Do Jason and the Callers Think Much about Wadi al-Kharrar?

Recent discussion of John Paul II’s beatification resurrected parts of the pope’s career that I had completely forgotten, such as his 2000 trip to the place of Jesus’ baptism (Wadi-al-Kharrar). On that trip the pope said, “May Saint John Baptist protect Islam and all the people of Jordan, and all who partecipated in this celebration, a memorable celebration. I’m very grateful to all of you.” This was a year after John Paul II kissed the Qur’an during a visit to Rome by a delegation of Muslim leaders.

For some Roman Catholics like Robert Spencer, Islam and Christianity are fundamentally at odds and Islam is a threat to the United States. Others believe that John Paul II should never have been as friendly to other religions of the world:

I am an Orthodox Catholic (I do not consider myself ultra-conservative) and I cannot get beyond the incident at Assisi where the statue of Buddha was placed on top of the tabernacle (in the very presence of His Holiness), an act which Arch-Bishop Lefebvre called “diabolical.” Nor can I get the picture out of my mind of JPII kissing the Quran. And what about the joint prayer services with the pagans?

And then, of course, there is the condition of the Church under his watch. Need I say more?

Of all the popes- saints before JPII, would any of these things have happened under their watches? Does it preclude his sainthood? Should it? I don’t know the answers. But these are valid questions that cannot summarily be dismissed as “ultra-conservative” as Mr. Weigel attempts to do.

Then again, the reporters who cover the Vatican provide useful insights into what may drive Vatican policy (though it does not appear to be informed by Peter’s warnings about false teachers). This is from an old story about Benedict XVI’s 2009 visit to the Land many call “holy”:

When Benedict XVI lands in Jordan on May 8, it will be his first visit to an Arab nation and his first to a predominantly Muslim country since Turkey in late November/early December 2006. As it turned out, the Turkey trip became a kiss-and-make-up exercise in the wake of the pope’s famous September 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, which inflamed sentiment across the Muslim world because of its incendiary citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor with some nasty things to say about Muhammad, the founder of Islam. The iconic image from Turkey was Benedict XVI standing inside the Blue Mosque, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, for a moment of silent prayer in the direction of Mecca.

Because the Turkey trip was hijacked by damage control, Jordan offers Benedict his first real opportunity to lay out his vision of Catholic/Muslim relations while on Islamic turf. That vision goes under the heading of “inter-cultural dialogue,” and it boils down to this: Benedict XVI believes the real clash of civilizations in the world today runs not between Islam and the West, but between belief and unbelief. In that struggle, he believes Christians and Muslims should be natural allies. As a result, he has deemphasized the fine points of theological exchange – how Christians and Muslims each understand atonement, for example, or scripture. Instead, his priority is a grand partnership with Muslims in defense of a robust role for religion in public affairs, as well as shared values such as the family and the sanctity of life. (Among other things, that means joint efforts against abortion and gay marriage.)

The price of admission to that partnership, Benedict believes, is for Islam to denounce violence and to accept the legitimacy of religious freedom. In that sense, he sees himself as a friend of Islam, promoting reform from within a shared space of religious and moral commitment. To date, however, he has not found an argot for making that pitch successfully to the Muslim “street.”

All of this, and you can find a lot more about the Vatican’s relations with Muslims, adds up to a relationship between Roman Catholicism and Islam that is decidedly contested, with popes doing damage control and pursuing inter-religious dialogue in ways that would have made liberal Protestants proud, and some laity incredulous that the Vatican could be so indifferent to the claims of church dogma, with others willing to bless the popes in ways that John Paul II wanted John the Baptist to bless Islam.

But one additional item caught my eye while trying to take the pulse of Vatican-Muslim relations. It was a comment on the proper way to conduct inter-religious dialogue:

I am all for dialogue between Muslims and Christians when it is honest and not based on false pretenses. There doesn’t seem to be any use to dialogue that ignores difficulties and points of disagreement rather than confronting them. . . . One thing that must be recognized is that for many Muslim spokesmen and leaders, dialogue with adherents of other religions is simply a proselytizing mechanism designed to convert the “dialogue” partner to Islam, as the Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb explained: “The chasm between Islam and Jahiliyyah [the society of unbelievers] is great, and a bridge is not to be built across it so that the people on the two sides may mix with each other, but only so that the people of Jahiliyyah may come over to Islam.”

In line with this, 138 Muslim scholars wrote to Pope Benedict XVI, inviting him to dialogue. The title of the document they sent to him was A Common Word Between Us and You. Reading the entire Qur’anic verse from which the phrase “a common word between us and you” was taken makes the Common Word initiative’s agenda clear: “Say: ‘People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God.’ And if they turn their backs, say: ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims’” (3:64). Since Muslims consider the Christian confession of the divinity of Christ to be an unacceptable association of a partner with God, this verse is saying that the “common word” that Muslims and the People of the Book should agree on is that Christians should discard one of the central tenets of their faith and essentially become Muslims. Not a promising basis for an honest and mutually respectful dialogue of equals.

Which brings us back to Jason and the Callers. What kind of ecumenical dialogue do they encourage when some think it is really a form of proselytizing? And what kind of conversation do they facilitate when the Protestant paradigm is off limits? Rhetorical questions, perhaps. But given the way they call others to communion, one suspects they can’t be all that pleased with the recent popes’ outreach to Islam. (Or maybe they are.)