Symposium Introduction

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.

 

Panelists

Samuel Noble

Shaul Magid

Philip Clayton

Karim Lahham

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.

 

Shaul Magid

Response

Does an Abrahamic Tripartite Theology Require “Refined Religion”?

Response to David Burrell’s Toward a Jewish-Christian-Muslim Theology

THIS RICH AND CREATIVE work is, as I understand it, an attempt to accomplish a few different but related things. In general it revisits the structure and possibilities of ecumenical dialogue between scriptural religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to see whether a new paradigm can be found whereby conversation does not get mired in doctrinal debates reminiscent of medieval polemics or the diffusion of difference more common in liberal ecumenism. For Burrell the very notion of interfaith dialogue is really a category error. That is, it is not something we choose to do but something we inevitably do even if we are not engaging with members of another faith community. We do so, he explains, because “we will always be forced to speak of religious matters in a language which in inherently analogous” (158). In some way, then, comparison is inevitable, it is what we do, even when we are only amongst our own. The question then is: can we broaden that exercise to better enable inter-communal exploration (a better term, I think, than dialogue) as a way not only of fostering human flourishing but in order to better understand ourselves.

Burrell argues that the best way to approach this is not by discussing doctrinal claims or beliefs but by examining practices (he also calls them “spiritual exercises,” 129) that are not necessarily the application of doctrines as much as a response to certain theological presuppositions that all three religions share. Doctrines, in fact, may arise out of practices and not precede them. The examples he brings are: belief in a creator (and omniscient) God and belief in human freedom; a belief in emanation and return; and a belief in some form of eschatology. By eschatology he may mean something alluded to by Wilfred Cantwell Smith when he said “gospel” as opposed to “law” predicts a future different than the present. All three religions have “gospels” and all three have “law.” Eschatology is the “gospel” of each one.

These practices sound quite similar to Max Kadushin’s notion of “value-concepts” as it informs Jewish law. Peter Ochs defines Kadushin’s value-concepts as follows: “Kadushin offered his ‘cultural-linguistic’ alternative; for the rabbis scripture was a system of symbols, or value-concepts, whose meaning were displayed, within the rabbinic community, in the everyday and its scholarly conduct” (Ochs, Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity, 11). Interested more in meaning than truth (see 6, 7), Burrell notes, “The truth (or falsity) of a religious tradition, then, is not open to our assessment; the best we can do is to attend to witness given, and where that results in holy men and women . . . then we have at hand the only evidence we can possibly have about the truth of a tradition” (182). That is, we can witness acts of piety or allegiance through ritual, liturgy, or some other practice (charity, caring for the sick, etc.) and from there discern how these shared “value-concepts” are articulated in various ways. This does not erase doctrinal differences as much as marginalize them by arguing that doctrine tells us less about religious meaning and more about boundaries, or markers, to protect difference. If we want to traverse those boundaries, without erasing or diluting them (the liberal tack), as a way to get at “religion as response” (is that what Burrell suggests?), our attention should move from proclamation to practice, from truth to meaning.

I would like to push David on exploring what kind of religion he envisions here. I will offer three brief suggestions. First, I will use an argument proffered by Philip Kitcher in his Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism (Yale University Press, 2014) where he introduces a new category of religion he calls “refined religion” that he believes offers the best defense of religion to the secular humanist. I think this category coincides with what Burrell is doing here but it is not clear to me what kind of “refined religion” Burrell is advocating (if he is indeed advocating “refined religion” at all). Second, I wonder if Burrell is advocating a kind of “post-liberal” religiosity not in reference to scriptural hermeneutics, where it is usually discussed, but in terms of revising liberalism as a tool of ecumenism. Finally, I would like to bring in a fairly new Jewish form of what has been called “deep ecumenism” that focuses not only on the exploration of practice but the shared performance of practice including syncretistic practices between religious traditions.

In Life after faith, Kitcher defines conventional religion as resting on three axes: “Religions are conceived as bodies of doctrine; doctrinal statements are read by assuming everyday implications of the words used in formulating them; and faith in doctrine is not subordinated to ethical constraints” (Life after Faith, 61). Kitcher argues that refined religion abandons all three assumptions: “First, religion is not understood as primarily a collection of doctrines about the transcendent, but as a system of practices and commitments. Second, the doctrinal statements that figure in religious practices and in expressions of commitments are not interpreted through the lens of everyday implications, they are taken to have symbolic significance, to be allegories or to contain profound metaphors. Third, the fundamental commitments of religions are values, and the thought of a ‘transcendent realm’ is important because of its role in articulating these communities . . .” (ibid.). There are two forms of refined religion in Kitcher’s arguments, “the ‘straightforward’ one that identifies the transcendent as the source of all values, and a ‘modest’ alternative that views faith in the transcendent as deepening commitment and confidence with respect to independently grounded values” (Life after Faith, 84). Kitcher argues that modest version is the best interlocutor for secular humanism because while recognizing the transcendent it is not committed to grounding all values in that unknowable source.

