Reverend Religious Representatives,
It was with great joy that we accepted the invitation by your historic country to visit you and speak within the framework of inter-religious dialogue between the religions of Christianity and Islam. We come with two identities. We come as a simple fellow human being, and as the first in order among equal bishops of the Orthodox Christian Church, Presiding Hierarch of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople.
We bring you the wholehearted and friendly greetings both of our Modesty personally, and also on behalf of the Church to which we belong and which we represent. We also express from this podium our warm thanks to the World Islamic Call Society and its General Secretary, the Revd. Dr. Mohammad Ahmed Al-Sherif, and to all the honourable members of the Executive Council of this Society, for the invitation to speak before you about the timely and important subject of inter-religious dialogue.
This is not the first time that we have dealt with this issue; and of course neither is this the first time that you have heard about it. The World Islamic Call Society, from the time of its very foundation, included in its constitutional goals the realization of inter-religious dialogue, and has conducted at least one official dialogue with the Vatican, as the representative of the Roman Catholic Christian Church. This resulted in such remarkable mutually agreed-upon pronouncements as "no compulsion should be used on persons or societies in the name of religion". That dialogue also came to the remarkable conclusion that antagonism should be replaced with co-operation as a subject of preaching. At the same time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which we head, has co-operated with others to organise numerous international academic inter-religious meetings and conferences with the participation of representatives of the major religions. During these conferences, specific subjects have been examined, and mutually accepted decisions have been taken. Some of them have already become universally recognized by the global community, such as the Bosphorus Declaration, according to which "every crime in the name of religion is a crime against religion".
Humanity currently finds itself in a situation where the necessity of dialogue as a method of solving conflicts and problems in every area of human life has become clear. The co-existence of members of different religions is increasing and they interact now in a uniquely direct way, due to the recent advances made in the mass media and means of transportation, and to the immigration of followers of one religion to countries where another religion predominates.
Moreover, the establishment of numerous international organizations, first of which was the United Nations, has led representatives of different peoples with different religions and civilizations into the halls of international conferences and to the tables of bilateral or multilateral negotiations, to find solutions to several issues. This has resulted in increased familiarity between peoples and a greater tolerance for their respective religious and cultural preferences and peculiarities.
Thus, both the unofficial dialogue that has been conducted on a personal level between followers of both of these two great religions and of others, and also the frequent high-level international meetings, have prepared hearts and minds for a more official dialogue comprised of spiritual leaders and scholars of religion. Such a dialogue would aim to clarify the many centuries-old misunderstandings about the true content of the world's religions. It would also aim to preserve, and not to prohibit out of religious reasons, the possibility of peaceful co-operation between peoples of different religions.
Cohabitation between Christians and Muslims, especially in the Mediterranean region, has been the rule for centuries, and has made these groups of people familiar with each other, created friendships and co-operations, facilitated discussions and exchanges of views, and has given rise to mutual understanding. In particular, both Arabic- and non-Arabic speaking Christians alike, have lived in the Arabic world together with Muslims, and the literature of both religions has greatly benefited as a result.
Moreover, in the countries of Syria (which hosts the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch in Damascus), Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine (which is the ancient See of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem), and others, the percentage of Christians within the Muslim majority is remarkable. This centuries-long daily interaction, cohabitation and co-operation between both the simplest and the most erudite members of the community, and the elevation of individuals from both religions to high positions in government, has made people spiritually interested in a more responsible and substantial dialogue.
For sure, exchanges of information about the teachings and spiritual experiences of both religions have taken place throughout the centuries, and indeed still take place within communities. But it is also true that the nature of faith, and especially of Christian and Muslim faith, contains a high degree of absoluteness, which sometimes becomes intensified so as to prevent followers of one religion from converting to another.
This has resulted in an increase in apologetic works, works whereby the superiority of one religion's claim to truth is set over and against the other's. In cases like these, the discussion highlights oppositions and differences, and does not lead to peaceful mutual understanding, but rather to mere logical argumentation. However, there also exist progressive minds who consider faith in God as a strong connection between these two religions. These people, without equating the religion with the other, are more interested in discovering the deeper message of God that both religions contain within themselves, instead of focusing on the differences that exist between them. This does not imply indifference to the faith, nor minimalism regarding its substantial elements, nor syncretism; it only implies having a friendly attitude towards the person who believes and worships in a way different from ours, because this person is within God's sight on their personal spiritual path. The depth of the soul, where this journey takes place, is a holy and inviolate place, where no coercion can exist, for God himself grants us the time for the lengthy and barely discernible inner workings of faith.
The call for a more profound investigation and for a friendly attitude that leads to an end to conflict is not recent. Many centuries ago, the poet Jalaloudin Rumi wrote in his poem called "The Religious Conflict":
The blind face a dilemma when they worship,
While the powerful on the one and on the other side stand established:
Every place is happy with its way.
Only love can make their conflict stop.
Only love comes to help when you call for help against their arguments.
Accordingly, we have not come to set our arguments against yours in the framework of conflict. We have come in a spirit of love, in response to your kind invitation, so as to get to know you and to offer you our desire for inter-religious dialogue.
Dialogue is born of speech, equality and mutual respect of those who engage in it. When equality is absent, the speech of a superior to his subordinate becomes a commandment, and that of a subordinate to his superior becomes beggary, praise or cajolery.
When a relationship of hostility persists between those who communicate, speech becomes contradiction. Cases such as these are spiritual disputes where a mere logical victory of the one over the other is the goal—this cannot be called dialogue.
When one party in a discussion is not interested in receiving something from the other, and instead wants only to give, it is not dialogue that results, but rather monologue. What a tragedy it is that many people engage in mere monologue, while thinking that they conduct a dialogue! This is a common phenomenon, and from the spiritual point of view is more repugnant than contradiction; in arguments between people who openly disagree, there exists at least a kind of communication. The one who responds to what he is told tries to understand his interlocutor and to present his objection to the other's views. But the person who conducts a monologue, even if he has heard the other, has not thought about what he has heard, neither does he truly respond, but instead says whatever he initially intended to say, indifferent to what he has been told. Some describe this as the dialogue of the deaf, behaviour that does not deserve the name of dialogue.
True dialogue is a gift from God to humankind. According to St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century A.D., God Himself is always in dialogue with humans. God speaks through the Prophets and the Apostles, and He also speaks through His creation. The heavens declare the glory of God, exclaims the holy Psalmist, and who is able to listen with understanding to the silent words of the created beings, is blessed.
Dialogue is most necessary and useful for the interaction of men! It is so useful that God Himself uses it when He speaks in various ways to man, and when He listens to man's prayers. Life would be impossible without dialogue. It is through dialogue that a mother communicates with her children, teaches them, participates in their joy and pain, comforts them, encourages them, listens to their difficulties and eases their way to maturity. It is through dialogue that a teacher cultivates knowledge, that a preacher of the faith catechises, solves enquiries, bears burdens, and serves the believer. Dialogue promotes science, broadens horizons, communicates feelings, changes emotions, reveals truths, dissolves illusions, abolishes prejudice, cultivates relationships, forges bonds, and makes the human person what he is. Speech is only justified when it is truly responded to, and true response to speech is dialogue.
The speech of God, reflected in the speech of humans, constitutes a fitting example of dialogue. For there is no place for coercion in religion, and ultimately faith cannot be obtained through threats, but is rather encouraged by gentle persuasion.
The person who refuses to engage in dialogue will always remain spiritually poor. He suffers from the illusion of self-sufficiency and the horror of insecurity. He sees only by the light of his own eyes, and refuses to enrich himself with what the eyes of others have seen; he listens only through his own ears, and refuses to hear what the ears of others have heard. If he starts down a wrong way road, he is unable to change direction, for he does not speak with any who can show him the right way.
Dialogue is safe and beneficial because it does not eliminate the responsibility, held by each member of the conversation, to form a considered opinion. Whatever subject arises in the course of a conversation, the participant listens carefully, examines and evaluates it, and then either accepts or rejects what he has heard. Consequently, dialogue does not upset the convictions of the one who engages in it; it does not alter his convictions against his will, but only when he himself decides to polish them.
Dialogue between followers of our two religions is indeed both necessary and beneficial.
Let us now make a small attempt to engage in theological inter-religious dialogue.
The Christian faith teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The Koran states that God does not have a son. There appears to be a clear contradiction between these two teachings. But is this really so?
