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Muslims, Christians, and Secularists

by Bishop Robert BarronSeptember 03, 20104 Comments

Muslims, Christians, and Secularists

By Rev. Robert Barron

I had the privilege just a few nights ago to address the annual Iftar Dinner which was held at the Islamic Cultural Center in Niles. This event—at the heart of which is a festive meal signaling the end of the daily Ramadan fast—brings Christians and Muslims together for fellowship, prayer, and conversation. I had been asked to reflect briefly on the topic of the future of religion in America. Given my religiously mixed audience, I decided to speak on the responsibility that all people of faith have in the presence of the growing threat of ideological secularism in our society. A 2008 Pew Forum study showed that the fastest-growing “religious” denomination in American is the “nones,” those who claim no formal religious affiliation. It furthermore showed that there is no substantial difference in the attitudes of believers and non-believers in regard to a wide range of moral and political issues. What both of these data indicate is that secularism—the conviction that God, even if he exists, doesn’t much matter—is on the rise.

I told my largely Muslim audience that, in the face of this threat, all religious believers must be, first, clear and public witnesses to the existence of God. Cardinal Souhard, the great post-war Archbishop of Paris, said that Christians should live their lives in such a way that they would make no sense unless God exists. People should be able to see by the way we behave and think that God is real. The Catholic theological tradition—informed in no small way by the work of Islamic philosophers and commentators—holds that God can be known through an appeal to the contingency, or non-self-sufficiency, of the world. Since nothing in nature or culture finally explains itself, we have to posit the existence of that which exists through the power of its own essence. Both the Muslim thinker Averroes and the Catholic master Thomas Aquinas held that this reality is the Creator God, attested to in both the Bible and the Koran. One of the features of both atheism and secularism is a tendency to deny precisely this contingency of the world and to see nature or culture as absolute. Healthy religion ought to point stubbornly to the fleeting, evanescent quality of the universe and hence raise the minds and hearts of people to the transcendent God. I’m sure that no one needs reminding that the very idea of God is under attack today. The so-called “new” atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and others—have ridiculed God as a “sky fairy” or an “invisible friend,” a pathetic holdover from a superstitious time. We religious people have to oppose this through an appeal to our own rich intellectual traditions.

I then said that all the followers of the Abrahamic religions ought to affirm the unity of God. In the sixth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, we find the great “Shema” declaration, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is Lord alone;” and in the Islamic call to prayer, we hear five times a day, that Allah is one; and the Nicene Creed commences with the declaration “credo in unum Deum” (I believe in one God). Some forty years ago, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, asserted that the belief in the oneness of God is inherently subversive, precisely because it implicitly undermines any false claimant to ultimacy. To say that there is only one God is to say that no culture, no individual, no political party, no ideology is absolute. And this declaration must be made publicly. The modern nation states have preferred that the religions remain private and hence marginal and powerless, for in that condition, they pose no challenge to the nation state’s primacy. But believers in the unity of God can have no truck with this arrangement, for it deprives them of their properly prophetic voice.

I argued, thirdly, that religious people ought to witness to the fact of creation. The Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions come together in saying that the universe was made, in its entirety, by the utterly self-sufficient God. This is actually quite astonishing, for it shows that the world is here as the result of an act of the purest love. Thomas Aquinas said that love is willing the good of the other as other, really wanting what is best for someone else. The God who has no need of the world can therefore relate to the world only with an utter lack of self-interest. Furthermore, the fact of creation shows that, whether we like it or not, we are all connected to one another, since we are all coming forth from the same divine source. As St. Francis saw, even the sun and moon are brother and sister to us. Long before we decide to enter into political and social relationships through acts of the will, we are always already joined to each other by the deepest bonds. The path of compassion is but the ethical expression of this metaphysical conviction.

The greatest common enemy that all religious people have is ideological secularism. We have to oppose it by speaking publicly of the one creator God and by acting, consciously and intentionally, as the children of that God.