I’m wondering if Burrell would see his depictions of the three religions mentioned as “refined religion” and, as such, serve as the best models for a unified yet still distinctive theological axis. My assumption would be for Burrell’s purposes, the straightforward model would work if only because the interlocutors in his view share the notion of the transcendent as the ground of all values and disagree as to how that would look in any particular community. This would then require each tradition to recognize its inability to articulate that ground with any certainty that would, by definition, exclude the other and thus avoid any “Mosaic distinction,” as Jan Assmann puts it, that would lay exclusive claim to the source of that value. Finally, since refined religion is, in Kitcher’s assessment, as I understand him, a form of religious liberalism, how would Burrell define his depictions of the religious figures he discusses? If post-liberalism is precisely about the culturally linguistic and thus culturally specific turn, embedded in hermeneutical practices and their manifestation in particular religious communities, what kind of “refined religion” would fit Burrell’s model, if it would fit at all? Finally, it seems that Burrell’s model rests on the epistemological assumption of doubt, doubt in knowledge of the transcendent, as the very crux of his tripartite theology. This would certainly fit a straightforward model of refined religion. But does it cohere with the theories of faith as they are described in Burrell’s subjects?

Finally, I would like to hear how Burrell understands the notion of “deep ecumenism” that has risen in light of New Age religion, particularly its practical application. Deep ecumenists would be very sympathetic to Burrell’s readings of these masters although they would want to push him further to say that the real test of a functional tripartite theology would require the experience of interfaith 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. I am not certain if this syncretistic approach would be considered post-liberal, perhaps another category awaits formulation. In any case, this approach takes Burrell’s basic assumption into the practical realm. If what matters is what we do, how we practice, if that is the realm that can open us up to Burrell’s tripartite theology, wouldn’t the sharing, adapting, even adopting the practices of others only enhance our understanding of the theological assumptions that arise from those practical applications?

In sum, I found this book very suggestive in many ways. It is articulating a new paradigm of thinking with, through, and beyond the doctrinal boundaries each religion constructs to do precisely what Burrell wants to undo. This is certainly a big first step toward that undoing.

  • David Burrell

    David Burrell

    Reply

    Symposium on Interfaith Offering and Experience

    I was very heartened by the spirit of the responses to this work gathering a quarter-century of learning from others along a path to God. For your readings caught the spirit of my own life and inquiry:

    As a way to get at ‘religion as response,’ our attention should move from proclamation to practice, from truth to meaning, especially if we want to traverse those boundaries, without erasing or diluting them” (Magid). This demands a relation to our own faith which indeed “refined” by using reason as we experience different stages responding to our life of faith. “Yet if what matters is what we do, how we practice, if that is the realm that can open us up to this tripartite theology, wouldn’t the sharing, adapting, even adopting the practices of others only enhance our understanding of the theological assumptions that arise from those practical applications?” That sort of sharing response is precisely what will be called for, and paradigmatically among friends.

Karim Lahham

Response

Towards a Shared Social Philosophy?

THERE IS A GRAND tradition of intelligent, sensitive and theologically coherent work in the Catholic panoply of intellectual engagements with Islam. The dangers of a facile ecumenicism, on the one hand, and an austere or distant and disengaged theological judgmentalism, on the other, represents a very real Scylla and Charybdis with which an astute navigator must contend. It is edifying therefore to see Father Burrell display his superior nautical skills in his latest book, the subject of this online colloquium. His prose, typical of his customary approach, evokes interest and discussion, but above all demands the personal engagement of the reader. Burrell writes to enlarge the theological view of one’s own faith tradition by providing a platform from which to view a delectable array of perspectives that serve to nourish latent hermeneutic possibilities.

The contemporary world is handicapped by increasingly deficient standards of theological training in all faiths, a neglect that is responsible for a duality of laissez-faire theologies, on the one hand, and brittle theologies on the other. We should not forget that it is deficient theology that creates shallow ethics, and thus bad economics resulting in superficial politics. Contemporary conflations of theological positions with nationalist and political prejudices have thus become more widespread. There is the added problem of theologians increasingly becoming poor historians, unaware of doctrinal possibilities and solutions expressed at other times and in diverse climes. It may be surprising how few academics, religious as well as lay, have read the seminal works of Paul Nwiya, SJ, Farid Jabre, SJ, Louis Gardet, OP, Georges Anawati, OP, Serge de Laugier de Beaureceuil, OP, Roger Arnaldez and Michel Allard, SJ, on Islamic theology. David Burrell is a natural continuator of this tradition of writing and draws sustenance from it when approaching Islam.

In chapter 3, “Human Initiative and Divine Grace: Augustine and Ghazali,” Burrell discusses the reality of human action in each of the three traditions as being predicated on a human response to a divine invitation. He further formulates the question of whether human initiative originates in the subject alone or emerges as a response to a divine invitation. This is really at the heart of ethics, that is to say whether initiative is in reality a response to a divine invitation. Reason, for both traditions, provides an apophatic path to God, expressed in Islam as a denial of any similitude to God (laysa ka mithlihi shay’an, “There is nothing like unto Him,” Qur’an 42:11), but this type of knowledge, as Ibn ‘Arabi observes, does not allow one to love God.

