Reflections on a Dialogue with Islam
By Professor Richard Heinzmann
A declared aim of the Eugen Biser Foundation is to contribute to understanding between Christianity and Islam. The object is to fulfil this aim at a scholarly level. First, in an exchange among experts, those basic religious and theological positions are identified and elaborated that can provide a sustainable foundation for peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims – positions suited to providing a positive solution to the not insignificant and steadily worsening social problems we face today.
Based on this, the dialogue can then be extended to include other problem areas as well. The criterion that guides all of these considerations is the basic value of human dignity as anchored in the German Constitution.
I. The Need for Dialogue
Clearly, there are many factors that contribute to the coalescence of Europe and the ability of its people to live together peacefully in democratic structures. Despite increasing secularisation, the relationships among the various religious communities and different worldviews in Europe continue to play a role that is difficult to overestimate. In this regard, Islam takes on special significance in our own particular situation. In the near future, its identity and its outlook upon non-Islamic religions and non-Islamic states will have a decisive influence on internal political developments in Germany and in Europe.
Clarification of these problems is an indispensable precondition to the coexistence of Muslims and Christians, and hence to the integration of Islamic fellow citizens in the community of values of Europe. Foremost among these problems is recognition of the Basic Law [Grundgesetz] for the Federal Republic of Germany. Mutual trust cannot be built on a reduction of superficial prejudices and latent fears alone. Instead, conditions must be created in which tolerance in one direction can rely upon tolerance in the other, free of the risk of ambush by intolerance.
All social, political and economic progress is predicated upon the religio-theological problems that this aspiration implies. These religio-theological problems are, strictly speaking, ‘pre-determining’. Because they are rooted in intellectual-cultural and religious criteria, they must be broached at the scholarly level of philosophical-theological dialogue. This is a task that will take many years to complete.
Ultimately, the success of all other endeavours is contingent upon clarification of the basic positions with which we are faced, and upon dialogue carried out at the level of scholarly analysis.
II. Topics of the Dialogue
The inherent and overriding consideration throughout all of this is that the aim should not be to conduct what is primarily a conversation among theologians and addressed to the relationships between Islam and Christianity in general. The selection of issues that will need to be dealt with is not a function of any theological method but rather a result of the inner consistency of what is ultimately a socially oriented objective.
- Accordingly, the first issue for consideration is the question of the nature of the human. The answer to this question forms the basis for all other human and social areas. Is man the individual a specimen of Man the species and to this extent subject to the aims of the whole such that society is entitled to revoke an individual’s right to exist? Or must the individual be understood as a person, a human being who thus, in his or her singular dignity, is inviolable, and who must be recognised as a moral subject on the strength of his or her freedom of conscience? The decision of this question also has direct consequences for the status of the individual within a religious community. Faith must then be conceived as an act of personal liberty and may thus never be forced.
When views differ over the things that make us human, the consequences for society, state and politics are obvious. Particularly urgent and inevitable in this connection are questions about the conditions of possibility of democracy, of freedom of religion, and of human rights.
- These considerations lead directly to the question about God: whether we view the human individual as a person or as a specimen is inextricably linked to the approach to God from which any interpretation of the human emanates. In this connection, if not sooner, one has an occasion to discuss the differences between Christianity and Islam with regard to the approach each religion takes to revelation and the consequences in which this results. Fundamentalism of the written word is under discussion in this regard, as is the question of Holy Scripture and religious community as a function of historical circumstance. Above all, questions of hermeneutics must be discussed here.
On the part of Christianity, discussion of these issues can and must be informed by the experience of the Enlightenment. It is only through this process of rational reflection upon one’s own principles, and through examination of the course of the history of Christianity through a prism that permits criticism of tradition, that it was possible to overcome the grave errors of the Christian churches – errors that had a profound effect on the Islamic world (one need only think of the Crusades, for instance) – and to find the way back to the basic precepts of Christianity: precepts of peace, charity and nonviolence.
- Everything depends on a positive outcome to this dialogue. If the entire project is not to fail – in a social and political sense as well – an agreement no reservations whatsoever must be reached in at least one aspect lying at the heart of the respective theological identities:
The inviolability of the dignity of each individual person, regardless of nationality or religious affiliation, must be accepted and guaranteed.
Religious communities must commit themselves to upholding this principle, applying it to their own faithful as well; the same holds true for the constitutions of individual countries. These are the conditions of possibility of humane coexistence among the peoples.
We must quite soberly face up to the fact that if we fail to arrive at this shared view of the requirements that apply across cultural and religious boundaries, all other attempts and endeavours are doomed to failure.
III. Political-Social Outlook
- The project as briefly presented in the limited space available here is not at all meant to downplay the significance – or, for that matter, render superfluous – other efforts already begun to promote Christian-Islamic dialogue. One can only wish the best to all such efforts in this direction. The project of the Eugen Biser Foundation does not see itself as a competitor to other efforts but rather, through its special accent, as a supplement to them. The object of the project essentially revolves around two issues, issues an awareness of which the project thus seeks to promote.
By focusing on the human being as person while setting other theological questions aside, the spotlight is directed at the sole basis for the integration of Islamic fellow citizens. The other issue involves the political and social consequences of the outcome of the dialogue. Aside from the scholarly nature of the dialogue, it is this aspect that reflects a sense of responsibility for the world as the other characteristic specific to the Eugen Biser Foundation.
- All of the scholarly findings with regard to basic positions lead nowhere unless we succeed in bridging the gap between these findings and society as a whole, and in enacting the insights gained in the real world. In our specific social situation, chiefly this means devoting urgently needed attention to long-term needs and necessities in the political arena. The object is – in the interest of maintaining social peace – to overcome a state of coexistence of Christians and Moslems in Germany and Europe that is still largely characterized by distrust. A modus vivendi must be found that is anchored in mutual respect and, as a result, beneficial to individual and society alike.
The current situation implies a conflict potential the political consequences of which can scarcely be foreseen. In light of these circumstances, the Eugen Biser Foundation, encouraged by the trust of numerous individuals in public life, sees it as one of its most important tasks to cultivate an ongoing exchange with representatives of politics, the business community and culture to generate proposed solutions that point beyond the moment – solutions to current and future problems arising out of our interreligious and intercultural situation. The fact that the Foundation has already embarked upon an intensive conversation with atheists, agnostics and non-believers, is also of assistance in developing criteria to provide orientation for a democratic, pluralistic society.
The Christian-Islamic projects of the Eugen Biser Foundation
– dictionary, symposia and conferences of experts –
are co-financed with funds from the European Integration Fund.