Preaching Morality

For all their divisions, though, Christians and Muslims potentially have much to learn from each other, in the practical realm as much as the theological. Muslims can certainly learn from Christian forms of accommodation with the secular world, from pluralism. But Christians too recognize that absolute separation of religion and state has its problems. In 2005, the Community of Sant'Egidio organized a meeting to address the question "Is Europe at Its End?" As the ever-thoughtful Archbishop Rowan Williams observed at this gathering,

Europe's distinctive identity, then, is a "liberal" identity, in the broadest meaning of the word: a political identity which assumes that argument and negotiation, plural claims adjudicated by law, suspicion of "positivist" notions of political power, are all natural, necessary features of a viable and legitimate communal life in society. But the crucial point for the Christian is the conviction that this "liberal" identity is threatened if it does not have, or is unaware of, that perpetual partner which reminds it that it is under a higher judgment. Unless the liberal state is engaged in a continuing dialogue with the religious community, it loses its essential liberalism. It becomes simply dogmatically secular, insisting that religious faith be publicly invisible; or it becomes chaotically pluralist, with no proper account of its legitimacy except a positivist one (the state is the agency that happens to have the monopoly of force).23

While Williams was not advocating any kind of religious-based state, his words do indicate the inevitable conflicts between Christian values and those of the secular European state. We should recall this contrast when we hear pleas for Muslims to accept the legitimacy of the nation-states in which they live and to abjure beliefs in a supranational religious cause. As far as they go, such calls are reasonable and desirable, but many would argue that an Islam that is not political is not Islam, at least not in any recognizable historical sense. To say this is not to denounce Islam for fanaticism: arguably the most ancient and pristine forms of the Christian faith were themselves radically apocalyptic, antisocial and antiworldly. But Western observers are over-optimistic if they believe that the alternative to Wahhabi fanaticism is a pallid liberal Islam akin to American mainline churches. Muslims, like Christians, also possess a historical vision that transcends states. Both recall that their religions existed before any nation-state now existing in the world, and will outlive them.

Muslims can learn from Christians the countless advantages of living in a pluralistic state with what Williams terms a liberal identity. Muslims can also remind Christians of the religious values that precede and outlast states, and which produce a healthy suspicion of the idolatry that sometimes surrounds official ideologies. Bruce Bawer argues that "It must become impossible for children growing up in Western Europe to be raised to see their religious affiliation as the be-all and end-all of their identity." Based on Europe's experiences during the twentieth century, many would rather rewrite that sentence to replace "religious affiliation" with the words "national loyalty" or "state ideology." Thus edited, such a sentence would be a welcome reaffirmation of what we might call the Dietrich Bonhoeffer principle.24

The sense that Christians and Muslims share common perceptions has already had significant effects in the international arena. At major global meetings in the 1990s, the Vatican cooperated with Islamic nations and interest groups to combat liberal proposals over abortion and contraception, much to the horror of Western feminists. Vatican officials sympathized with Muslim contempt for Western decadence and secularism. In 1997, then-Cardinal Ratzinger declared, "In the face of the deep moral contradictions of the West and of its internal helplessness— which was suddenly opposed by a new economic power of the Arab countries—the Islamic soul reawakened." Muslims understandably felt that "the Western countries are no longer capable of preaching a message of morality, but have only know-how to offer the world."25

Christians, like Muslims, teach moral standards that conflict with secular values, though of late, many have been reticent about preaching these too publicly. In 2006, Archbishop Williams himself issued an official plea urging English football fans to behave well when visiting Germany for the World Cup tournament. The new head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Muhammad Abdul Bari, agreed with the statement as far as it went but was disappointed that Williams had not gone much further. "The Archbishop of Canterbury should give guidance; he should be promoting moral issues." Implausibly, Abdul Bari recommended that English families should consider arranged marriages, but more realistically, he urged religious leaders to cooperate in fighting the widespread abuse of alcohol, as well as gambling and sexual immorality. The alcohol issue is an interesting example. While few advocate prohibition, many secular commentators agree that drink culture in Britain has become uncontrollable and dangerous, a serious incentive to violence and sexual assault, and that much greater restraint is needed. Yet the Anglican church has not spoken powerfully on the issue, largely because it does not want to be seen interfering in personal morality. Historically, such reticence is very new, and it could well fade if and when Christians and Muslims do make common cause.26

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