allah The Examined Life
More than words

Rather than threaten our Christian faith, exploring the language and spiritual practices of other religious traditions may instead make us better Catholics.

The bishop of Bruden in the Netherlands, Martinus Petrus Maria Muskens (who goes by “Tiny”), shocked the religious world as summer ended with a daring suggestion. “Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn’t we all say that from now on we will call God Allah?” he asked in an interview on Dutch television, according to the Associated Press. Bishop Tiny’s suggestion was not generally welcomed among Western Christians, despite the fact that Allah is used among Arab-speaking Christians in places such as Indonesia, where it is simply the equivalent of God in the local language.

So apparently outlandish was Muskens’ proposal that even the secular media questioned his credibility. The Associated Press referred to him as “a Dutch Catholic bishop who once said the hungry were entitled to steal bread and advocated condom use to prevent AIDS.” (The AP is evidently unaware that theological radical Thomas Aquinas said the same about poor people.), a Canada-based prolife website, put its ad hominem attack right in the headline, calling Muskens a “condom-promoting Catholic bishop.”

Editorialized news coverage aside, the bishop’s suggestion hardly qualifies him for psychiatric care. On one level, it is no more ridiculous for Catholics to call God Allah than to call God God or Dios or Dieu or any other linguistic equivalent.

But consciously choosing to address God the way another monotheistic faith does could also be a good strategy for interreligious understanding. We Catholics have no problem with Muslim belief in the absolute unity of God, and we could certainly join in a prayer addressed to Allah, as long as its language did not somehow call into question elements of Christian faith. Doing so may actually open us more fully to the divine mystery, allowing us to appreciate elements of faith that we share with Islam—the absolute transcendence of God, for example—more deeply.

There is certainly precedent for this approach to interreligious practice in Christianity’s conversation with Judaism. Christians have learned to join Jewish prayer and participate with Jewish permission in services on the High Holy Days and Passover. Jewish rabbis have even been known to lead Seder services for Catholics in church basements. Even in the liturgy we Catholics sometimes address God as Yahweh in psalms and other texts, a name drawn from the common heritage of the Jewish Torah, prophets, and writings, which Christians call the Old Testament. Catholics have adopted and adapted spiritual practices from Asia as well, from Hindu yoga to Buddhist meditation, to deepen their spiritual lives while still affirming the Christian creed.

Some object that this kind of cross-practice may lead to syncretism, a blending and dilution of unique religious traditions rather than a growth in understanding. But when done carefully, this risk is outweighed by the potential to ease the religious share of the tension that keeps our world on a knife’s edge. Like it or not, religious pluralism is not going away—just ask the world’s billion Muslims or hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists. Fasting with Muslims for peace, almsgiving with Jews for justice, and meditating with Buddhists for growth in compassion at least can’t hurt.

Last month a longtime friend took “refuge vows” at a Buddhist center here in Chicago, the loose equivalent of initiation for Buddhists. In the ceremony my friend took the Buddha as his model for action, the Buddha’s teaching (dharma) as his way of life, and the sangha or local community as his support. I was happy to join him as he made this spiritual commitment, yet a bit sad as well. After all, this friend of mine had once been a Catholic. At the same time I knew that he hadn’t left the church primarily because of its failure but because he found in Buddhism the guidance and sustenance that I find in my Catholic faith.

I do not share my friend’s Buddhist commitment, but I have found myself enlightened by his search for compassion, his quest for silence in meditation, and his detachment from what draws him away from his authentic self—all things that I seek in my own spiritual life. As I continue to walk with him on his Buddhist journey, I expect to find that I will become a better disciple of Jesus myself.

Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the November 2007 (Volume 72, Number 11; page 8) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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