History, Facts, and Fabrications

I suspect most of us remember the quote by George Santayana (1863 – 1952) the Spanish-American philosopher and writer: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

Thinking about Santayana’s observation, if someone asked me WHY history is important, I wound add: “Those who cannot UNDERSTAND the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

Understanding history is far more important than just knowing history. It is not enough, for example, to know about the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s but to understand how and why Nazism had so much popular support. 

And unfortunately, as with Nazism, popular fanaticism is often more important than truth. Presumed or fabricated historical facts can be misleading, deceptive, and destructive.

As an historian, who has been observing for more than a couple years, I have a few observations about history and reality:

Genuine history should be based on factual information. That can be problematic when one is not using factual information, but interpretations presumed to be historical. 

No one knows, for example, what the historical Jesus looked like. He most probably had the brown eyes, brown skin, and black hair common to first-century Hebrews from Galilee. Nevertheless, some of the best-known depictions of Jesus, from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” to Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, have depicted Jesus as a white European male. And many popular images of Jesus have portrayed him with brown or blond hair, blue eyes, and often looking rather androgynous.

Another historical problem arises when historical interpretation is done from the perspective of just one gender. Problems arise when, for example, only male historians are looking at and interpreting historic events. 

Throughout most of its history, the institutional church has been highly patriarchal. Its anthropology defined the male as superior and the female as inferior and subordinate. For too long male historical theologians interpreted reality that way, stating incorrectly for example that only men presided at Eucharist in the early church, because only men were heads of households. 

Today, we know that the “only men” perspective is not true. In early Christianity women took leadership roles in house churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches: Apphia in Philemon 2 and Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19, for example. This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira in Acts 16:15 and Nympha of Laodicea in Colossians 4:15.  As heads of households, these women were also presiders at Eucharist. 

Paul also mentions Junia as a woman apostle in Romans 16:7. Unfortunately, male theologians, starting in the fourth century and into the Middle Ages changed the woman “Junia” into the man “Junias” in their biblical commentaries. Misogyny has a long history.

Fortunately, modern feminist history and theology emerged in the 1960s, rooted primarily in Christian women’s experiences of living under the pressure of patriarchal ideology and structures. Today we have better and more accurate historical perspectives thanks to women theologians and women historians. Since 1969 at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), for example, a growing number of women have received their doctorates in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies; and the current dean is a woman. 

For a good perspective on women in early Christian history, I strongly recommend Christine Schenk’s book: Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity.

History becomes narrow and deceptive when certain books or authors are banned. We see that happening a lot today, especially in schools. In the first half of the 2022-2023 school year in the United States, almost 1,500 books were banned. 

Book bans continue to target books featuring LGBTQ+ themes or characters, characters of color, as well as books on race and racism. Book banning, of course, began centuries ago when, for example, certain books were put on the Roman Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) which started in 1560. The writings of Nicolaus Copernicus in 1616 and of Galileo Galilei in 1634 were not removed from the Index until 1822. The very final edition of the Index appeared in 1948. But the Index was not formally abolished until 1966 by Pope Paul VI. History of course is filled with abundant and frightening examples that banning and burning books has often led to banning and burning people.

Historical ignorance can also lead to faulty interpretations of historic events. Contrary to what one still hears, for example, Jesus did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper with his disciples. 

Jesus certainly did not ordain “male apostles” as the first bishops. Ordination did not exist in Jesus’ lifetime. Ordination began much later and not as a way to pass on “sacred power to consecrate the Eucharist” but as a form of quality control – a way to assure communities that their leaders were competent and trustworthy. 

The first complete description of the Christian ceremony of ordination appears at the beginning of the third century and is found in the Apostolic Tradition, a work attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170 ‒ ca. 235 CE). By the end of the third century, however, Christianity had a clear organizational structure headed by presbyters, supervisor-overseers (bishops), and deacons. 

History becomes deceptive as well when myths, legends, and folklore are reported as actual historic events. Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Scriptures belong to biblical mythology, along with Noah and his Ark. 

A few years ago, my sister – always somewhat fearful that I was becoming a heretic — emailed me a photo and an article about the discovery of an ancient chunk of wood in the Judean Hills. That old piece of wood, the article said, had been a piece of Noah’s Ark. My sister said: “Isn’t this wonderful!” Well, I replied that obviously someone had discovered an old chunk of wood, but that Noah and his famous boat were mythological, just like the old chopped-down cherry tree myth about young George Washington, or the myth about Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack who shaped the landscape with his axe and Babe his blue ox.

