Session 7 Contribution from Patriarch Gregorios III
“Dialogue of Faith and Culture”
Saint Egidio Congress, Kraków 6-8 September 2009
Inter-faith dialogue contributes to cultural exchange and dialogue through religion, just as cultural dialogue and mutual enrichment helps inter-religious rapprochement.
It should be noted that religion cannot be removed from its cultural context and expression. Often religious dialogue which balks at dealing with fundamental, doctrinal inter-faith problems is content to become a profitable dialogue between different religions’ traditions and customs, which are an integral part of popular culture.
On the other hand it should be noted that people’s culture and civilization has a great influence on religious discourse and on expressing or formulating faith. Thus during the first Ecumenical Councils the question of how to understand Greek language and Hellenistic linguistic expressions underlay the schism that followed the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Indeed religion really has a geography, history and cultural context, just as faith has a cultural expression influenced by the civilization of the country where that faith is cultivated and lived. Ever since his lecture of 15 September 2005 at Regensburg University , Pope Benedict XVI has ceaselessly repeated and explained the relations between faith and culture, and religion and civilization. Religious thought, closely bound up with civilization, unfolds in an historic and geographic context. This subject, the topic under discussion in this panel, is of considerable significance for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Proper understanding of this relationship is of primary importance in reducing inter-religious tension and the growth of fundamentalism mistakenly based on religion. The misunderstanding of this relationship led to the vehement reaction against the lecture of the Pope, who in citing the religious dialogue between the Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and the Muslim teacher wished precisely to explain the healthy relationship between religion and culture and the effect of religion on culture and of culture on religion.
Starting from these basic preliminaries, I would like to illustrate them by examples, drawn especially from the mixed Muslim-Christian social scenes in the Middle East .
- The mutual influence between Arab Christian culture and Arab Muslim culture is noticeable in the East. Since 1992 the Letters of the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs have been continually analyzing and setting out this correlation, by affirming that Christian culture has a partly Muslim aspect and that Islamic culture has a partly Christian aspect.
- Arab Christians have set out in their works of prose and poetry Christian thought with some inflexions of Islamic influence. That can be found, for example, in the series of Arab Christian literary works from the late Archbishop of Aleppo, Neophytos Edelby and which is continued by Father Samir Khalil, a Jesuit priest in Lebanon .
- Christian expressions appear in the cultural works and poetry of some Muslims, such as, for example, the theme of the cross, the way of the cross and Golgotha , especially when speaking of the Palestinian question. Similarly, Muslim expressions can be found in Christian poetry. Once when traveling with Egypt Air, I was touched to find in that company’s magazine, a detailed description of Christian and Muslim festivals.
- We often know and appreciate other people’s religion through the outward showing of certain religious symbols: for instance, in that magazine of Egypt Air there was an entire page on which could be seen a big rosary surrounding a beautiful cross. On this topic we may note the visual symbols of cross and crescent, fish, special sweets of Christian and Islamic festivals and the practices proper to each feast: such practices and symbols are often the entrance door to introduce religious and cultural dialogue. Once again, we see here the interplay between cultural and religious dialogue and often as we live out these habits and customs of our religion we feel close to the other’s religion. Having said that, from Ramadan to Easter eggs, from the special sweets of Ramadan to the processions and folklore proper to each feast: all present an opportunity to experience both a cultural and religious approach. In that way we can understand the positive impact of exchanging good wishes for the feasts among the three religions, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. That impact is enriched by broadcasts on the media explaining those feasts.
- On the occasion of the fast of Ramadan, I would like to point out the importance of fasting in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, where we see fasting, which has religious value, influence citizens’ social life. Christians took the custom of fasting from Jews, and Muslims took it from Jews and Christians.
- However, one should avoid making a habit or socio-religious custom into religious dogma: thus, wearing a headscarf can be a sign of faith for both Christian and Muslim women. Teetotalism can be both Christian and Muslim. The whole male population once wore the clothes now worn by Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious men. One could say the same about food: these practices can be both a means of rapprochement and a source of tension between religions.
- The dhimmi system, is a socio-religious system which regulated social relations between Christians and Muslims: however, no religious and doctrinal value can be accorded it. Sadaqah (giving to charity), which is important in Islam, can be found similarly in Judaism and Christianity.
- Another important example is the Mediterranean cultural and religious cycle. Indeed we know the universal spread of Greek culture in East and West alike: that Greek culture was Christianized by the Church Fathers and Christians in general. With the advent of Islam, Christians translated the Greek cultural heritage (philosophy, medicine, geometry, astronomy) into Arabic so that cultural Christianity came to influence Islamic culture. In their turn, the Muslims who conquered Spain carried with them that Greek culture which was then translated into Latin and enriched European culture in the Middle Ages. Again we see the importance of cultural and religious dialogue and their interplay.
- In my patriarchal Pastoral Letters I invented the expression “Church of the Arabs and Church of Islam .” That expression was intended to analyze, explain and throw light on the deep relationship between Islam and Christianity in the Middle East, across a history that has lasted some 1439 years and during which a profound dialogue has been proceeding, which is both a dialogue of cultures and of religions.
- Every believer who experiences his religious faith expresses it in a cultural context peculiar to him, but which is shared with his fellow-citizens of other religions, through religious and cultural values. It should be noted that despite the process of assimilation between various civilizations, it is equally important to keep one’s religious and cultural identity. That shows how important it is for Christians, Muslims and Jews to continue to live together in the Middle East , respecting each other’s religion, identity, customs and even helping one another to flourish religiously and to enter into a process of mutual enrichment by means of religious and cultural values. That is the authentic basis of dialogue among religions and cultures. And that is the future of the world. And that is why we cultivate in these annual congresses of the Saint Egidio community, according to the way of thinking of the great reunion of Assisi and of Saint Francis, started by Pope John Paul II, son of Poland and Bishop of this diocese where our meeting is being held. The lack of respect for cultural and religious values of the various communities and countries led to the Second World War seventy years ago and which caused victims on a catastrophic scale in twenty-one countries, that is six million in Poland, twenty-five million in the Soviet Union, one point seven million in Yugoslavia, seven million in Germany, one point eight million in Japan and hundreds of thousands of people in other countries. May these meetings in the spirit of Assisi through the efforts of the Saint Egidio community give a new hope to the world suffering from wars and conflicts, especially in the Middle East and the Holy Land ! When I visited Ground Zero in New York four years ago, I made a little speech (and I quote), “The destruction of the twin towers was the triumph of the mystery of evil (mysterium iniquitatis). It is up to us to make the mystery of life (mysterium resurrectionis) triumph so that there may be fulfilled through us the goal that Jesus gave to his mission among men: ‘that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.'”
- It should be noted that Judaism can only be understood in the context of the Jewish people and in the same way, the Torah can only be understood in the historical and geographical context in which it was written. For me as a Christian, the Jewish religion enables me to understand the different aspects of my Christian faith and in order to understand my faith I need to look towards the historic Jewish mindset. The same thing can be said of Islam: Islam cannot be understood without having done socio-political research on the Arab peninsula, society, language and customs of the people. The same can be said with regard to Christianity, which developed in a Jewish and pagan context.
Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain