An Experience of Dialogue and Devotion
is the record of Benedictine nun Sr. Mary Margaret Funk's multiyear engagement in interfaith dialogue with American Muslims in an effort to bridge the gaps that seem to divide Christianity and Islam. In the book she reflects on Islam, a religion that has challenged and transformed her and in which she has found startling similarities to her own deeply held Catholic practice and beliefs.
Sr. Mary Margaret examines the controversial issues of terrorism, women's rights and economic power, and offers Christians everywhere and Catholics in particular a way of viewing Islam that is honest and authentic. The book concludes with an afterword by Islamic scholar Dr. Shahid Athar, who dialogues with and explores Sr. Mary Margaret's ideas.
Since 2001, interfaith dialogue among Judaism, Christianity and Islam has become a matter of urgency for many. The author is a Benedictine nun who is executive director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, a program that embraces Christian discussion with non-Christians who have similarly made a religious calling the highest purpose of their outward and inward lives.
"We who call ourselves Christians are at a turning point in our relationship with Muslims in our shared world," Sr. Mary Margaret Funk writes, one that requires us "to look deeply into the heart of Islam and its faith, its plurality of cultures and civilization. If we do not, we miss a jewel in our midst and risk generations and generations of conflict because of our ignorance."
The book begins with Borelli's account of the mechanics of the Catholic Church's recent interfaith dialogue initiatives in the United States, in detail sufficient to help any group of any faith plan comparable activities. Funk then tells of her own background and her journey into "catching" the spirit of Islam through years of intermittent discussion and courses. As she moves into descriptions of basic tenets of Islam, she focuses on their spiritual significance to the individual and never underestimates their deeper complexities when refracted through history and culture.
The afterword is a commentary on her journey by one of her long standing Muslim colleagues in dialogue.
Reviewed by Sidney Griffith
This small book, which is, of course, principally the work of its author, nevertheless brings an unusual bonus with it in that the Introduction by John Borelli and the Afterword by Shahid Athar are themselves substantive contributions to the worth of the publication.
In the Introduction, John Borelli provides a brief but informative account of the impressive joint accomplishment of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Islamic Society of North America in initiating regional Muslim/Roman Catholic, theological dialogues in the USA. One might say in passing that this accomplishment was largely due to the energetic and pioneering work of Borelli himself during his years of service at the USCCB.
In the Afterword, Shahid Athar provides an instance of the very interreligious dialogue the book is about; he offers a considered response to selected items in Sr. Meg Funk’s presentation of the major tenets of Islam. There are two appended bibliographies, one on “God-consciousness” and one on Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
The main body of the book is composed of six short chapters. After an interesting autobiographical first chapter, which sets out the author’s long-time interest in religious dialogue and her involvement with the ongoing Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, she moves on in the second and third chapters to offer a thumbnail sketch of some basic information about Islam and a discussion of the foundational Five Pillars of Islamic practice. Chapter four provides some personal insights on several themes Sister Meg Funk has achieved during the seven years of her participation in the Midwest Muslim-Roman Catholic dialogue. Chapter six offers her reflective answers to three questions that often arise in the context of the discussion between Muslims and American Christians on the following topics: violent fundamentalism, the equality of women, and democracy. The sixth chapter is really a brief conclusion that highlights one of the author’s own major convictions, namely, that Islam really can be understood and respected by a confessing Christian as “a fully-formed vehicle toward God-consciousness” (p. 95).
Meg Funk’s book really is what its subtitle claims, “an experience of dialogue and devotion.” I would call it a testimonial; the narrative is a testimony to the author’s personal experience of another’s religion. As everyone knows who seriously attempts to give an account of the religious convictions of a community other than one’s own, it is extraordinarily difficult to give such an account to the satisfaction of someone of that other tradition. The fact that Dr. Athar can feel that he recognizes the Islam he practices in the testimonies of Sr. Meg Funk, albeit with a few correctives, is itself a considerable testimony to the fruits of dialogue. As Meg Funk herself says, one would like to hear Dr. Athar’s account of his experience of Roman Catholic Christianity after seven years of dialogue.
It is true that normally one would like to hear about a religious tradition from a believing practitioner of that tradition. And indeed that is a prescription that should not be ignored in the case of Islam. Too often in discussions of the Islamic tradition in universities and on the lecture circuit in the United States the talk is restricted to history, politics, international relations, or some other species of “regional studies.” But a real pastoral need in the Roman Catholic community in America is for those of us who have experienced the fruits of religious dialogue with Muslims to share them with our ecclesial brothers and sisters. Indeed, I think that in most of our religious communities and parishes it is a good idea to have such a sharing of experience before the Muslim speaker is invited.
For the fact is that a millennium and more of anti-Islamic polemic and disparagement has gone before us and much of it is now returning in the public discourse about terrorism and homeland security in post-9/11 America. Many of us have unwittingly inherited caricatures of Islamic faith and practice that have resulted in prejudices of a sort that cause us to close our ears to the sometimes frantic efforts of Muslims to appeal to the better instincts of people of faith everywhere. This circumstance suggests that we need to be prepared to hear the Muslim speakers we would invite to address us.
It is in this connection among others that one can enthusiastically recommend Meg Funk’s book; it can make a real contribution to parish adult education programs, to name only one option. It is a perfect text for discussion groups to adopt, hopefully with an informed discussion leader. It is short, clear, easy to read, accurate, and personal; it is inexpensive to boot. After the discussion would be a good time to invite a neighboring Muslim leader to make a presentation. Such an enterprise as this is what one would like to see everywhere on the Catholic scene in the USA.