It was my task to present the case for the three main traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, being able to live and work together because of their sibling relationship. There was then one presenter from each of the three traditions whose task was to address the issue from the stance of their particular faith. The Jewish tradition was represented by Professor Amy-Jill Levine, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, the Christian by Rev’d Professor Dorothy Lee, University of Divinity in Melbourne and the Muslim by Imam Professor Mohamad Abdalla, Griffith University in Brisbane.
In my opening address, I explored the issue of peace between the three traditions as it was realised in the Moorish cities and regions of Southern Spain in the period between the 700s and 1400sCE. The relative success of this peaceful co-existence has come to be broadly described as Convivencia, a Latin word for ‘harmonious existence’. I made the point that these regions were invariably under the control of the Muslims at the time and that this was an important element in why peace was possible in these regions even when Christians and Muslims were fighting it out in the Crusades in other regions not so distant. Part of the explanation is that Islam possesses a theology that incorporates the other two traditions. While this theology has not always worked in the interests of peace, as we know well, it nonetheless has potential to build the sibling bridge between the traditions that makes realities like Convivencia possible. By and large, the most successful instances seemed to be when a Muslim was in charge who understood that Jews and Christians living in their territory were fellow ‘Peoples of the Book’, sharing with them in the wider Abrahamic family of faiths, and so to be respected as siblings who worshipped the same God.
Of course, Convivencia was not guaranteed under even the most benevolent Muslim ruler. It required acceptance from Jews and Christians as well that the sibling relationship existed and that, regardless of differences, there was sufficient in common for them to work together for the common good. Where it worked, history tells us it worked extremely well. There are outstanding instances where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together successfully for centuries, in some cases creating some of the finest civilisations of their day. Palermo, Toledo and Cordoba are examples. They were genuinely multicultural and multifaith civilisations in every sense. They were advanced technologically, legally, educationally and in welfare. Some of the great translation works were completed there, in part because Jewish and Christian scholars recognised the importance of Muslim scholarship in preserving much that had been lost to the West, including the works of Aristotle. In time, great Western scholars, like Thomas Aquinas, would be the beneficiaries of these translations.
Granted today’s tragic misunderstanding and violence between peoples of different faiths, it is important to look back and see what is possible when people of different faiths have better understanding of each other. It is also worth noting why the great multifaith civilisations of Convivencia were eventually destroyed. In our book, Reconciling Islam, Christianity and Judaism (Springer Press, Heidelberg, Germany, 2015), my co-author Robert Crotty and I refer to the deeply ingrained disposition in each of the Abrahamic faiths of what we call the ‘exclusivist trigger’. It refers to a trigger that, when pulled by one or other of the faiths, makes peace impossible and violence almost inevitable. Be it in Jews insisting that they and they alone are the Chosen People, Christians proclaiming that there is no salvation outside the church, or Muslims that only they can be pleasing to God, each has potential to be as damaging to harmony as the other.
While each person is entitled to their private beliefs, when the exclusivist trigger becomes all-consuming and people truly believe that their God justifies persecution and oppression of those who beg to differ, then we are all on a path towards the destruction of civilisation. This is what happened eventually to the Convivencia states and we see it happening today in many parts of the world. The Convivencia theology that God was the God of all was lost; God instead became a partial and partisan God, one who plays favourites and justifies humans being judgemental and brutal towards fellow humans. This is how many people see religion today; no wonder so many turn their backs on it.
I spoke at the conference of the importance of all religious believers cross-checking their understanding of God in light of modern developments, including in science. Now that we know the universe to be so much vaster than we could have imagined in the past, including the possibility that it is infinite, surely our understanding of God must grow in its vastness as well. Hence, the idea of a Universal God who is only interested in planet Earth, and not the rest of the universe, is surely missing the whole point about God. Moreover, the idea of a God who doesn’t even care about all of Earth but only humanity on it, or who doesn’t even care about all of humanity but only certain people, is surely a nonsense. The idea of a God who plays favourites and pits one lot of humanity against another lot, who justifies oppression and violence towards fellow humans, is surely trashing the very idea of God. If there was one main key to Convivencia it was in the common understanding that God was the God of all. It remains a crucial challenge for all followers of an Abrahamic faith to maintain that understanding of God, namely of a truly Universal God.
Terence Lovat is Emeritus Professor and Postgraduate Theology Convenor, University of Newcastle, Honorary Research Fellow, Oxford University and Adjunct Professor, Royal Roads University, Canada.
To order a DVD of the eConference, visit www.bbi.catholic.edu.au.