Similarly, Augustine asks how is it possible to know God in order to praise Him, and secondly how is it possible to praise Him adequately using ordinary language (see Chadwick translation, 1.1.1 and 1.4.4). One solution lies in Augustine’s Doctrina Christiana, at 1.6.6, wherein he states that it is possible to speak about God but in the mode of praise, that is to say what James Smith characterizes as “a non-objectifying, non-positivistic, non-predicative mode of conceptualization that does not reduce God to a concept” but utilises a language that is respectful of transcendence and that also calls man to experience this reality beyond the limitation of the words used.

Ibn ‘Arabi states that were it not for the revealed law, then God would have remained unknowable, and were we to have been left with the evidences of reason alone (al adillatu al aqliyya) then no creature would have been able to love Him. It is revelation therefore that provides a positivisation of the Divine qualities so that God may be conceived in the imaginal realm and become known by us. The Shari’a provides a way of courtesy or adab, to know Him by way of Him. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the revelations brought down to man are the “paths of courtesy” taking us to God, al sharai’ adab Allah. God’s revelation is an invitation to love Him, and by loving Him to know Him. As for the mode of praise, Ibn ‘Arabi reminds us that prayer is a munajat, an intimate discourse with God, so that the Opening Sura of the Qur’an (al Fatiha) recited in every canonical prayer is said to begin with God addressing the creature, whilst the second half consists of the creature’s response to Him, “Thee do we worship, Thee do we beseech for sustenance.” The prayer (salat) is offered using the language that God has determined to be used. In every sense they are His words that we are given in order to respond to his invitation. The invitation is precisely to transcend ourselves and become imbued with the characteristics of the Divine Names, al takhalluq bi asma’ Allah. This is what God wills, and as Dante said, “E’n la sua Volontade e nostra Pace,” and in God’s Will do we find our Peace (Paradiso, III.85).

In chapter 6, “Realized Eschatology: Faith as a Mode of Knowing and Journeying,” Burrell provides exemplars from each spiritual tradition that illuminate crossovers, appropriating Mahatma Gandhi as a primary exemplar. He describes Gandhi as being “distant” enough from the Abrahamic religions to shed light on the way their adherents had allowed themselves to be alienated from their own principles by power. The undeniable Christian influence, or perhaps one should more correctly say Tolstoyan and Ruskinian influence, allowed Gandhi to be a bulwark and witness for those that were all too ready to brutalize other fellow human beings in equal measure to their brutalization of their own traditions. What Burrell is driving at here is that such witness permits and cajoles a readjustment of values within those traditions that had such deviations thrust on them in the first place.

The second exemplar is the much-neglected figure of Badshah Khan of the then Indian North West Frontier. Badshah Khan sought to revivify the Islamic and prophetic tradition of nonviolence, culminating in the recruitment of an army of one hundred thousand souls by the end of 1939, to confront the injustices of British colonialism. The Red Shirts, as this army was called, represented the only organised force in British India committed to nonviolence as a creedal principle, in contrast to the Indian National Congress whose members were committed to nonviolence only as a matter of policy. This was done in pursuit of the Prophet Muhammad’s example at Mecca. Badshah Khan specifically illustrated a creativity in appropriating traditional possibilities from one’s “deposit of faith” to solve a contemporary problem, without violating the integrity of his faith tradition nor anyone else’s. This sensitivity, Badshah Khan recognised as being the hallmark of orthodoxy. We naturally see this in the myriad Sufi orders of Islam, whose corrective influence has always historically mitigated the damage of heterodoxy through their spiritual endeavour of bringing together law and spirit in a harmonious whole.

The benefit of such exemplars for Burrell is that these narratives are precisely shaped by doctrines that should remind us that they do not simply serve, as he puts it, a theoretical role but more importantly a grammatical role in the lives of the faithful. This is in reference presumably to George Lindbeck’s thesis that one should look at doctrines as “precipitations or distillations of practices,” an outlook that Burrell commends in the introduction. The Islamic view differs though from Lindbeck’s assessment of cause and effect, that is to say in his assertion of doctrines arising from practices, if that is indeed what he means. Theological doctrines are not precipitations or distillations of practices, but the precipitators of practices. It is doctrine that ensures the variety of possibilities in the realm of practices, in the same way that ideas precede actions. It is the doctrines of usul al din that permit the possibility of Badshah Khan’s practices.

I agree wholeheartedly with Burrell that the meeting point of faiths is at the meeting point of the adherents of those faiths. The dialogue effected is one that takes place face to face, creature to creature. The Middle East represents the only sector of the globe where the three Abrahamic faiths have lived and prospered together as committed adherents of their respective faiths. Christians and Muslims have lived together and continue to do so despite the darkening skies of extremist political and quasi-religious outlooks. The Christian in the Levant is culturally indistinguishable from the Muslim, and until recently both were indistinguishable from the Jew. By culture, I mean here a shared social philosophy and cosmological outlook. As this space recedes further in most countries of the region, there is a vital need to resuscitate the principles upon which it was built.