Historical understandings can and do change. For example, did Jesus of Nazareth have brothers and sisters? 

Most contemporary scripture scholars would agree that the historical Jesus of Nazareth (Yeshua) had brothers and sisters and that they were the sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. The brothers of Jesus (the adelphoi in Greek, meaning “from the same womb”) are named in the New Testament, in Mark and Matthew, as James, Joses (a form of Joseph), Simon, Jude, and unnamed sisters’ are mentioned in Mark and Matthew.

By the 3rd century, however, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary had become well established. That of course raised problems with what one reads in Mark and Matthew. Other explanations were found. The traditional Roman Catholic explanation for the reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters became that they were really cousins or children of Joseph before he married Mary. 

Better historical information often requires changed institutional and personal understandings and behavior as well. Today we know, for instance, that profits from slavery helped fund some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. 

Reparations and acknowledgements are being made. Ongoing efforts and calls to address historical connections to slavery and enduring racism at American universities have been renewed, especially in the wake of demonstrations protesting the murder of the African American man George Floyd Jr. by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020.

U.S Catholics need to review their history as well. By the time the Jesuit priests of Maryland founded Georgetown College in 1789, the Jesuits were among the biggest slave owners in the colony. They had several tobacco plantations scattered across Maryland and used the income from their slaves’ labor to create Georgetown. Then in 1838 the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus sold 272 slaves. Proceeds from that sale were used to satisfy Georgetown’s debts. 

Following broad publicity regarding the 1838 transaction, the university moved in 2017 to rename two buildings that bore the names of Jesuits at Georgetown who had played significant roles in the 1838 sale of slaves. The two buildings were rededicated in the names of Isaac, the first slave listed in the 1838 sale document, and Anne Marie Becraft, who established a school in Georgetown for black girls.

The slave issue has touched me personally as well. For many years I have been doing historical genealogical research into my paternal family history. I discovered, when reviewing the wills and other documents of some of my ancestral grandparents in Virginia that they were slave owners. That was a humbling shock. Then, corresponding with a researcher in Virginia I made another discovery. She told me that she and I have the same distant grandfather and sent a photo of her and her family. They are very dark African Americans. I immediately emailed my favorite cousin in Virginia and asked him about this. He replied: “Yes, we don’t talk about this but some of our slave-owning grandfathers back then had black ‘girlfriends’.”

Not everything on the Internet is historical, truthful, and honest. I wonder what will happen to the online information environment in the coming decade.

 Certainly, as we see for example in the dishonest political rhetoric of DJT and his supporters, the Internet today makes the production and dissemination of untruths much easier and faster. We used to say: “Pictures don’t lie” but on Internet photoshopped images are not truthful and make people believe their falsehood is reality. An example: President Joseph Biden made a surprise trip to Ukraine on February 20th this year. He was photographed walking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outside of a monastery in Kyiv. Multiple news outlets have published the picture. But an altered version of the photo is spreading on social media, showing Biden and Zelenskyy holding hands, their fingers entwined.

As we move into the next U.S. presidential campaign, I fear we will see a lot of Internet dishonesty.

Concluding observations: History is not about imaginative conjectures but about reality. We grow – or we can grow — in our discoveries about reality. And we can always be learners.

A good friend reminded me recently: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”  


Facts & Fantasy: a Bit of Papal History

On December 17, 2023, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today’s Pope Francis, will be 87  years old. He has now been Bishop of Rome for ten years. On September 30th he will appoint 21 new cardinals, bringing the total number of cardinals with the right to vote in a conclave to 137. I suspect the most historic event in this papacy, however, will be the push toward synodality. Francis has called for a synod to be held in Rome, starting in October 2023 with another session in October 2024. The theme is: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission.” Thinking about these events and the Pope’s recent World Youth Day trip to Portugal, my reflections went back to papal history. 

The first pope I remember was Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958, who declared the Catholic dogma of the Assumption in 1950. Pius XII’s photo appears in this week’s post. I suspect, however, that many people have never heard of Mother Pascalina Lehnert. As a young nun, she worked with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the papal nuncio in Bavaria, and then spent many years in Rome as his trusted advisor and assistant when he became Pope Pius XII.

When we look at the history of the papacy, the are facts, for sure. There are also a lot of pious fantasies especially about the beginning of the papacy. One of my old acquaintances, who is now a U.S. cardinal, still loves to remind people “Our Lord selected St. Peter to be the first pope, making him the rock on which the Catholic Church would be solidly built.” With all due respect, that is a fifth century imaginatve-fabrication. It is not history. 

