur`an also denies that Jesus is the son of God and that God is three; “the Messiah son of Mary was only a messenger of God, …..Do not say Three….God is only one God. Glory be to him.” Qur`an 4:171. Another text implies that calling Christ God`s son is unbelief and that worshiping Christ as Lord is associationism (Qur`an 9:30-31; 2:116; 5:73 and 5:75).
In response to this Qur`anic reproach, our Christian understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is that it does not speak of God, Jesus and Mary, but of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Christians concur with the fundamental Qur`anic rejection of polytheism, and they agree that we should not talk of three gods. These responses to the Qur`anic reproach are a reminder to Muslims inclined to look to the Qur`an for their knowledge of Christianity that they need to examine what Christians say about Trinity before rejecting it.
Additionally, “the Muslims Jesus is the patron saint of asceticism, the Lord of nature, a miracle worker, a healer, a moral, spiritual and social role model.” Islam highly reveres both Jesus and his mother Mary.
Islam recognizes the virgin birth of Jesus by Mary as Mehdi Hasan puts it, “she was the chosen woman, chosen to give birth to Jesus without a husband.” Nevertheless, unlike Christians, Islam does not accept the divinity of Jesus, his passion and resurrection. Hassan states “for Muslims, the virgin birth is not evidence of Jesus` divinity, only of his unique importance as a prophet and a messiah. The trinity is rejected by Islam.” The paradoxical beliefs of two religions are thought to be fundamental tensions and challenges among people who carry inter faith dialogue that neither side wants to face off.
Mary according to Islam
As stated above, Mary occupies a very important position in Muslim history. Hence, she is highly honored as the mother of a prophet, as the virgin mother. Thus Mehdi Hasan claims “the Virgin Mary or Maryam, as she is known in the Qur`an, is considered by Muslims to hold the most exalted spiritual position among women. She is the only woman mentioned in Islam`s holy Book and a chapter of the Qur`an is named after her.”
The similarity between the Bible and the Qur`an is that both hold the story of Mary as chosen to be the mother of Jesus mediated by the angel Gabriel. However, there is one thing Muslim theologians do not pay attention to, which is the sinlessness, the virgin birth. The reason is that “they do not want to pursue a line of thought that might lead to the affirmation that Jesus was divine, a very disturbing conclusion for the Muslims.” The other reason is that if Muslims affirm that Jesus was divine, then they will have to accept the whole process of Christian doctrine. In other words, if they do so, they automatically become Christians.
Obstacles to dialogue
The challenge of interreligious dialogue is compounded by other factors. Perhaps the most serious of these is lack of grounding in one`s own religious tradition. This has less to do with knowledge of doctrines than conversion of heart, mind and spirit which is, after all, the objective of all religions. It`s also worthwhile important to note that when faith is weak, then one`s religious tradition becomes an ideology and ideologies have to be defeated by argument and stronger means. Another obstacle to dialogue is ignorance and misunderstanding of the beliefs and practices of the religious order. This is evident when Muslims refer to Christians as polytheists and idol worshipers; or when Christians describe Islam as a demonic religion committed to holy war.
Christian views of Islam have been shaped, transmitted and perpetuated through direct encounter but also for those who do not interact with Muslims, through apologetic literature. Islam has been viewed by some Christians as intolerant and violent. This view tend to disregard the fact that Islam has been and remains a dynamic tradition which inspires and nurtures the lives of hundreds of millions of Muslims. Muslims often identify Christian belief in the Trinity with Tritheism. Muslims affirm that God does not beget and therefore they condemn Christian belief in Jesus` divine sonship. While in Christian faith God has revealed himself definitively in Christ, in Islam God`s complete and final revelation is given in the Qur`an. This can be an obstacle to dialogue because many Muslims hold that Christians altered scripture to justify Trinitarian and Jesus` divine son ship.