Christian dogmatics affirms that no matter what we positively say about God, it is in the end never possible to define God, because God is beyond every definition. God is unknowable and incomprehensible by our weak human mental powers. Therefore, concepts of God are but anthropomorphic icons of Him. They aid our limited ability to fully understand Him, but we must always bear in mind that every human conception of God is inferior to what He really is. We know only a part, as the Apostle Paul says. Consequently, the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God expresses a reality, though not as understood by the simple person, who associates this reality with his relationship with his son. Because of this simplification, Christian teaching also uses another expression to describe Jesus Christ. It calls him the Incarnate Word of God, the One-Who-Became-Flesh. The Gospel of John begins by declaring, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." It adds that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," that is, became human and lived among men.
It is easier for human logic to accept that God "possesses Word", that is, He is able to express Himself; a god without the capability for self-expression is not an acceptable god. However, the use of the term "Word of God", and especially "incarnated", together with the term "Son of God", enlightens more lucidly the reality of "Jesus Christ". However, none of these terms, separately or in combination, could ever define this reality exactly.
This is why Holy Scripture and the writings of the great ecclesiastical thinkers use many other terms for the Word of God, such as "Wisdom of God", "Light of Light", "Son of Man" and others by which they try to express angles or rays of a reality that exists above human understanding and logic.
The ideal is always superior to the expressive ability of the human mind. That an expression is understood as being unable to convey a given reality in its entirety is not a cause of scandal for the sincere Christian, for he knows the apophatic or negative character of cataphatic or positive theology. In every positive expression about the divine realities there necessarily exists an apophatic element, one that affirms the insufficiency of human logic to define them, and that something inexpressible must lie beyond expressions.
From everything we have said, it is clear that for the thinking man, Christian or Muslim, the belief that God does not have a Son on the one hand, and the belief that Jesus Christ is both the Incarnate Word and Son of God on the other, may not be as essentially opposed as they seem. For Christians do not accept that Jesus Christ was born of God in the same way that the sons of human men are born. They can thus respond with agreement to the Muslim who refuses to believe something so crude, and can affirm that the issue goes deeper, to the true relationship of the Word of God with God, and to the Incarnation of the Word.
Mohammed the Conqueror of Constantinople asked the Patriarch of the time, George or Gennadios Scholarius, about this issue. The Patriarch replied that for us Christians it is out of the question that the Word of God does not possess substance. So we Christians believe in a Word of God who is substantial, and from this point of view we call him Son of God, without of course implying a father-son relationship identical to the human one.
From this short but representative analysis, we see that dialogue, when engaged in with good will and deep knowledge of the issues leads, if not to agreement, then at least to mutual understanding and rapprochement, to the removal of misunderstandings that have sometimes prevailed for centuries, and to the realisation that those who seem opposed to us are not always necessarily so. Therefore, before we say that we disagree on a specific issue, we must investigate it more deeply. This is so we might realise with surprise that we agree, even if it does not seem so, or that we are very close to agreeing.
Something else that causes disagreement and conflict, not only between different religions but also within the same religion, is to treat a part of the truth as it were the whole truth.
It is has been shown that human logic cannot express everything. There are thoughts and experiences and objects for which no specific words or expressions exist. Consequently, human beings are driven to use images or comparisons. For example, it is said that at the time of Christ's Transfiguration, His clothes became "white as the light", although light is not exactly white. During the ascension of St. Paul to a world totally unlike our earthly one, he ascended "unto the third heaven" and heard "unspeakable words", and none of his readers, except perhaps for very rare exceptions, have any experience of what the third heaven or the unspeakable words are like. Consequently, each member of his audience, or each one of his readers, though he might have an inkling of what he who expressed himself in this way wanted to communicate, nevertheless does not understand everything. In cases like these, if we consider the small piece of the truth that we can understand as comprising the whole truth, we will be led into serious misunderstandings and disagreements. Moreover, when we unhesitatingly insist that we possess the right and correct understanding, we are led into those conflicts and divisions that every religion experiences. We of the Orthodox Church accept that the Church correctly interprets Christian teaching as expressed through the Holy Synods, made up primarily of its hierarchs and other erudite and righteous believers. The Roman Catholic Church accepts that the Pope infallibly expresses the truth when he speaks ex cathedra. The majority of Protestant churches believe the truth is expressed through each congregation or even through each individual believer separately. This leads to ambiguity in the faith, to the relativisation of everything.