The revival of practical and yet intelligent social philosophies in each of the Abrahamic faiths, precisely intelligible because of their grounding in a thorough understanding of the human condition, can serve as an effective platform from which to initiate a more charitable and pluralist dialogue. It requires however that each faith representative fathom his own theological traditions first, for it is this mastery that allows for principled creativity and variety in the face of our changing world. Theological meeting points demand the twin prerequisites of intellectual capacity and good faith. This has now become the preserve of the few. The espousal of a social philosophy, which is naturally theologically anchored, drives the meeting point of the faith adherents to be at a level that is lived and observed by all and not merely specialists. I believe this needs to be explored further by the three faiths given their shared social coexistence.

The claim that secularism is religiously neutral and thus can serve as the only suitable ground for dialogue has become a widespread fallacy, ignoring the philosophical concessions that a secularist outlook implies, and which is far from being “value free.” In this context, then, it is refreshing and beneficial to meet Father Burrell from within a compatible theological tradition in order to initiate this discussion.

  • David Burrell

    David Burrell

    Reply

    Symposium on Interfaith Offering and Experience

    Yet Karim Lahham reminds us while this sharing “allows for principled creativity and variety in the face of our changing world. Theological meeting points demand the twin prerequisites of intellectual capacity and good faith . . . The espousal of a social philosophy, which is naturally theologically anchored, drives the meeting point of the faith adherents to be at a level that is lived and observed by all and not merely specialists. I believe this needs to be explored further by the three faiths given their shared social coexistence,” yet he fears that “this has now become the preserve of the few,” though I feel that education remains our shared responsibility.

Philip Clayton

Response

Self-Critical Religion

Journeying with Burrell beyond Burrell

By exploring how expressions might “imperfectly signify” divinity, we can be led to see how one tradition may complement another, and so use the encounter with alternative conceptual qualities to enrich our own.1

HERE AT SYNDICATE THEOLOGY and elsewhere, scholars debate whether we should be religious or post-religious. Undoubtedly that question is urgent. Too infrequently, however, do we recognize that part of moving the debate forward involves exploring different ways of being religious and, concomitantly, different ways of doing theology. Here lies Burrell’s deeper contribution.

Before I can praise him, I need to radicalize the book’s project; and before I can do that, I need to say what that project is. Burrell sets for himself the task of “tracing how principal protagonists of these traditions [Judaism, Christianity, Islam] have been negotiating identical intractable theological issues in similar ways” (108). The book succeeds brilliantly at narrating common problems faced by the three Abrahamic traditions and at demonstrating the cross-fertilization that has led to analogous answers.

Burrell’s success at this task is no mean feat. Members of each of the three traditions, and even their leading scholars, have repeatedly insisted that their formative influences are diverse and their answers are therefore mutually exclusive. Both assumptions are false. Regarding the first, “We have long overlooked just how intercultural and interreligious the medieval world really was” (160). Non-historians will have encountered isolated examples, such as the influence of Maimonides and Ibn Sina on Thomas Aquinas. But only when one immerses oneself in the currents of shared conceptual genealogies that fill Burrell’s book like the white water of flows and eddies in a mountain river, does one recognize to what an extent Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been engaged in a single conversation with multiple dialects.

Purity is an ideological construct, generally serving the interests of the powerful. I remember a British television show on which six “blue bloods” had agreed to submit themselves to genetic testing. They were so certain of their lineage of purely Anglo-Saxon blood, running back to the Magna Carta or something, that they agreed for the results to be presented on live television. One by one the results came out as you would expect, knowing human sexual proclivities: 24% North African heritage, 17% Asian, 33% Southern European, and so forth. I’ll never forget the allegedly “purely white” subjects actually turning white (perhaps for the first time!) as they realized that they were blends, mutts like the rest of us. So also with our religious beliefs and theological traditions.

Burrell is so adept at undoing the myths of separation that readers can actually begin to see the common tidal flows that lift and drop Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers in a discernible rhythm. Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas seek to protect the separateness of God so that the Divine never becomes “a being among beings.” At this low tide of relationality, Burrell shows, they overstate their denials of connection: we cannot, Maimonides insists, “imagine a relation between a thing and Him which shares no common trait with anything outside Him at all . . . [So] there is no possible true relation between Him and anything He has created” (116–17). Similar passages in Aquinas are well known.

But now compare the analogous responses of the greatest of the (as it were) second-generation critics of these two figures: Ibn ‘Arabi and Meister Eckhart. Ibn ‘Arabi “calls attention to imagination as the ‘barzakh or isthmus . . . from the sensible form to the invisible meaning,” offering it as “an explicit antidote to the Islamic falasifa [philosophers] who preceded him” (110). Eckhart, similarly transforming Aquinas, insists “that imagination be a necessary ingredient in the ascent of the mind to God.” Both recognize that “all knowing is a unity of knower and known” and that, in the words of Eckhart, “God as the transcendent cause of creation also corresponds to the immanent ground of the soul” (111).

