Archbishop Bernardini's Comments on Islam

by Robert Brow

(As posted on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list, October 14, 99)

In today's National Post (October 14, 1999, page A13)  Philip Pullella reports that Archbishop Giuseppe Bernardini "launched a broadside against Islam, bluntly accusing Muslims of plotting to dominate Europe and de-Christianize the continent." This took place "in a written address submitted to the synod of European bishops" and it has been made public by the Vatican press office.

Bernardini said a Muslim leader once told him: "Thanks to your democratic laws, we will invade you. Thanks to our religious laws, we will dominate you." He also accused the oil-rich Muslim countries of failing to "create jobs in the poor countries of North Africa and the Middle East" and pouring in millions "to build mosques and cultural centres in Christian countries." All this is common knowledge carefully kept under the political rug.

What is significant to me is the Archbishop's model theology approach. He said "Muslims did not share Christian ideas about democracy and human rights. It is a fact that for Muslims terms such as dialogue, justice, reciprocity or concepts such as human rights and democracy have a different meaning than they do for us. By now, I think everyone recognizes and admits this."

He agreed it was necessary to distinguish between "the fanatic and violent minority" and the "peaceful and honest majority." But he suggested that when push came to shove even peaceful Muslims would without hesitation "follow orders given in the name of Allah."

What should be our evangelical reaction to oil rich Arabs bankrolling the Muslim infiltration of North America? Nine hundred years ago the response was to mount a string of disastrous and very un-Christian crusades. A political solution would be for churches to lobby the government to close down Muslim immigration, and make mosques illegal. Or do we just roll over and let them install -sharia- law in our country?

We also believe in one God, but we define God as love. Love respects and cares for the freedom of others. Love allows humans to try out other ways. But love also invites comparison. "Why don't you compare my ways and their results with what other religions have to offer?"  (A common refrain throughout the OT prophets)

To my mind that requires studying and comparing the explanatory models of religion. Departments of religion in our universities are right to point out there is no way to construct a single model for the rich complexity of a religion like Hinduism or Mahayana Buddhism, or even for Islam. But it is possible by questioning to construct an explanatory model for a particular individual's personal faith. And good models have an inner consistency and implications for how we live our life. Although not all Muslims give one form of explanation, Bernardini captured some typical implications that huge numbers of Muslims, including the leaders of many Arab states take for granted.

Rather than trying to withstand the Muslim invasion by political force, we need to train Christians in recognizing some common explanatory models. They should be able to compare the implications of serving our loving Trinitarian God, and the quite different social and political implications of submitting to the authoritarian Unitarian Judge of our lives. I have no doubt that the children of our Muslim immigrants could very easily be helped to see the difference.

If individuals care at all for freedom, love, grace, democracy, and the rights of women, they might remain Muslim in name but their explanatory model and the implications they draw from it would already be changed. And that is a good introduction to the genuine faith of Abraham.

PS Last week I posted  a little book on Ishmael the Arab. It is a work of model theology written in the first person, and it imagines what Ishmael's Abrahamic faith might have looked like if we took all that the Bible says about Arabs seriously.

One respondent to the above pointed out that there are numerous national and local expressions of Islam. And in fact no two Muslims have exactly the same religion. It is therefore meaningless and mischievous to make statements of the form "Muslims believe in this or that, and act in such and ways."

The problem is that the approved historical and descriptive study of religion results in ever growing heaps of data labeled Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, etc. As the heaps run into one another, they become one vast mound of religion which becomes useless for any practical purpose in the area of politics, sociology, education, ethics, and especially theology.

In view of the huge number of cat lovers we could develop a very respectable university faculty devoted to the historical descriptive study of cats. The more one became an expert in this field, the more one could write papers to describe the vast complexity of feline origins and sub- species. And the more one studied the behavior of particular cats the more different each would be from every other.

From this one could deduce that it is unfair and mischievous to make general statements about Siamese cats, or about bobcats, cheetahs, leopards, tigers, lions, etc. Ordinary cat lovers admit there is some truth in this, but already the mountain of cat information has become too big for any practical purpose. They give up on historical descriptive information, and continue to see and argue the advantages of having a cat of a particular sub-species as a pet. Farmers in Africa do not appreciate lions around their cattle. People who order rabbit are upset if it turns out to be cat.

The same can be said for the descriptive study of particular trees. No two trees are ever exactly the same, but any woodsman can tell a stand of pine from a spruce forest. And logging companies are interested in which variety of trees currently sells at what price.
Similarly in India any ordinary person can recognize typical Jain, or Buddhist, or Shaivite, Krishna Bhakti, or Muslim behaviour. They admit a particular member of one of these groups might believe and behave in very untypical ways, but they have to live by practical generalizations. You do not hire a Jain to clear a factory of rodents and insects. You can assume an Advaitist will think the company who hires him is just maya (imagination). People all know how to distinguish religions for the practical purposes of marriage, hiring, picking neighbours, and voting in the next election.

What then can we do about the dichotomy between the historical descriptive method of our university religion departments and the practical approach needed for the purpose of deciding about immigration, marriage laws, ethics, education, voting, and especially the making of theological distinctions?

The solution I offer in God of Many Names ( is that no one has the right to categorize the faith of any other person. It is however possible by open-minded sympathetic questioning to set out a person's very individual explanation of his or her own faith. And the model we construct should be to the total satisfaction of the other. "Yes, you have understood how I explain my faith."

As we do this with more and more individual believers in different countries we can recognize certain typical explanatory models of religion.  And these can be classified in a natural history of religions and ideologies. These models will never capture the rich complexity of any one particular person's experience of religion. And we should be constantly aware of the fact that particular Muslims and Christians may give a totally different explanations from what one might expect from the label they adopt. Many who call themselves Christian have views which hardly differ from the Unitarian and legalistic explanatory models commonly found among Muslims. But it is still possible to consider the ethical implications of one or another model of religion, and this is relevant for all sorts of practical purposes. As we do this we clarify our own way of explaining our evangelical faith.

We can also guess what would be involved in our daughter marrying a Muslim in Arabia or Afghanistan or even in Canada. I still think it is possible, as Archbishop Bernardini said, to make some generalizations about the building of Muslim mosques, sharia law, the treatment of women, and attempts to change our marriage practices and educational systems.

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