Lecture encourages inter-religious discussion and understanding

The Center for Social Concerns hosted the 9th Annual Rev. Bernie Clark, CSC, Lecture last Thursday night in the Andrews Auditorium. Entitled “The Challenge of Peace Pursued through Muslim-Christian Dialogue,” the lecture featured USCCB consultant and Islamic Studies professor Scott Alexander, as well as Imam Hassan Al-Quazwini, an advocate for interfaith dialogue and youth education.

Associate Director of the Center for Social Concerns Bill Purcell opened by recalling the lecturer’s namesake, Fr. Bernie Clark, and his emphasis on one-on-one dialogue to serve as a model for the night’s discussion. He then handed the microphone over to Father Kevin Sandberg, CSC, the moderator for the evening.

Fr. Sandberg began the evening by asking the pointed question, “Should a Catholic pray in a mosque?” He then noted that, in fact, many popes have done so. He cited Pope Francis’s remark that “Christians and Muslims…are brothers and sisters,” and thus led into the opening remarks from the event’s speakers.

Imam Al-Quazwini began noting the necessity of dialogue, in all its forms, for human interaction. With a timely analogy, he compared the human person to an iPhone, saying that “the password for that iPhone…is dialogue.”

Narrowing this point to a specifically religious sphere, he described how important combating ignorance through dialogue is with reference to his own religion: “Islam,” he said, “is the most misunderstood religion in the U.S.” He noted instances of people coming up to him after talks to tell him that they were previously unaware that, for examples, “Muslims love Jesus,” and other such examples of little-known facts about Islam.

After the Imam’s first remarks, Scott Alexander emphasized the same themes from a Catholic standpoint. Dialogue, Alexander noted, is so important that Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote of God and humanity as being engaged “in a dialogue of salvation” (which, by extension, we are called to take part in and bring to others).

Alexander also critiqued to some extent the notion of homogeneity that is sometimes found in today’s world—that is, the idea that we are fundamentally the same, and should ignore differences. In fact, contended Alexander, we have to encounter people in their differences—our diversity is not something “to be eradicated.”

Responding to a question from Fr. Sandberg regarding overcoming the challenges facing such dialogue, Al-Quazwini emphasized that sincerity is a key aspect of fruitfulness in such things. He also added that one must “accept others as they wish to define themselves,” and not simply stick to descriptions of beliefs and people from secondhand and inimical sources. For objectivity to be maintained, he contended, people must be approached on their own terms.

Alexander added to this the importance of “holy envy”—the ability to see things in the faith of others that one desires for oneself.

Throughout the dialogue, the power of the potential unity between Christians and Muslims was emphasized. The Imam noted that Muslims and Christians combined constitute the majority of the world’s population, and thus, it is crucial in dialogue to “talk about common goods.” The particular conversation at Notre Dame and elsewhere, he noted, is “just the beginning” of such a relationship.  

Continuing on this theme, the two men described what they believe God asks from people of faith. Al-Quazwini described the importance of worship through service—without the commitment to kindness and others, we are “worshipping our own ego,” he said. Similarly, Alexander described the necessity of stepping outside one’s comfort zone to do God’s work.

In a discussion-based portion of the lecture, during which members of the audience were able to offer their own ideas, further themes were brought up. One person mentioned the fear of being proven wrong as an inhibitor of dialogue. Al-Quazwini noted the importance of not “confusing dialogue with debate,” pointing out that if debate is emphasized, it will simply lead to unfruitful, drawn-out discussion: “I [alone] cannot change anybody,” he said.

Another attendee mentioned living during a violent time in Iraq, and described a soldier who was a great help in the community. It was not until later that he realized the man was a Jew—a member of a group the student had been taught to reject. He noted that sometimes even without dialogue, “small actions [can] build bridges.” In a later remark, Al-Quazwini echoed this statement: to effectively change perceptions, he said, one must “translate [one’s] faith into action.” Purely academic discussion, at the end of the day, can only go so far.

James Rahner is a junior philosophy and theology major living in Alumni. Formerly a seventeen year-old. Contact him jrahner@nd.edu.