The correct path is not of course the relativisation of everything, but rather the acknowledgement that the abilities of the human mind are limited. The person who understands his and other men's mental insufficiency is peaceful and humble and conciliatory towards his fellow human beings who might understand a particular truth in a different way than he. He chooses what he considers the most correct view according to his best judgement, or according to the judgement of the Church or the religion to which he belongs, but he does not condemn those who with good intentions have chosen another view. And he always prays to God that the deeper meanings of the holy texts might be revealed to everyone, because many times they are not disclosed at the first reading.
This brings us to a third point, which is concerned with the interpretation of the word of God within the context both of the conditions in which it was expressed and of the people to whom it was addressed, and also within the context of the spiritual situation of today's believer.
We all know that many commandments of God are provisional, concerned with a specific place and time, advisable actions within the context of the conditions of a specific people. If we attempt to enforce today commandments that were handed down long ago, without making the necessary distinction, we will act against the will of God. For though it is written in the Old Testament that God commanded the extermination of a certain person or nation, this does not allow us today to exterminate a person or nation, believing that we thereby fulfil the will of God. Unfortunately, many people cite verses from Scripture written long ago for other people in other circumstances, in order to justify their misguided actions, or to lead astray their fellow human beings, who might not have knowledge enough to resist them.
Special attention must be paid to the level of spiritual progress of the believer for whom the commandment has been given. It is evident that what has been commanded of the faithful solitary ascetic, who is completely dedicated to God, is not always similarly valid for the householder, who lives within society. There certainly exist commandments that are equally valid for all people, but there also exist commandments given to the beginners on the road to virtue, as there exist paediatric nurses who are suited only for infants. Similarly there exist infant words and childish words and words for spiritual maturity. It is the duty of every era to investigate which of the earlier commandments remain valid. For we must distinguish the universal will of God, valid for all people of every era, such as charity, faith, and the like, from the provisional commandments of God, such as specifically how acts of charity are to be performed. This does not mean that the essential will of God changes, but that since we humans are changeable, our approaches to the will of God change according to our spiritual situation. That is another reason for humility and peace, for just because the followers of one religion interpret the will of God in one way, and other followers of the same or of another religion interpret it in a different way, this does not mean that one of them must be wrong, or that everyone is equally wrong. Someone spiritually more advanced than someone else may understand God's will differently. And as we have no other judge besides our own often-untrustworthy self to determine who is right, we ultimately are held responsibility for our choice.
Of course there are religious leaders who lead the faithful, but each person himself chooses the religious leader he wants to follow, and is responsible for his choice. All this means that we need discretion, that it is a mistake to be fanatical and to condemn our fellow human beings who might think or believe in a way different from ours, and that dialogue is necessary for mutual understanding and for peaceful co-existence and co-operation.
Despite the absoluteness that provides the foundation for every religious faith, inter-religious dialogue is also necessary because as our knowledge of other religions increases, so too does our understanding of our own religion. Finally, a better understanding of our own religion and of one or several other religions helps us to better understand what God expects from humankind, and to better see the weaknesses or inaccuracies that may lie beneath our beliefs. Certainly not every believer is able to undertake such comparisons, for he might not have the knowledge or the necessary wisdom. Specialized spiritual knowledge and experience are called for, and this is why the top representatives of each religion conduct inter-religious dialogues today. In this way suspicions of proselytising are avoided, a high level of discussion is maintained, and fears of compromising elements of one's faith and of one's affection for one's fellow speaker, who belongs to a different religion, prove unjustified. We say this because unfortunately the less educated of believers are not only unqualified to participate in inter-religious dialogue, but they also hold those who participate in them in suspicion, doubting their religious honesty and integrity.
This is why we explicitly declare that inter-religious dialogue does not take place either for participants to enter into alliances with members of other religions, or for them to badger others into conceding to their beliefs. They take place rather for the cessation of religious intolerance, for the triumph of mutual understanding, and for the establishment of certainty in the good intentions of both sides, respectful of each person's cultural background and freedom of religious choice.
During the 14th century A.D., a dialogue was conducted between the great Christian theologian and saint, Archbishop Gregory Palamas of Thessaloniki, and a distinguished representatives of Islam. Of course they did not entirely agree, but one of the representatives of Islam stated that for him the time should come when mutual understanding between followers of the two religions would exist. St. Gregory agreed to this statement, and wished that time would come soon. Today we are able to wish, and we do wish wholeheartedly, for this to be fulfilled in our days.
We thank you for your patience and your kindness in listening to us. And we wish you every blessing from God.