Once we realize that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers are deeply and constantly influencing each other during the formative phases of their traditions, it becomes a bit silly to treat their answers as simply mutually exclusive. Their interrelated (and sometimes even intertextual) scriptures pose similar problems and, desperate for solutions, they draw deeply on the best of each others’ answers. How to think of God’s initial creation as free becomes a “shared task” for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (chapter 1). Each seeks to relate divine freedom to human freedom, employing analogous strategies (chapter 2). Each needs to find a workable balance of human initiative and divine grace, without negating either side of this delicate balance (chapter 3). Somehow Divine Providence needs to take the lead and humans need to respond, yet the response needs to be genuinely human, not that of an automaton (chapter 4). Burrell finds in each Abrahamic tradition an overarching movement of exitus and redditus, that is, an overarching narrative of a flowing outward from the Divine and a movement of cosmic return, so that all creation is completed through reconnection with the divine (chapter 5).

In a beautiful chapter consisting of life narratives drawn from multiple religious traditions, Burrell explores faith as a mode of knowing and journeying (chapter 6). Without these stories of the journey of faith, running from Mahatma Gandhi to the “Arab Gandhi” Jawdat Said, Burrell would not have succeeded in showing that the religious life is a quest or journey first and a set of beliefs only second. Particularly poignant is the story of Etty Hillesum, a young “bohemian” Jewish woman whose spiritual awakening came as she waited in Westerbork, Holland, for deportation to the Nazi death camps in Poland. “And yet I don’t think life is meaningless,” she writes, “And God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another . . . I have already died a thousand deaths in the thousand concentration camps . . . And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute” (141–42).

At the start I said I would need to slightly radicalize the book’s project. As it stands, it reads like an offering to adherents of the Abrahamic traditions, and particularly to their theologians. Refreshingly, Burrell argues that “self-criticism” (192) and “critical modesty” (159) can and must be embedded at the heart of the religious impulse. For him, however, this can be done without giving up the truth claims and the certitude of one’s own tradition (159).

I do not begrudge Burrell the insider’s immediate experience of truth, arising organically out of the journey of faith. For many today, however, the spiritual quest is rather more like a meandering brook, with no clear idea of what great ocean it is all flowing toward—if indeed there is a great ocean at all. Strangers wandering in a strange land, many of us are (at best) on a journey toward faith.

Thus my suggestion of a more radical reading: what if the book is read under the guise of the possible, not the necessary? Classical theism, in all three of its Abrahamic forms, does face the problems sketched in the book summary above. But surely classical theism is not the only theological game that can be played. What if we imagine that readers are invited to step into Burrell’s framework of assumptions and observe the moves that the best thinkers across the centuries have made? The rationalists among them, we learn, carefully protect God from being soiled by evil or by real relations with merely mutable creatures such as ourselves; and yet God’s purity comes at the cost of making the Divine infinitely different, hence infinitely distant, from ourselves. The mystics exude the scents of real encounters with an all-pervading divine Spirit, but at the cost of self-deconstructing models of God or of the ultimate Silence of the Apophatic—a cost we may be willing to pay. Others (the activists?) turn to the journey metaphor, or to lives lived in sacrificial service on behalf of the suffering; they inspire us, though their turn to praxis leaves pressing questions unanswered.

Something important is gained by reading the greatest journeys of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim reflection within this space of the possible rather than of the necessary. The switch allows us, for example, to consciously alter some of the core assumptions of the medieval period, thereby creating an “adjacent possible”—or many such possibles!—for us to explore. What if the assumptions of timelessness and the immutability of God are dropped, allowing for a God-in-process in the sense of Whitehead and the process theologians? What if the stress on divine separateness is dropped, and we maximize the immanence of the divine, as for example Mayra Rivera has done in The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God?2 What if the incessant drive to maximize the unity of the Divine is replaced with God understood as irreducible multiplicity?

To heed the call of these and other possibles is not simply to negate what Burrell has done. It is to recognize that his disciplined contribution—the careful correlation of specific problems and multi-religious answers—can be extended to other ways of construing God and world, far outside the temporal and conceptual arena in which he has staged this masterful encounter. As one turns the knobs and adjusts the parameters and core assumptions, it is all too easy for the picture to become blurry, such that all progress becomes impossible. But we, for whom the core assumptions are in fact contestable and contested, can then apply something like Burrell’s method to our emerging conceptual worlds as well. We can learn to recognize shared problems across diverse thinkers and schools; we can reinterpret allegedly incompatible answers as in fact analogous responses to common problems; and as a result we can begin to learn from those around us who, our differences notwithstanding, are in fact fellow journeyers.


  1. David B. Burrell, Towards a Jewish-Christian-Muslim Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 160. All further references are to this work.

  2. Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007).

  • David Burrell

    David Burrell

    Reply

    Symposium on Interfaith Offering and Experience

    Philip Clayton catches the spirit and extent of this inquiry when he genially states: “Only when one immerses oneself in the currents of shared conceptual genealogies that fill Burrell’s book like the white water of flows and eddies in a mountain river, does one recognize to what an extent Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been engaged in a single conversation with multiple dialects.” But a work of this sort has to stimulate criticism if the mutual inquiry is to proceed. So he moves us from “Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas [who] seek to protect the separateness of God so that the Divine never becomes ‘a being among beings’” to “the analogous responses of the greatest of the (as it were) second-generation critics of these two figures: Ibn ‘Arabi and Meister Eckhart. Ibn ‘Arabi ‘calls attention to imagination as the ‘barzakh or isthmus [. . .] from the sensible form to the invisible meaning,’ offering it as ‘an explicit antidote to the Islamic falasifa (philosophers) who preceded him.’” Eckhart, similarly transforming Aquinas, insists “that imagination be a necessary ingredient in the ascent of the mind to God.” Both recognize that “all knowing is a unity of knower and known” and that, in the words of Eckhart, “God as the transcendent cause of creation also corresponds to the immanent ground of the soul.”

