Over the course of his distinguished career, David B. Burrell, CSC has charted complex theological landscapes, exploring how Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theological discourse has converged around a common set of problems. Few are those who become deeply conversant in the intricacies and richness of one theological tradition; fewer still are those such as Burrell who immerse themselves in multiple traditions. A talented linguist, Burrell translated two volumes of writings by the great medieval Islamic theologian, Al-Ghazali, while penning multiple studies of his own, bringing figures such as Maimonides, Ibn Sina, Aquinas, Eckhart, Ibn ‘Arabi and others into conversation about the knowledge of God, God’s free creative act, and human freedom. As he advances his own constructive project, Burrell also reminds his readers of the various ways that Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians influenced each other as they participated in conversations around common theological problems.
The theological cartographies of interfaith conversations Burrell has produced in these tomes are neither flattened maps that depict a homogeneous landscape of sameness, with differences among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam swept away, nor maps with rigidly demarcated and policed borders that enclose Islam, Christianity, and Judaism within fixed, rigidly distinct, identities. As a theologian, Burrell does not impose a preexisting map onto interfaith conversation, constraining in advance where that conversation might lead. Put another way, Burrell in his writings does not seek to impose a fixed roadmap on interfaith journeys. Instead, Burrell expects that participants in interfaith conversations will produce their own roadmaps as they journey together.
Burrell’s companions on these interfaith journeys have not solely been the great Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians of the medieval period (even as he has proven himself a careful, perceptive reader of their writings). Accompanying Burrell on his journeys with these authors have been friends and fellow scholars in Egypt, Palestine-Israel, Iran, Kenya, Uganda, Bangladesh, and more. Burrell’s theological journeys are not solitary treks but are undertaken with companions, companions with whom he does not always agree but whom Burrell understands to be critical to charting the journey’s path. [Burrell is, after all, author of a book entitled Friendship and the Ways to Truth (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000).] In his writings and in his friendships, Burrell has proven himself to be an unfailingly gracious while also constructively critical companion and interlocutor.
As its title suggests, Towards a Jewish-Christian-Muslim Theology does not represent an endpoint to Burrell’s theological journeying and his mapping of interfaith conversations. Nevertheless, this book does touch on many of the signposts Burrell has set up along his interfaith journeys. Over the course of the first six chapters, Burrell examines a series of what he calls “shared tasks” facing Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Core among these shared tasks is grappling with the relationship between divine action and human action, with Burrell analyzing how various thinkers sought to preserve the primacy of God’s providential initiative of grace while allowing for genuinely free human response. The sixth chapter offers a fascinating account of faith, and the knowledge faith brings, as a journey, an account that Burrell intriguingly fleshes out through biographical narrations of Mahatma Gandhi, the Afghan and Syrian Muslim proponents of nonviolence Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (commonly known as Badshah Khan), Jawdat Said, and Etty Hillesum, killed in the Holocaust. Through his narrations of these lives, Burrell develops an account of faith in terms of “realized eschatology” in which faith is properly understood primarily as a journey towards a coming future rather than as a set of fixed beliefs. In the seventh and final chapter, Burrell concludes with a discussion of enduring “neuralgic” issues that continue to cause pain or contention within shared Jewish-Christian-Muslim conversation: Burrell is less focused here on resolving these neuralgic issues than on describing and unpacking them.
In this symposium four authors join Burrell on his journey of interfaith conversation, bringing words of affirmation and critique. Philip Clayton seeks, in his words, to “radicalize” Burrell’s interfaith project, pushing it beyond the scope of the “Abrahamic” and (again, in Clayton’s words) “classical theism” to include engagement with process theologies that challenge conceptions of divine immutability. Clayton thus wishes to broaden Burrell’s method—“the careful correlation of specific problems and multi-religious answers”—to include conversation with “emerging conceptual worlds,” even as he acknowledges that such broadening threatens to blur the picture. Karim Lahham appreciatively situates Burrell in a lineage of other Catholic scholars of Islam like the Jesuits Paul Nwiya, Farid Jabre, and Michel Allard. These types of scholars, Lahham suggests, exemplify the fact that “charitable and pluralist dialogue” requires that participants in interfaith conversations “fathom [their] own theological traditions first, for it is this mastery that allows for principled creativity and variety in the face of our changing world.” Shaul Magid, for his part, asks if Burrell’s commitment to a model of interfaith conversation as a joint grappling with common theological questions should push in the direction of “inter-faith practice, a melding, but not erasure, of communities who can experiment inside their cultural-linguistic particularities but are open to enabling one articulation to leak into another.” Finally, Samuel Noble wonders if Burrell’s account of common Jewish-Christian-Muslim grappling with shared theological questions underplays how the Christian proclamation of God’s incarnation in Jesus inevitably leads to a “theological parting of the ways” between Christians, on the one hand, and Muslims and Jews, on the other. Yet recognition of this theological fork in the road, argues Noble, does not preclude the possibility of a shared life based upon a recognition of common humanity.
In too many parts of the world, long traditions of shared life among persons with differing religious convictions and practices are under threat. In the face of forces that seek to create homogeneous religious landscapes, books such as Burrell’s remind us of long histories of shared life within complex religious landscapes, of common theological conversations amidst theological diversity. And symposia like this one offer hope that such shared life and conversation can still be nurtured.
About the Author
David B. Burrell, Hesburgh Professor emeritus at University of Notre Dame, teaches Ethics and Development at Uganda Martyrs University. He has published extensively in comparative issues in philosophical theology in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and is the author of Faith and Freedom (2006), Wiley-Blackwell.