“In our time, as people draw closer day by day and the bonds between different peoples grow stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship with non-Christian religions,” begins the Vatican II statement. Nostra Aetatewritten in 1965.
In our time, a group of scholars are putting these principles into practice in a format that the Council Fathers never expected: YouTube.
Reasons for our hope, a joint project between the International Oasis Foundation and the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame, is a YouTube series aimed at advancing mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims. In doing so, the series seeks to be respectful to Muslim believers (quoting Muslim philosophers and writers, closely studying the words of the Quran and Muslim traditions, and consulting with Muslim scholars) while being honest about the different worldviews that Christianity and Islam present.
The collaborative project has its roots in a 2017 symposium between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and its Muslim counterpart, the Al-Azhar Center for Dialogue, which was held in Cairo. During the symposium, Gabriel Said Reynolds, Notre-Dame professor of Islamic studies, met Martino Diez, scientific director of the International Oasis Foundation. Founded on the initiative of Cardinal Angelo Scola in 2004, Oasis aims to foster dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, by facilitating research, conferences and public conversation on the subject.
Both Diez and Reynolds realized while attending the symposium that, among Christians, there was both a lack of knowledge about Islam and a lack of resources to attain that knowledge. Likewise, many Muslims regularly encounter misinformation about Christianity and Catholicism.
John Cavadini, director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, also noted the problems facing Muslim-Christian dialogue. A project that would aim to educate Catholics about the theological differences between them and Muslims fit well with the McGrath Institute’s goal of “empowering faithful Catholic leaders at all levels.”
“Let’s face it: most Christians and Catholics could not very easily ‘account for the hope that is in them’ when it comes to the Trinity, [for example]“, explained Cavadini. The aim of the series is to avoid the polemical mode that characterizes some Muslim versus Christian rhetoric, “so that we do not indulge in mutual caricature, as it certainly does not serve Christian apologetic interests to caricature back”.
Help with understanding
To help remedy the many problems encountered, the collaborators turned to YouTube. “People access information through YouTube, for better or for worse,” Reynolds said of the rationale for the project.
He added that Muslims already have a number of video resources on YouTube to explain their religion, but there was not much on the platform explaining Christian beliefs to a Muslim audience, “at least that is beautiful and precise. So we felt there was a real need for that. The first video was released in May 2021 as part of a joint initiative between Oasis and the McGrath Institute.
The video presentation of Reasons for our hope begins: “Many Christians who have studied Islam hear from Muslim friends: ‘You know Islam now; why don’t you become a muslim?’ »
These videos help answer that question. Inspired by the Apostolic Letter of Pope Saint John Paul II Novo Millenio InuenteDiez explained that the videos “are an attempt to [bring] together dialogue and announcement. The heart of the document is that we do not have to choose between dialogue and proclamation. But the two things are like two sides of the same thing.
With this relationship between dialogue and proclamation in mind, Diez views the project with gratitude for the deepening of his own faith. “Perhaps I cannot induce the fruit I would like in my own interlocutor, but I have already observed that my own understanding of the Christian faith and the Christian event…has been augmented by this work. “
The series takes the form of six episodes, with more to come, elaborating on the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam, with titles such as “Jesus in the Bible and the Koran”, “The Gospel (s) in Islam and Christianity,” and “The Problem of Tahrif (falsification).”
Intricately animated and set within lush soundscapes, the videos are striking with their sensory appeal. In Reynolds’ words, the project aimed to create something “aesthetically distinct…that has behind it a broader history of Catholic thought; in some ways it is meant to capture some of the Catholic beauty tradition.
Currently, six episodes (plus an introduction) are available in English, but the videos are being translated into French, Italian and Arabic; at least one video is available in each language. The series will then address the theme of “God in Islam and Christianity”.
The topics chosen derive from Reynolds and Diez’s experiences and research on Islamic-Christian dialogue. They are not afraid to avoid contentious issues, while remaining respectful to both parties.
In a time of division, with divisions often entrenched by social media platforms such as YouTube, “the challenges are really clear,” Diez said. “The thing is, especially in social media…the easiest message to get across is a polarized message.”
He added that while controversial videos get more views, such approaches “only convince those who are already convinced”. While he said there are those on both sides of the divide who “are not receptive to our message”, he knows “Muslims who are interested in this kind of polite and civilized conversation”.
This renunciation of the polemical mode also means that the audience targeted by the video series is, quite simply, anyone who wants to watch them.
“Viewers won’t find the videos to be contrived or carefully crafted attempts to trick you into being baptized as a Catholic,” Reynolds explained. “They are basically informational, but there is so much misinformation about the Catholic Church – and about Islam – that unraveling these webs or knots of misinformation and then allowing people to observe and understand Islam and Christianity , we think, does a very important service.”
Although the videos aim to correct misinformation about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, they are not intended as an “evangelical” project. Reynolds explains that the larger backdrop of the videos is an increasingly secularized society, where the commonalities between Christians and Muslims may be greater than ever.
“The true fruit of this mutual understanding… [is that] Muslims and Christians can kind of sit together here,” Reynolds said. With greater clarity, understanding and appreciation, he hopes that Islam and Christianity can be “two communities seeking God and even encouraging each other”.
Recognize the differences
However, mutual understanding does not mean avoiding real theological differences. “Christianity is not a religion of the book,” one of the videos stresses, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church and correcting a Quranic statement that “describes Christians and Jews as ‘people of the book'”. This is a misinterpretation: “Why? Because Christianity is ultimately a person’s religion: God did not reveal himself by words or commandments, but by a human being, in Jesus.
“The ultimate language of God is the flesh and blood of Jesus,” the video continues.
It is this figure of Christ that, as has been the case throughout the ages, the Islamic-Christian dialogue turns in these videos. The series captures an important point: that if the person of Jesus is the most important common point between the two religions, the essential question about him – God or not God? — is also what separates the two.
“For many Muslims, the Christian teaching about Jesus [as the Son of God] is not only inconsistent, but actually offensive, because Islam teaches that God is one and God cannot have sons,” Reynolds said candidly. “If you look at Christian teaching from the perspective of this Islamic idea, then you necessarily have a disposition that leads to controversy.”
The videos strive to emphasize that “what Christianity claims about Jesus is first and foremost a vision of divine love, love for creation.” With that in mind, Reynolds said, let’s hope “some of that disposition to polemics … is mitigated by an appreciation of the beauty of the Christian faith.”
Engage in dialogue
Apostolic Letter of Pope Saint John Paul II Novo Millenio Inuente urges: “Dialogue…cannot be based on religious indifference, and we Christians have the duty, while dialoguing, to give clear witness to the hope that is within us”.
Although not all Catholics agree with the Reasons for our hope neither the series’ commitment to upholding the “internal coherence” of Muslim theology, nor the series’ intentional avoidance of direct apologetics, its supporters believe is a positive contribution to Islamic-Muslim dialogue. Christian in the spirit of Saint John Paul II and the Church at large. teaching — and that the encounter it aims to foster can lead to deeper fruits.
Emily Lehman is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Notre Dame and Artistic Director for Fundamental Virtues at the University of Dallas.