Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pope not passionate about ecumenism

The Pope is not passionate about ecumenism

Ghassan Rubeiz, September 19, 2006

Arab Christians are often asked by Westerners when did they convert to Christianity. Western Christians seem to have forgotten that Christianity was born in the Middle East and they act as if they are the source of the faith. Oblivious to the presence of ten million Arab Christians, Westerners act with minimal sensitivity to their future in the region. Rising political tension between Western Christians and the Muslim world often translates into trouble for Arab Christians. The support Middle Eastern Christians receive from the West in foreign aid and in ecumenical partnership is outweighed by repeated, albeit unintended, political undermining from Christians abroad. Last week’s attacks on Middle Eastern church buildings are an example of the unintended and indirect harm the Pope has caused to Arab Christians in his unfortunate rhetoric about Islam.

But Muslim leaders and politicians will hopefully exercise restraint over the Vatican provocation. By displacing their anger on innocent minorities, Muslims will possibly increase Western prejudice against them. It is hard to believe that in Gaza and the West Bank, where Christian-Muslim relations have been solid for centuries, some churches were attacked as a demonstration of anger against the Pope and the Christian world. Peaceful street demonstration of anger is not surprising, but public portrayal of mass rage against Christian symbols is not accepted in Islam and would give Western Islamophobics additional excuses to promote their inflammatory products.

Christians must also exercise discipline. This is not the time to calm down the Muslim crowds with an interfaith calculator in which Christians list their grievances against Muslims. Certainly, there are Christian grievances to be addressed to Muslims but there are also parallel Muslim charges to be addressed to Christians. To indulge in interfaith debt reduction now is poor taste and poor timing.

Pope Benedict XVI did not score highly on a pluralism ecumenical scale. His recent reference to Islam in his speech to German students was pejorative and unfair, regardless of its brevity, its context or its intent. Where were the Vatican advisors when His Holiness prepared his address on the threat of violence in Islamic Jihad and relativist secularism in the West?

Quoting a fourteenth century Byzantine Emperor, the Pope hinted that Islam is evil and then he stated that Jihad justifies easy resort to violence. For the Pope to quote a Byzantine ruler to make a theological point is rather strange. Muslims battled for seven centuries with the Christian Byzantine Empire. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Crusaders savagely murdered Muslim, Arab-Christian and Jewish communities in the Middle East. Catholic experts should also remember that Ottoman (Muslim) rulers had been rivals for centuries to the Holy Roman Empire. Since the end of the First World War, Muslims have suffered from colonial and neo-colonial politics of Western Christians. How could any Vatican historian exclusively link Islam with violence and dissociate Christianity from war and abuse of power politics? For instance, how did Constantine unite and expand his Christian Kingdom, Byzantium, if not by the sword?

Still today, while distinguishing Islam the faith, from “Muslim” the faithful, the Vatican could convey a justifiable concern about extreme politics of Muslims. Religion analysts understand that Muslims, as adherents, and not Islam as a religion, are responsible for interpreting Jihad spiritually or politically, positively or violently, personally or collectively, justly or unjustly. Similarly, it is Christians, not Christianity, that interpret their faith to wage war or make peace, to colonize other countries or to help them through foreign aid and to dominate world resources or to manage them with responsibility.

The many sided cultural and political sources of Islamic anger must be addressed. Is the Vatican adding its arsenal to other opponents of Islam? Islam has been and continues to be demonized by the Western Evangelicals. Muslims feel that the extreme Christian right has been waging a war on Islam through televangelism, has blindly supported Israel, and above all, has provided a moral cover to the US war on Iraq.

The role of personality is rarely appreciated in theology formation. The previous Pope, John Paul the Second, in contrast to Benedict, worked hard at showing Islam a friendly face, addressing third world issues and reinforcing a global network of solidarity. The provocative Catholic analysis of last week has given extreme Muslims an excuse to lump all Christians in one oppositional category.

The main subject in the Pope’s address to the Germans was not on Islam but on the growing threat of Western secularism. If the Pope is preaching active participation in religion he should be admiring Muslims rather than giving them a commentary on their religion. The basic problem is that His Holiness, unlike his predecessor, does not consider Islam on equal footing with Christianity. Observers tend to agree that Benedict XVI is not a strong pluralist, as he should be, given his position.

The Pope’s recent statements about Islam sent me searching for a primer on ecumenism. As I understand it, ecumenism is a religious movement that considers all people as children of one God, regardless of the character of their faith. Ecumenism is cross-cultural rather than ethnocentric. It is interfaith oriented rather than dogmatic. Ecumenism encourages people of all faiths to deepen their own roots and to bring up the best in their religious traditions. In sum, ecumenism builds bridges among people rather than walls that are made of superiority and exclusion. Ecumenism is concerned about the danger of growing religious fundamentalism in all corners of the world.

His Holiness’ expression of sorrow for how his words were misinterpreted and how it caused alarm in the Muslim world does not do the job of damage control. Benedict XVI ought to take some concrete steps of reconciliation with Muslims, to admit that he could be wrong in his interpretation of Islam and to express respect for all religions. The Pope can call for an interfaith dialogue meeting with Muslim leaders during his expected late November visit to Turkey. Turkey provides a good milieu of Christian-Muslim dialogue as it is a large Muslim country that is half Middle Eastern and half European.

The Pope’s negative observations about Islam and the global Muslim anger in response to it reveal a growing gulf of misunderstanding between the Muslim and the Western world. As long as each religious tradition is absolute in its conception of the truth, religion will continue to play a negative role in politics. There is a basic universal problem in religious education. Religion is imparted to children as a frozen product; God is conveyed as a private possession and the printed word is treated as a final truth. We do not need to sing John Lennon’s song about “imagining a world with no religion” to achieve world peace. It would be more reasonable to come closer to world harmony if we can teach our children, demand from our clerics and request from our politicians a respect for the validity of other faiths. Insisting on monopoly of truth in one’s personal faith is a formula for tension with others. The Pope’s potential leadership in promoting religious tolerance is unmatched and underutilized. Benedict may need to listen better to Arab Christians in his approach to Islam. They are in a position to facilitate dialogue.

The author, an Arab American commentator, is former Secretary of the Middle East for the World Council of Churches. He can be reached at His blog is


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Rubeiz,

Your knowledge of history is lacking. You use the term "Crusader" in the same context as "Byzantine". The Crusaders were Catholics acting on orders from Rome. The Byzantines were Orthodox Christians. The Crusaders' main target were the indigenous Orthodox Christians of the Middle East because they would not bow to Rome, and in the process the Crusaders killed many Muslims and Jews as well.
When the Pope quoted Emmanuel Paleoglous, he skillfully left out the things that Emmanuel Paleologus, an Orthodox Byzantine, had said about the Catholic Church, which were far worse than what he said about Islam. In any event, the native Orthodox Christians of the Middle East (these Arab Byzantines if you will) actually joined Salahaddin to fight the Catholic Crusaders.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on ecumenism and the Trinity, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see:

Samuel Stuart Maynes

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