    Interestingly, that is exactly where I have been moving myself. Yet he nudges still further, since “for many today, however, the spiritual quest is rather more like a meandering brook, with no clear idea of what great ocean it is all flowing toward—if indeed there is a great ocean at all. Strangers wandering in a strange land, many of us are (at best) on a journey toward faith.” So he would move us towards “the possible”: “What if the stress on divine separateness is dropped, and we maximize the immanence of the divine, as for example Mayra Rivera has done in The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God? What if the incessant drive to maximize the unity of the Divine is replaced with God understood as irreducible multiplicity?” And he identifies what would in fact be my reluctance to do just that with my adherence to “classical theism.” That being said, I deny the charge, along with the expression dear to Schubert Ogden (“classical theism”), but have long associated theology with the actual rather than the possible, precisely because of its grounding in divine revelation. But therein lies a long and metaphysical inquiry not germane here, so I may have to “pass” on this critical suggestion from a fellow philosopher.

Samuel Noble

Response

We Cannot Bypass the Incarnation

IN A RECENT SERMON in the religiously-mixed town of Dhour Choueifat, the Orthodox Bishop of Mount Lebanon, Georges Khodr, had some characteristically pointed words about how Christians should relate to their non-Christian neighbors: “I, the head of the Orthodox Church in this region, say—we are one with the Druze monotheists. You must live this, not just as religious rhetoric, but daily in social life, in the relations between families, in friendship and in love. You Christians, prove that you are one with the Druze in this region, and also with the Muslims. If you do not do this, I do not recognize you. May the Lord help us all to remain one people.”1 In a different social context, he may just as well have said the same of Jews or any other faith community that Christians encounter. The bishop’s words are an unambiguous command meant to be taken to heart, but they are also an invitation to discover how this unity should be.2

What David Burrell offers us in Towards a Jewish-Christian-Muslim Theology is a map to one possible vision of unity between Jews, Christians and Muslims. I usually roll my eyes at the custom of giving academic monographs titles that start with “Towards a . . .” but in this case such a title is more than apt. This slender volume contains a journey, each chapter stopping at a station further along the way, towards a destination that is not yet entirely visible but whose contours nevertheless gradually emerge along the horizon.

The starting point that Burrell takes—indeed, for him the starting point of all theology—is the doctrine of God’s free (as opposed to necessary) creation. As Burrell himself has shown in his previous work,3 this was long a common endeavor among Jews, Muslims and Christians, who might all be seen as sharing in the work, begun in the sixth century by John Philoponus, of rationally articulating the Abrahamic concept of creation in the language of Greek philosophy. In turn, free creation leads to discussion of human freedom, and this in turn arrives at a discussion of the relationship between human initiative and divine grace. At each point, Burrell demonstrates how thinkers of the three traditions—some of whom, such as Ghazali, Maimonides and Aquinas, were historically in dialogue, and some, like the eighteenth-century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade, appear as a surprise—can be profitably read side by side.

As the book progresses, the scope of what theology is steadily expands and it becomes clear that what may at first sound like abstract propositions soon entail imperatives for how we should live and relate to God. Eventually, Burrell leaves abstraction completely behind and seeks to demonstrate lives of “realized eschatology,” people who have hit upon “the point of it all.” Here I am reminded of Dorotheus of Gaza’s image of people progressing from different points along the circumference of a circle toward the center and how the closer they move to the center, the more they resemble each other.4 All told, the patron saint of Burrell’s project could easily be the too often neglected thirteenth-century Syriac Christian writer Barhebraeus, who not only drew on the works of his Muslim contemporaries in his philosophical writings, but also modeled his explicitly Christian, monastic spiritual writings on the works of al-Ghazali.5 The enduring value of this effort is sufficient evidence for the value of Burrell’s method. Nevertheless, I will use the rest of this response to delineate exactly where I think the limits are of this approach.

The book closes with a list of “unresolved neuralgic issues” where Christianity seems to be at odds with Judaism, Islam or both. It is very telling that these issues all stem from the centrality in Christianity of the doctrine of the incarnation, with all its implications. Such is the inevitable consequence of Burrell’s attempt to use the doctrine of free creation as a way to bypass discussion of the incarnation, as he does in the very first pages of the first chapter (9–11). It may be that to some degree this sort of interreligious theological project depends, in its Christian dimension, on a particular ordering of theological manuals that goes back at least to John of Damascus which begin with de deo uno and from there proceeds to more particular dogmas, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. Outside such manuals, however, Christianity does not so much set out to build on this narrative of creation as to completely subvert it by proclaiming a shocking and paradoxical union between Creator and created.

