The next item in our survey of the documents of Vatican II during this “Year of Faith” is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). It’s the shortest Vatican II document, containing only five numbered paragraphs. Schematically, it is a bridge between the Decree on Ecumenism, which pertains to fostering the unity of all Christians, and the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, which pertains to bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Woe to the Church if she ever fails to proclaim Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:16), yet the Church recognizes that we must build on points of agreement with other faiths and work for the common good. In this regard, Nostra Aetate singles out Islam (no. 3) and Judaism (no. 4) for special treatment. The Declaration affirms that all people must be treated with respect, and the Church reproves any unjust discrimination based on race, color, condition of life, or religion as being foreign to the mind of Christ (no. 5).
The following quote in paragraph 2 aptly summarizes the approach of Nostra Aetate:
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.
“The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”
Discussion of Nostra Aetate reminds me of the time that a student of mine asked me to explain how terrorism could possibly be justified as doing “God’s will.” I think that’s an important issue for us to consider at its root.
Obviously this issue arises in the context of Islam, since at least some adherents of that religion support—and act upon—the notion that terrorism can be justified as an act of jihad, or “holy war.”
Pope Benedict XVI addressed this complex issue in his widely publicized 2006 lecture at Regensburg University in Germany, in which he embodies the principles of Nostra Aetate. The Pope stressed Christianity’s view that God is intrinsically linked to reason. The Greek word for reason, rationality, and intelligibility is logos, which is commonly translated as verbum (Latin) or “word” (English) in Scripture. In fact, Christ is presented as the eternal Word of God incarnate. We see that point clearly made at the outset of the fourth Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:1, 14).
I should clarify here that the God of Christianity is not mere rationality personified, but rather is more fundamentally a Father who acts in the objectively best interests of His children. Christ is the eternal Son of God who came to reveal the Father’s saving love for us.
Islam, on the other hand, stresses God’s absolute transcendence. The God of Islam immeasurably exceeds our limited human comprehension. That’s certainly true, as we all can agree that God’s ways are not our ways (cf. Is. 55:8-9). But the Muslim people do not see in Christ God’s incarnate love for man, which has led God to make Himself known to us. Instead, according to the Holy Father, Islam teaches that God’s “will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”
The risk of this image of the divine is that the irrationality of violence can potentially be justified if someone believes it is “God’s will” or the “will of Allah.”
So the question boils down to whether God can and does act irrationally (or super-rationally). We say no, but Islam says yes.
As Pope John Paul II stressed in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, at the heart of the fall of Adam and Eve is the rejection of God’s fatherhood. Pope Benedict, in his Regensburg lecture, was trying to explain how all this has played out on a philosophical level. He offers Christianity as a means of bridging the gap between an “extreme” faith without reason (“fundamentalism” or “fideism”) and “extreme” (and often impoverished) reason without faith (“materialism,” “secularism,” etc.).
Without some common ground, there simply is no basis for Islam and the secular West to understand each other and work toward the common good.
For the secularist, the rejection of God’s fatherhood is a rejection of God altogether, though such rejection is typically accompanied by idolatry (e.g., consumerism, hedonism, etc.) and diversions (e.g., TV). The former seeks to fill the void left by God, the latter seeks to ignore the emptiness.
For the Muslim, God is not a Father but rather a tyrant or task master in the sense that His sovereign will is not tethered to rationality or “the good.” God is so far removed from man that it’s offensive to Muslims even to suggest that that God may be our “Father.”
That’s the amazing thing about our faith. When Christ teaches us to pray, the first words out of His mouth are “Our Father.” And when He sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts, we instinctively call out “Abba, Father!” (Gal. 4:6) and become participants in God’s inner life (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4).
Muslims need reason. The decadent West needs God. And all of us need Jesus Christ, who shows us the way to the Father.