In reality we have no detailed historical accounts about Peter’s life. We do know that neither Peter nor Paul founded the Christian community at Rome because there were Christian communities in the city before either of the two apostles arrived there. Nor can one assume that Peter established a succession of bishops in Rome. There are clear historical indications in fact that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of Peter and Paul. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome. Leadership was not exercised by a central administrator bishop but by a group of elders. At some point Peter might have been a member of that group of elders. That hypothesis is held by some. In fact, wherever we look historically, the once so solid outlines of the “Petrine succession” at Rome seem to dissolve, somewhat like dreams after one wakes up. We are waking up today.

Few verses in Scripture have generated as much historical controversy and divisiveness as Matthew 16:18. That biblical discussion is still ongoing but Peter was not the “rock on which the church was built.” Most contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians stress that Peter was NEVER a bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic theologians Raymond Brown (1928 – 1988) and John P. Meier (1942 – 2022) were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity: “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans; and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.”

Jerusalem was the first center of Christian life. The first Christian community there was led not by Peter but by James, one of Jesus’ brothers. By the time Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, however, there were already Christian communities in Antioch, Corinth, and Ephesus, as well as Rome.

Peter did play a role at the Council of Jerusalem (c.50 CE). But James, the brother of Jesus, was in charge and it was James who issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Peter (“Cephas” in Aramaic) went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebrew Christians. “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned.” (Paul writing in Galatians 2:11)

There is a later tradition that Peter and Paul were put to death in Rome at the hands of Nero, who died in 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. Other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome: his struggles with the magician Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a vision of Christ, the “Quo Vadis” legend. Well, history is based on actual events and legends are rarely historical. 

By the second and third centuries, however, we see stories about Peter springing from later suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE) an influential early bishop in the south of France. 

In the third and fourth centuries CE, the term pope – coming from the Latin word papameaning “father” — was used for bishops in general and then later used more for special bishops. So we see in the historic literature references, for example, to the “Papa of Constantinople,” and the “Papa of Rome.” The presumption back then was that all the “papas” should work together. The “papa” in Rome had an honorary position but was not the supreme decision-maker. The “papa” in Rome was “first among equals.” Each “papa” took care of the church in his region. This all changed when the Roman Empire began to collapse.

When the Western Roman Empire began to fall apart after the death of Emperor Theodosius I, in 395 CE, the bishops of Rome began to assume more and more control over civil and ecclesiastical life. The bishop of Rome Papa Leo I (who died in 461), was the bishop of Rome well known for convincing Attila, the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453 CE, to not invade Italy. Leo was a Roman

aristocrat, very proud of himself and fond of stories and legends about the Apostle Peter. He solemnly proclaimed in 446: “Peter speaks to the whole church through the Bishop of Rome.” And that was the beginning of the “Petrine papacy.”

The bishops of Rome – the papas — took over the ritual, the dress, the pageantry, and the power structures of the Roman emperor. In many ways, ancient Rome was resuscitated; and it was baptized and confirmed in papal Rome. Not even Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures could have reproduced Imperial Rome and its emperor with the precision and detail adopted and enacted by the bishops of Rome.

Since the fifth century there has been a long parade of episcopal papas in Rome. Some were kind and benevolent. Others were ruthless and immoral depots. They all, however, rather enjoyed having papal power.

Periodically over the centuries, various powerful bishops of Rome reaffirmed and strengthened their authoritarian power, turning the pope (for a while) into the number one monarch on our planet. Pope Pius IX of course tried to recapture that supreme earthy authority, when, after losing the “Papal States” in 1870 he had himself proclaimed infallible. He craved power.

And the papal story goes on and on.

After sharing my pre-publication text with a good friend, he asked: “But now what about the belief that Peter was the First Pope?” I replied: “Only with a great deal of imagination can one say Peter was the First Pope. But some Catholics past and present are known for their creative imaginations.” And no. I am really not anti-Catholic.

How refreshing it would be if the next pope would confine to a museum or simply sell all the old Roman papal imperial dress and ritual regalia. The bishops of Rome should adopt a more contemporary way of dressing and walking on this earth. (Other bishops as well.) Most importantly they should not be authoritarian monarchs. They should implement an honest and transparent shared-decision-making and shared-leadership ministry. That indeed would emulate Jesus Christ rather than archaic Roman emperors.


PS – For an excellent history of the popes, see Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy. The latest edition covers the unprecedented resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of the first Argentinian pope.