The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection cannot be treated simply as items on a list of neuralgic issues to be resolved. They are inseparable from each other and are the lens through which Christians look backward at the history of God’s relationship to humanity and forward toward the eschaton. This is to say that even if chronologically, or in the order of revelation, creation took place before the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, for Christians standing subsequent to all those events, it is impossible not to understand the very act of creation itself in light of the cross. John Behr eloquently articulates the centrality of the cross to the proper order of Christian theology:

We cannot look anywhere else to understand who and what God is; there is no other means to come to know God. Those who stand in this tradition must follow the apostle Paul in refusing to know anything else apart from Christ and him crucified. Theology . . . begins by reflecting on the Passion of Christ, contemplating there the transforming power of the eternal, timeless God.6

I do not think that such a position, properly understood, unnecessarily distances Christian theology from Jewish and Islamic theology. The points in common remain in common, but their limits become clearer. If anything, this sense of history brings us closer to the thought-world of the Qur’an and the dizzying timelessness of its salvation history. Sebastian Brock describes the theological methodology of the fourth-century saint Ephrem the Syrian in terms that, mutatis mutandis, could be applied to Qur’anic accounts of the prophets:

Events situated at different points in historical time, which participate in the same salvific content—such as Christ’s nativity, baptism, crucifixion, descent into Sheol, and resurrection—all run together in sacred time, with the result that their total salvific content can be focused at will on any single one of these successive points in linear time.7

Nevertheless, this does create particular difficulties between Christianity and Islam and it should come as no surprise that in Arabic the characteristic Christian vocabulary of communion and participation (musharaka and its derivatives) coming out of reflection on the incarnation shares the same root as the Islamic term shirk, the most basic sin of associating creature with Creator, because Christianity does indeed teach a type of communion between the uncreated and the created that is impossible to reconcile with the fundamental theological claims of Islam. When Burrell points out that “Jesus’ mediation operates theandrically” and speaks of “Jesus’ divine-human constitution, carefully elaborated from Nicaea to Chalcedon” (174), he does not comment on the fact that the very word “theandric” can only be neuralgic from an Islamic perspective.

Along the edges of Islamic thought there does exist a concept of hulul, of God “indwelling” in a particular human—the sort of experience that led the tenth-century Sufi al-Hallaj to declare, “I am the Truth” and be crucified for it8—but it still skirts the fundamental Christian paradox and paradigm of the impassible God suffering as a human.9 That is, it is impossible to square the Christology of the beloved Byzantine Good Friday hymn that proclaims, “Today is hung upon the tree the One who hung the earth upon the waters,”10 with what might be possible for even the most daring Muslim theologian to say.

Equally unsatisfactory as a path to theological rapprochement is the comparison that Burrell proposes between the incarnation of Christ and the “inlibration” of the Qur’an.11 This is to say that yes, in both cases the eternal, uncreated Word of God is made manifest in creation, but to dwell on this parallel any further puts into rather stark contrast the difference between the Christian and Islamic concepts of the divine Word. While both may eternally exist with God, the former is a hypostasis or person existing in an eternal relationship with two other divine hypostases, while the latter is an eternal message, existing as a message even before it is written by human hands or uttered by human lips. That is, while the appearance of the Qur’anic message as a book has no significant ontological ramifications for books, the Christian doctrine of the Word of God becoming human is fraught with ontological ramifications for humans and indeed, for all material reality: it is no less than the revelation of a God who suffers alongside humans as a human, a God who became human so that humans may become divine.

Chronology does have its place, of course, and it is important to understand the implications of the historical relationship between the Qur’an and earlier scriptures, since we must recognize that it appeared in no more of a vacuum than did the Jewish or Christian scriptures. Islam’s coming chronologically after Christianity means that it necessarily contains a response to the claims of the earlier religions and this response at times takes the form of correction, refutation and polemic. While it may have once been fashionable to claim that the Qur’an was responding to “heretical” or nonnormative forms of Christianity speculated to be rampant in Arabia in the seventh century, the current scholarly consensus is that the Christians addressed in the Qur’an are Nicene Christians of the sort still found in the Middle East today and so its dialogue with Christianity must be taken seriously on those terms.

To take one particularly significant example of the Qur’anic response to specific Christian beliefs, Angelika Neuwirth and others12 have pointed out the point-by-point refutation of the Nicene Creed found in the dogmatic proclamation of Surat al-Ikhlas:

Say: “He is God, Unique,
God, the Lord Supreme!
Neither begetting nor begotten,
And none can be His peer.”13

While it may respond to concerns of individual Muslims at various times and places who assume that this text is responding to a wholly fleshly understanding of begetting, it does not do justice either to historical context or to the seriousness of the Qur’an’s understanding of divine transcendence to claim that these verses are based on a cartoonish misunderstanding of Christian dogma.

My purpose here is not to doubt the value—repeatedly demonstrated over the centuries—of shared theological conversation between Jews, Christians and Muslims, nor to deny that they have a great deal more in common than they may realize. Nevertheless, the path that Burrell shows us must inevitably fork, and fork a good piece earlier than he anticipates. But there is no reason that a theological parting of ways should not lead to a salutary longing for the absent beloved. This longing must necessarily be rooted in something deeper than one degree or another of theological commonality. An often-repeated saying attributed to the Imam Ali is that “[People] are of two sorts, either your brother in religion or your equal in creation.”14 Realizing this “equality in creation,” our common humanity, is our fundamental task in our relationships with others, whatever path we may take to reach it.


