Cultural Psychology

Comments on “A Common Word between Us and You”

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Comments on “A Common Word between Us”

In October of 2007, 138 Muslim leaders, clerics, and scholars published an open letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI titled, A Common Word between Us and You. The letter was unambiguously positive and well motivated. The summary of the letter states succinctly (and correctly): “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” Historians may well look back on the publication of this letter as a pivotal event in reconnecting Christian and Muslim cultures.

It is obvious that one benefit to be achieved by greater unity of Christians and Muslims is their cooperation in remedying injustice, poverty, violence, hatred and other social problems in the world. But in a more fundamental way (and one related to these other issues) there is an opportunity to join in “raising the consciousness” of humankind. As a Christian psychologist and philosopher, it is natural that I should direct my comments to this latter issue.

To remedy the critical problems that face us, there must emerge a new level of understanding of ourselves as human beings, individually and collectively. If we approach things optimistically (the only view consistent with the premise of an all-Good and Providential God) then we should expect to already see signs of this emergence. Several features in A Common Word that pertain to this are addressed below.

Surrender to God

The very word “religion”, derived from the Latin root, ligare, to bind, denotes the re- establishment or strengthening of bonds between man and God. At the psychological level what is sought is a radical transformation of the human mind. Concerning this St. Paul wrote:

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2)

The mental transformation St. Paul refers to, this sine qua non of religious life, can be understood as a radical change from self-centeredness or egoism to God-directedness. Obviously, a fundamental tenet of Muslim religion is the need for surrender to the will and guidance of God — the very meaning of the word Islam. This basic reorientation of the human soul or personality away from egoism is also fundamental for Christians, who refer to it with terms like humility and poverty of spirit. This idea is emphasized throughout the Bible. In Proverbs it is written:

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding./ In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5)

In the prayer that Jesus Christ taught, the Lord’s Prayer, Christians ask of God: Thy will be done (Matthew 6:10, Luke 11:2). In the biblical drama of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a central theme is the final submission of his will to that of the Father; at a symbolic level, the crucifixion signifies a death of personal willfulness which the individual Christian should emulate.

We may also note that the phrases, Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven, which appear prominently in the Gospels, could be interpreted to mean a state of mind in which one is ruled by the promptings of God — that is, to mean “being ruled by God” or “submitting to the reign of God.” The writings of Christian saints and Doctors attest again and again to humility as the foundation of Christian virtue.

All this leads to a conclusion that some may take as utterly bold but others as perfectly ordinary: that to be a true Christian implies that one is “Islam,” in the sense of the latter outlined above.

This inner state of humility or Islam, Christians and Muslims agree, is the natural, intended form of human psychological functioning. To the extent that we are not in this state, we are in a fallen condition. We cannot expect to make much progress in any sphere of life, personal or social, until it is corrected.

Jihad as Inner Struggle

There appears to be broad consensus by Muslim scholars that the main meaning of the term jihad in the Qur’an refers to an inner personal struggle to attain this state of surrender to God. The importance of this struggle is similarly recognized by Christians. St. Paul wrote:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high [places]. (Ephesians 6:12)

This spiritual warfare is a prominent feature of Christian life. To pursue the metaphor of warfare, to prevail against ones enemies one rightly ought to use all resources available, including, and perhaps especially, allies. Christians and Muslims, then, would appear to have much to gain by seeing themselves as allies in the inner jihad of personal spiritual development.

The Religious Meaning of Heart, Mind, and Soul

A Common Word refers to the Great Commandment of the New Testament:

Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: / And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this [is] the first commandment. / And the second [is] like, [namely] this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Mark 12:29-31)

Yet what are the heart, mind, and soul? It stands to reason that the better one understands these things, the better one can employ them in the love and service of God. Although these words appear frequently in the Bible and the Qur’an, we are hard-pressed to define or explain exactly what they mean.

For example, in the passage above, are the heart, mind, and soul presented as mutually exclusive parts of human nature, or do they overlap? How is it that, in various passages, the heart is referred to in a way that suggests it may not just feel and desire, but may also will, choose, think, and be illumined?

And what is the nature of the mind? Does it have different levels? Is there validity to the Platonic distinction between higher (noetic) and lower (dianoetic) levels of mind? What is the relationship of the mind to such subtle concepts as wisdom and conscience?

What is the nature of the soul itself? And what is the relationship of soul to spirit?

These are questions that vitally and profoundly affect us, and ought to stir our greatest interest. Yet, to judge from what has yet been written, we appear to know very little about them.

It therefore seems very significant that the authors of A Common Word chose to refer to this subject, with particular emphasis on the meaning of the heart, in their letter. Perhaps this is an opportunity for our two traditions to collaborate, drawing on their different perspectives and cultural heritages, on formulating a new and deeper understanding of human anthropology and psychology.

In previous eras, such as during the thriving of Muslim culture in Cordoba, Muslims, Christians, and Jews collaborated freely on philosophical, theological, and scientific research. Elsewhere in Europe, the great Christian theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, borrowed much from Muslim philosophy and the works of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina; Muslim scholars were viewed by Christians with great respect.

Doctrine and Revelation in Theology

Finally, we should consider how both Christians and Muslims have struggled throughout their histories to understand the proper relationship of doctrine and personal revelation in theology. Sometimes this is referred to as the issue of Faith vs. Reason, but, in truth, no terms we use exactly convey the nature of the tension or difficulty here. It is as if human beings have two levels or realms of knowledge — one associated with reasoning, and one with direct personal experience.

Few would disagree that the most important dimension of religion is experiential — words are as nothing compared to the direct encounter of the human soul with God. Yet at the same time we cannot entirely dispense with the need for systematic terminology and rational arguments in theology. Error may result from false experience, just as from false reasoning. The only acceptable conclusion is that both doctrine and personal experience are necessary in religion; but as yet we have not found an easy way to relate the two.

This, then, becomes a challenge for the present and future generations: how can we integrate the logical and experiential dimensions of our nature, so that we may love God with the totality of our being, and also more fully experience this life and God’s blessings here on earth.

A Common Word wisely downplayed the issue of doctrinal differences between Christianity and Islam. It is possible that, motivated by charity, believing in God’s Providence, and led by God’s Spirit, we may have new insights by which we discover some of these differences are not so great as has previously been supposed. In any case, while the extent of differences is not clear, it does seem apparent that our religions are far more in agreement than disagreement.

We are privileged to live in this time of great opportunity to serve God by effecting greater cultural harmony. Let us approach the future of Christian – Muslim dialogue optimistically, placing our trust in God to lead us. Meanwhile, let us pray together for peace, the alleviation of poverty, and the advancement of people of all nations, never doubting the efficacy of our prayers.

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God. (Romans 8: 28 )

John S. Uebersax PhD

30 January 2008


Written by John Uebersax

January 30, 2008 at 5:18 pm

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