Friday, August 17, 2007

Jehovah's new name

According to a Dutch priest, Tiny Muskens (you read that right), it might be better for interreligious relations if "Catholic churches" called God "Allah" to promote rapprochement with Muslims. I'm not sure what the phrase "Catholic churches" is supposed to mean. Priests only? All practicing Catholics, be they clergy or laity?

Fr. Muskens's reasoning isn't as alien as it might first appear.

Tiny Muskens, the bishop of Breda, told the Dutch TV program "Network" Monday night he believes God doesn't mind what he is called, Radio Netherlands Worldwide reported.

The Almighty is above such "discussion and bickering," he insisted.

Muskens points to Indonesia, where he served 30 years ago, as an example for Dutch churches. Christians in the Middle East also use the term Allah for God.

"Someone like me has prayed to Allah yang maha kuasa (Almighty God) for eight years in Indonesia and other priests for 20 or 30 years," Muskens said. "In the heart of the Eucharist, God is called Allah over there, so why can't we start doing that together?"

Personally, I have no trouble calling God "Allah." It's just a word, a label. But the problem is that, when we take too cavalier an approach to words and definitions, there's the risk that we will get muddled about the concepts behind the words we use. "Allah," as used by faithful Muslims, does not signify the triune God of most Christianity (keep in mind that a healthy minority of Christians are not trinitarians). If Christians take to calling God "Allah," what exactly does this mean? One possibility is that Christians really will come to see themselves and Muslims as worshipping essentially the same God, a trend that might make more theologically sensitive Christians nervous.* Another is that Muslims may see such a gesture as a kind of Christian imperialism, an attempt to "Christianize" a core Muslim term.

What may have worked for Fr. Muskens in Indonesia might not be the best solution for the Dutch. The article alludes to potential problems. It notes that in a recent survey, Dutch Christians expressed overwhelming disagreement with Fr. Muskens's proposal (some even felt his gesture was a form of appeasement to Muslim imperialism); the article also hints that Dutch Muslims might be a bit put off by Fr. Muskens's suggestion:

A Muslim spokesman, for Amsterdam's union of Moroccan mosques, said Muslims had not asked for such a gesture from Christians, the AP reported.

That's the response I would expect from most Muslims.

Context matters. Historical and cultural factors are impossible to ignore in dealing with interreligious questions. What works in a more syncretically-minded part of the world might not play as well in a region with a long memory for historical conflict. There might be something about the Indonesian mindset that allows for such terminological overlap (in its most literal sense, al-Lah only means "the god"), but Europe-- arguably the most ancient battlefield between Christianity and Islam-- is another matter. Christianity still resonates there, even if it is moribund by some standards. European Muslims, especially those who move to Europe and do not assimilate well in the culture, are acutely aware of the boundary issues that separate them from the surrounding Judeo-Christian/secular milieu. From their point of view, it's probably confusing to hear a Catholic priest make such a suggestion to the Christian community.

I do wonder what the current pope thinks of his bishop's remarks.

*Quite a few "people of the Book" (i.e., adherents of the three great Abrahamic monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) already affirm this. I used to be one of them. Nowadays I'm not so sure.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir, I work for BBC World Service radio in London and in our programme, World Have Your Say, today (Friday 17th August) between 1300 to 1500 East Coast Time in the US we will be talking about the suggestion by the Dutch Archbishop that Christians should call God Allah, and were wondering if the author of Jehovah's new name would be interested in taking part in our programme. Please call me on +447751727964 or +442075570635 or email your phone numbers and I will call you straight back.