Signs of Hope: BC Panel on Muslim-Christian Relations

by Olivia Colombo


On Thursday, September 27, Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry hosted a panel entitled “Signs of Hope in Muslim-Christian Relations,” where students and faculty had the opportunity to listen and engage in conversation with three theologian panelists with distinguished experience in this interreligious dialogue.  The STM held the panel in Robsham Theater as part of their tenth-anniversary open lecture series. The panelists were Daniel A. Madigan, S.J. from Georgetown University; Klaus Von Stosch from University of Paderborn, Germany; and Joshua Ralston from University of Edinburgh, Scotland. The discussion was moderated by Boston College theologian Professor Catherine Cornille.

From their own work, travels, and studies, the three speakers shared anecdotal examples of the recent successes and failures in the journey toward peace between Muslims and Christians.  Von Stosch explained that University of Paderborn students studying the Christian faith are required to take a course in Islamic studies with a Muslim teacher, in order to foster understanding and dialogue as well as deepen their own faith.  Christian students at the university, Von Stosch recounted, experienced this dialogue in action while traveling in Mosul, Iran, where public Christian prayer and music is banned.  However, the group was allowed to celebrate Mass in a mosque prayer room, accompanied by guitar, and some of the Muslim students joined them in song.  Such compassion and reverence toward each other’s faith serve as signs of hope, but in Ralston’s presentation, there were literal “signs” that were the cause of hurt and hate.  In his travels to Budapest, he observed government-issued anti-refugees signs, namely posters around the city with a photo of Syrian refugees and a superimposed “stop” sign.  Ralston quoted Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s anti-immigration fear that “asylum-seekers are a threat to Christian culture and secularism.”  However, Ralston posed that “within that context, there are signs of hope and resilience,” including stories of a Muslim-Christian graveyard honoring all those who drowned between Tunisia and Italy, as well as an instance of a Protestant Greek church offering immense hospitality to Muslim refugees when they came to the outskirts of their small town in 2015.  “The Gospel requires us to go out,” said the pastor of the church, as his congregation united to build apartments, find lawyers, provide meals, and aid the refugees in searching for jobs.


Each presenter shared these anecdotes while simultaneously acknowledging the differences between the two faith traditions. Ralston remarked, “I’m not sure [there are] signs of hope yet, but signs of resilience and possibilities.” Fr. Madigan added to this, saying, “Contention is a problem rather than a cause for hope— but we are learning ways of contending that are hopeful. We don’t have to stop contending."  Fr. Madigan raised the point that both faiths have universal claims, but we can learn, see what we agree with, and then take part in that contention by exploring the difference.  For example, Von Stosch, when speaking about his Muslim and Christian students taking classes on the other’s religion, related that many students come away with deeper understandings of their own faith, particularly by exploring the concept of mystery, like in the Trinity. 


Alongside being united by hope, Fr. Madigan recommended coming together in humility.  Oftentimes “the real Muslims and the real Christians” fail to pursue peace, but in recognizing our failures “then we can come to an attitude of humility toward each, which is an essential part of interreligious dialogue.”  When we are “brought low” together, there is hope in building back up together, in which humility is crucial.  Responding to a question from a student in the audience, Von Stosch added that both Muslims and Christians believe that the other can be saved, which can be a source of humility and recognition of the merits of the other faith, affirmed by Nostra Aetates explanation of “salvation outside the Church.”


On the subject of humility and rising together, Fr. Madigan said, “The bad news arrives regularly, every morning, on our doorsteps, on our phones.  The signs of hope are like the signs of the Kingdom—one sprouts here, one sprouts there.  These stories are all small examples of hope. They are tender shouts that we will nurture and help to grow," Fr. Madigan concluded.  “And real disagreement is a gift, exploring it until you understand and until the other person feels you have understood.  This is where I find signs of hope.”

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