  1. Reported in the Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar of May 27, 2015, accessible in Arabic at http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.annahar.com/article/240079.

  2. The best presentation of Khodr’s own theology of religions available in English is Sylvie Avakian, The “Other” in Karl Rahner’s Transcendental Theology and George Khodr’s Spiritual Theology within the Near East Context (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012).

  3. David Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

  4. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1977), 138.

  5. On this, see Hidemi Takahashi, “The Influence of al-Ghazali on the Juridical, Theological and Philosophical Works of Barhebraeus,” in Georges Tamer, ed., Islam and Rationality: The Impact of al-Ghazālī, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 303–25, and Arnt Jan Wensinck, Bar Hebraeus’s Book of the Dove: Together with Some Chapters from His Ethikon (Leiden: Brill, 1919).

  6. John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), 33.

  7. Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1992), 29.

  8. For later Muslim theologians’ understanding of parallels between Hallaj and Jesus and ways they may have been formed by earlier Christological reflection, see Alexander Treiger, “Al-Ghazali’s Mirror Christology and Its Possible East-Syriac Sources,” Muslim World 101.4 (2011) 698–713.

  9. On which see Paul Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God (Oxford University Press, 2006).

  10. Which—nota bene—explicitly ties the crucifixion to creation!

  11. The term “inlibration” itself was originally coined by Harry Wolfson as an “unraised problem” for Islamic theology in The Philosophy of the Kalam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 244–62.

  12. See Imran Iqbal El-Badawi, The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions (London: Routledge, 2014) 6, esp. n13.

  13. I use the translation of Tarif Khalidi, although it should be pointed out that the word samad, translated here as “Supreme,” is famously unclear and could very well be translated “indivisible.”

  14. Nahj al-Balagha, Letter 53 to al-Malik al-Ashtar.

  • David Burrell

    David Burrell

    Reply

    Symposium on Interfaith Offering and Experience

    And with that, we are carried deep into theology (of an Eastern Christian sort) by Sam Noble’s forthright “we cannot bypass the incarnation.” He duly celebrates how “theology [here, as it] steadily expands, becomes clear that what may at first sound like abstract propositions soon entail imperatives for how we should live and relate to God. Eventually, Burrell completely leaves abstraction completely behind and seeks to demonstrate lives of ‘realized eschatology,’ people who have hit upon ‘the point of it all.’ Here I am reminded of Dorotheus of Gaza’s image of people progressing from different points along the circumference of a circle toward the center and how the closer they move to the center, the more they resemble each other. All told, the patron saint of Burrell’s project could easily be the too often neglected thirteenth-century Syriac Christian writer Barhebraeus, who not only drew on the works of his Muslim contemporaries in his philosophical writings, but also modeled his explicitly Christian, monastic spiritual writings on the works of al-Ghazali. The value of his works is sufficient evidence for the value of Burrell’s approach. Nevertheless, I will use the rest of this response to delineate exactly where I think the limits are of this approach.” And limits there are as a robust Eastern Christian theology will make clear.

    And he traces these limitations to “Burrell’s attempt to use the doctrine of free creation as a way to bypass discussion of the incarnation, as he does in the very first pages of the first chapter,” reminding us that for a Christian “the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection cannot be treated simply as items on a list of neuralgic issues to be resolved. They are inseparable from each other and are the lens through which Christians look backward at the history of God’s relationship to humanity and forward toward the eschaton”—much as the hymn has the creator seeing Christ’s face in Adam!

    He knows well, of course, that “along the edges of Islamic thought there does exist a concept of hulul, of God ‘indwelling’ in a particular human—the sort of experience that led the tenth-century Sufi al-Hallaj to declare ‘I am the Truth’ and be crucified for it—that still skirts the fundamental Christian paradox and paradigm of the impassible God suffering as a human. That is, it is impossible to square the Christology of the beloved Byzantine Good Friday hymn that proclaims, ‘Today is hung upon the tree the One who hung the earth upon the waters,’ with what might be possible for even the most daring Muslim theologian to say.” He does temper this trenchant criticism by insisting that “my purpose here is not to doubt the value—repeatedly demonstrated over the centuries—of shared theological conversation between Jews, Christians and Muslims, nor to deny that they have a great deal more in common than they may realize. Nevertheless, the path that Burrell shows us must inevitably fork, and fork a good piece earlier than he anticipates. But there is no reason that a theological parting of ways should not lead to a salutary longing for the absent beloved. This longing must necessarily be rooted in something deeper than one degree or another of theological commonality. An often repeated saying attributed to the Imam Ali is that ‘[People] are of two sorts, either your brother in religion or your equal in creation.’ Realizing this ‘equality in creation,’ our common humanity, is our fundamental task in our relationships with others, whatever path way may take to reach it.”

    Nor would this be an exercise in theology if it did not carry us beyond us, beyond where we have come, and do so with others of similar heart whose criticism can impel us forward. So thanks to all!

Shares