Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Catholic and Muslim Moral Commonalities

How infrequently it seems that people find common ground across lines of religion, race and ethnicity. What do you suppose drives members of our species to accentuate the differences? To build walls and fight off whoever is on the “other side”.

Is this a recessive trait of primitive tribalism where the other is presumed to be taboo and a threat to our totems and our ancestors?

Even in the 21st century the fault lines within humanity are many and active: Tibet and China, Israel and Palestine, Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shi’a, Basques and Spaniards. In the United States we have cultural trench warfare between the Blue states and the Red states. Muslim immigrants in France, many excellent speakers of French, don’t feel welcome in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity. Barach Obama’s candidacy for president in the United States only highlights the pervasive power of racism there for over 200 years. Jesus had a parable about the “good” Samaritan to set before us the issue of who deserves honor is it group loyalty or individual character?

We give privileges and rights to those we like and trust, mostly people who are like us. Modern jurisprudence gave us the concept and status of “citizen” where all who lived under a common sovereign authority were considered equal and the principle of non-discrimination would apply across the board.

Now we really can’t homogenize all humanity’s different value patterns, cultures, foods, styles of dress, modes of music, languages, senses of humor. And we shouldn’t. That would be discrimination and degradation of what is precious in individual lives. Our identities as persons are bound up in our ties to small communities of kin, religion, region, clan, trade, avocation, or what-have-you.

So how can we square the circle? How do we get to non-invidious discrimination? Can we live in paradox where differences abound but, at the same time, they aren’t really so serious as grounds for fear, suspicion, rejection, alienation, prejudice, or subordination?

Isn’t it a mark of the mature human person that wisdom and good sense prevail over thoughtless stereo-typing and self-referential standards of right and wrong?

I always like a plea of Oliver Cromwell when faced with a contumacious parliament. He exploded: “Gentlemen, I beseech thee; in the bowels of Christ, consider that ye may be mistaken.”

An admirable trait taught by so many religions is self-command and humility. Religion, which ties us to that which is more important than our own daily passions, irritations, quarrels and diversions, puts in context our tendency to think that we are more important than we are, or more righteous than reality can tolerate.

This past weekend I had the good fortune to participate in a surprising seminar at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization here in Kuala Lumpur.

In the presence of a Cardinal from the Roman Catholic Church, a number of distinguished Islamic scholars discussed with great erudition and much good humor the substance of Islamic ethics. It turned out that such Islamic ethics were really not very far from some core principles of Catholic Social Teachings.

Catholic ideas about the dignity of the human, the moral obligation to use private property responsibly, the need to trust family and social and civil organizations and not subject them to an all-powerful state, and the solidarity with others that is necessary to protect and promote their dignity resonate with many points of guidance given by the Holy Qur’an.

In our discussions it turned out that Catholic social thought and Islamic social thought are not that far apart.

This is a discovery of great importance for the world. Where we can see common concerns among different faith traditions, believers in one religion need not be so resentful of those who follow a different liturgy or read a different scripture.

In fact, both Catholics and Muslims share basically the same understanding of human purpose in that both faiths see human persons as created from God’s spirit and so animated with something transcendent in order to make this a better world.

We far short of what we are intended to perform and much suffering results from our failures to be our best. But the common teaching of both Catholics and Islam that we should aspire to do our duty as God intends could become a point of mutuality and solidarity between the faithful of both religions.

Great efforts must be made to inspire and guide humanity towards a future that will demonstrate greater submission to the fact of human dignity. But those efforts are well worth making. And the sooner the better.

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