On the Use of Polemics in Religious Literature, in Light of Pope Benedikt’s Regensburg lecture

October 8, 2006

The recent academic lecture of Pope Benedict in which he cited a fourteenth century text articulating an uncomplimentary view of Islam has led to widespread protests and has brought to light once again the fragility of relations between different religious groups. The Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, with the help of scholars of the Elijah Interfaith Academy, wishes to make the following observations and to point to some lessons that may be drawn from recent events.

1. The text quoted by Pope Benedict is drawn from a polemical work. Christianity and Islam have a rich library of polemical works, in which the other tradition is portrayed in an unfavorable way, as a false religion. These works are usually not primarily written for the others, but for the author’s own community, to show that they have answers for the challenges the other poses. Polemics are ways of defending the truth-claims of one’s own religion against the perceived challenges of the other. This often results in not considering the claims of the other seriously, or even distorting them. Such polemical literature is also representative of historical relations between other religious traditions, including Judaism in its relations with Christianity and Islam, as well as between Eastern religions. The library of polemical works continues to feed our view of other religions, sometimes explicitly and sometimes in more academic ways that do not intend to adopt polemical views, but nevertheless perpetuate them. The body of our polemical literature cannot be ignored as we seek to advance in interfaith relations. Taking stock of our past and of how we view the other must lead to examination of our polemical literatures. We must seek to understand them against their historical background and to find a way of articulating how the views expressed in them should be upheld, rejected or reframed, in light of the broad and prevailing awareness that dignity and respect must characterize inter-group relations in the present. Citations from polemical literature must accordingly be handled with the appropriate awareness of the nature of this literature and of how we conceive our own views of other religions.

2. Contemporary relations between religious groups can never be fully divorced from historical relations. However, religious leaders and adherents today have the responsibility to reframe our communications and relationships in accordance with our core values and contemporary global realities. All our traditions have chapters that may be regretted from the standpoint of our present understanding of religious ideals. All our traditions or individuals within them have treated members of other faiths with violence at one point or another, and have had great difficulty negotiating religious vision with political and military power. Some of our traditions have taken stock of dark moments in their past and offered apologies; others are still struggling with these issues. We all seek to move beyond certain moments in our past and to frame interreligious relations in a new way. In particular, we all seek to guide the adherents of our religion to a religious worldview and to a practice that minimizes violence and seeks to resolve tensions and misunderstandings in a non-violent way.

3. The present crisis is to a large extent an aberration in the culture of communications that should, and that has often, characterized relations between religions. Our best moments teach us that even in the heat of dispute and polemic, representatives of different religions have listened to the argument of others and offered counter arguments accordingly. While the present crisis highlights a theme taken from polemical literature, it does so in a culture of communications informed by mass media. Sound bites are taken out of context and take on a life of their own. Instead of attention to what is said and seeking the appropriate response, statements take on a life of their own in the media, and generate responses that in turn draw on the same media as a means of inter-group communication. While upholding the various freedoms (academic freedom, freedom of speech and the freedom of the press), we also urge religious leaders and scholars to be mindful of the change in the environment of communications. The media related implications of statements cannot be ignored and must be taken into account. At the same time, we urge religious communities to engage one another in ways that are more appropriate for religious communities. Careful and full listening and mutually respectful dialogue are the only way of moving forward and the only remedy to violent reactions.

Document prepared by:
Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Elijah Interfaith Institute
Prof. Vincent J. Cornell, Emory University
Prof. Sidney Griffith, Catholic University of America
Dr. Maria Reis Habito, Museum of World Religions, Elijah Interfaith Institute

Statement Signatories

Buddhists:

Dr. Jan Chozen and Hogen Bays, Abbotts, Great Vow Zen Monastery, USA

Ven. Blanche Zenkei Hartman, San Francisco Zen Center, USA

Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, University of San Diego, USA

Christians:

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Russian Orthodox Bishop of Vienna, Austria

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop, Episcopal Church, USA

Bishop Lennart Koskinen, Church of Sweden

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias, Orthodox Church, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia

Archbishop Boutrous Mouallem, Catholic Bishop Emeritus, Haifa and Galilee, Israel

Patriarch Mesrob II, Armenian Patriarchate, Istanbul

Jews:

Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Haifa, Israel

Chief Rabbi Menachem HaCohen, Chief Rabbi of Romania

Rabbi Richard Marker, International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC)

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Chief Rabbi Emeritus Norway, MK, Israel

Rabbi Mordechai Peron, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of Zurich

Rabbi David Rosen, Chief Rabbi Emeritus Ireland, President, International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC)

Muslims:

Sayyed Jawad Al-Khoei, Al Khoei Foundation, London

Sheikh Muhammad Nur Abdullah, President, Islamic Society of North America, USA

Dr. Yahya M. Basha, Chairman of the Muslim American Coalition, USA

Dr. Wahiduddin Khan, Founder of the Islamic Center, India

Dr Adamou Ndam Njoya, Former President of the African Muslim Congress, Cameroon

Religions of India:

Guruji Sri Rishi Prabhakarji, Sidha Samadhi Yoga, India

Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh, Spiritual Successor and Chairman, Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, UK

Sugunendra Theertha Swamiji, Maadhwa Sangha, India