I had two conversations yesterday with two different people. While on the surface they seem to be entirely different conversations concerning different matters, on reflection I see that they are two aspects of the same discourse. They both involved the question of how Christianity (and individual Christians) ought to be relating to other religious traditions (and the practitioners of those traditions). Here’s what happened:
First, someone forwarded to my wife an alarmist video about projected changes in religious demographics in Europe and North America over the next fifty years, as the birth rate declines among caucasians, while rising immigration and a vigorous birth rate of immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, means — according to the people who produced the video — that the native Christian population will soon be overwhelmed by a nascent immigrant Muslim population. By interspersing through this video quotations from figures like Muammar al-Gaddafi who is alleged to have said “There are signs that Allah will grant victory to Islam in Europe without swords, without guns, without conquest,” the video’s message is clear: Christians need to start birthing babies — and evangelizing Muslims — or else we all better start learning Arabic.
This video never identifies its producers, but it was uploaded to Youtube by a user named “friendofmuslim” who is identified by the Islam in Europe blog as a “Christian evangelist.” No big surprise there. This blogger goes on to challenge much of the content of the video, and I suppose I could have fun trying to deconstruct the question of just how soon Europe will transition from being a secular/post-Christian continent to becoming a Muslim continent. But it’s all speculation. It could happen in 40 years (as the video predicts), 100 years, or never. But that’s not the point I wish to make.
In the ensuing conversation that my wife and I had after watching the video, I pointed out that demographics are always changing, and the more interesting question, to me, concerns not this kind of power politics where Christians have to contain a non-Christian threat, but rather the larger question of what will happen as Christian and non-Christian cultures continue to interface?
Which leads to the second conversation I had yesterday, with one of the monks in Conyers. He shares my interest in interreligious and interfaith dialogue, and I was telling him about a book I recently purchased: Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity by B. Alan Wallace. I haven’t read any of Wallace’s previous books, but his body of work looks interesting enough: a former Buddhist monk who now heads the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, most of Wallace’s work concerns the interface of Buddhist contemplative practices with the science of human consciousness; and now he’s invited the Christian tradition to join in on the conversation as well.
The monk and I talked about how important we felt the Buddhist-Christian conversation is, particularly to contemplative spirituality. We talked about how many of the most important contemplatives of the past century, including Thomas Merton, Raimon Panikkar, Bede Griffiths, and William Johnston, were (or are) engaged in some form of interfaith work between Christianity and eastern religious practice. Finally, I said, “You know, I think I have more in common with a contemplative Buddhist than with a fundamentalist Christian,” and he agreed.
Here we have the challenge of the postmodern world. Phyllis Tickle says that the key issue facing emergence Christianity is the question of authority. But I think identity is just as critical a concern. Christians who oppose interfaith dialog, or who insist that our only interaction with non-Christians must be to convert them, are precisely those who have a high level of anxiety over what it means to be a Christian: to have a Christian identity. Now, I am all for having a Christian identity, just as I think it is important to have a clear sense of where our authority is situated. But just as all the old paradigms of authority seem to be shifting under our feet, so too I think “Christian identity” is totally up for grabs. If the emergence of a Muslim majority in Europe would mean the death of contemplative Christianity, I would grieve. But if it just means a new chapter in the endless drama of clashing fundamentalisms, I can’t get too worried about it, except to fear the violence that must inevitably accompany such conflict. Meanwhile, the thought of mystical cross-fertilization between contemplative Muslims (such as the Sufis) and contemplative Christians is a question I find fascinating. Perhaps in another few years meditation practitioners like B. Alan Wallace will be inviting the most visionary of Muslim thinkers to join in the conversation that is already occurring between scientists, Buddhists and Christians.
Don’t dismiss me here. We have to get over the media stereotype of Islam as the religion of suicide bombers. Yes, that element exists, just as there are Christians out there who murder abortion providers. Islam has a long history of its own intellectual distinction (remember, it was the Muslims who, like the Irish, kept classical philosophy alive while Europe sank into the dark ages). When we think in terms of Christian-Muslim dialogue, it is vital that we think in terms of creative and fruitful exchange between the greatest minds and most loving practitioners of each faith. It needs to be a conversation between the saints and the mystics and the genuises of both communities. If we allow the tribal-minded masses (of either religion) to shape the conversation, it will devolve from a conversation into a quarrel, from a quarrel to a fight, and from a fight into a war. This is something no one needs.
Fifty years from now, Europe may be demographically Muslim and Africa may be the center of the Christian world. But North America, I suspect, will remain a roiling mass of secularism which plays host to a variety of religious identities, from fundamentalisms of all stripes to truly visionary contemplative explorers of human consciousness. Frankly, it will be among those contemplative explorers, regardless of where they happen to worship, that the most enlightening discourse will occur. If I’m still around (If I’m alive in 2059, I’ll celebrate my 99th birthday), I hope to be part of what promises to be a fascinating conversation (or two).