Religiously Unaffiliated

Last week I offered some reflections about inter-religion dialogue. This week’s focus is on the “nones” the non religiously affiliated. According to a Pew Research Center study, about 30% of U.S. American adults are now religiously unaffiliated. Like Michael, my university student whom I mentioned last week, they are disenchanted and disengaged from institutional religion.

In a recent email, Michael told me that he and his fiancee are now “searching non-believers,” but that they are both greatly attracted to the historical Jesus. I believe they and many others like them today are truly asking the bigger questions about life and meaning. In their own way, they are searching for an authentic “spirituality,” even though they might not use or even like that word. I think they would have resonated with the young men and women who were followers of the historic Jesus. In Jesus those people back then, around 29 CE, found someone who respected them, listened to them, and searched and explored with them. 

As an older historian, I have often wondered about those young men and women. They became Jesus’ disciples and later apostles. Were they perhaps disenchanted young Hebrews who felt institutionalized religion had lost its credibility? A hypothetical question of course. Jesus was a Hebrew believer but also highly critical of organized religion in his day. As a young adult, the historic Jesus, known as “Yeshua,” was a member of the religious group led by John the Baptizer, the Hebrew preacher active in the area of the Jordan River, which flows into and out of the Sea of Galilee. Some scholars suggest that John may have belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew group who expected a messiah and practiced ritual baptism. In any event we do know, from several New Testament accounts, that some of Jesus’ early followers had also previously belonged to the group around John. On his own spiritual journey, Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus heard the Divine voice: “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

There are many ways to describe the Divine Presence at the depth of Reality, just as there are many ways to describe what it means to love someone and to be loved. Here symbol and metaphor become important. Some of the old images of God may no longer speak to contemporary people. There is no God up there above the clouds sitting on HIS throne, manipulating everything down below. And there is no angry self-centered God who demanded the terribly painful death of his Son on a Roman cross. But the authentic God is a loving God who has not abandoned us, even when we might not realize it.

The German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) argued that there is one common factor to all religious experience. In his book The Idea of the Holy he identified this factor as “the numinous.” The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a “holy other.”

The religious questioner’s journey is not a dead end. As one of my former Leuven Professors, Jan Lambrecht SJ (1926 – 2023), so often stressed, the biblical account (Luke 24:13-35) of the journey of the couple, Cleopas and Mary, disciples of Jesus on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus is really about being a religious questioner. Having witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross, they moved from great sadness and despair about Jesus’ death to the joyful realization that he was not dead but truly alive and present with them. This narrative, Lambrecht stressed, is a model for everyone’s journey to discover a deeper faith experience. It also serves as an instrument to help others make their own religious-exploration journey. As I told my student Michael at the start of our ongoing conversations: “Be patient and open. God is closer to you than you realize.” Or as a very good spiritual advisor friend reminded me recently: “God is in our life as it really is, every part of it. We don’t so much ‘find’ God as ‘recognize’ God having been there with us all the time.”

We need to listen, to reflect, and to journey with the questioners and searchers. We need to listen to our own questions. We need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experience of the Divine. Asking questions is important. 

Having a glass of scotch with him one evening, I remember a long discussion with  a U.S. archbishop who was on sabbatical at our university. We talked about young  people today and about contemporary gender and sexuality issues. The archbishop, was open and friendly. He asked me: “Do you think we will ever ordain gay men?” I chuckled and replied: “Well archbishop I suspect we have been doing it for about two thousand years.” He took a big drink and stared at me. I took a drink, smiled, and continued. “Archbishop,” I said “now I have a question for you. Thinking about young people today and their religious questioning, when did you last feel the presence of the Divine?” Acting very surprised he looked away for a a few seconds. Then, with a bit of emotion, he said: “When I was a very young priest.” I asked: “And now?” He stared at me, took another drink, and replied: “These days I am on automatic pilot. I say the words and I do the things bishops are expected to say and do.” 

As our conversation continued, the archbishop said he really wasn’t all that certain anymore about a personal God. I told him I wanted to continue the conversation and reminded him of the comment from Dag Hammarskjöld (1905 – 1961) the former Secretary General of the United Nations, in his book Markings. Hammarskjöld left behind the manuscript of this book to be published after his death: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a Wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.” The archbishop and I stayed in close and supportive contact for many years, right up to his death.

Yes. We need to ask questions and we need to invite and welcome the questioners and the seekers. There are probably more people than we realize who struggle with doubt and belief questions as they try to make meaning of their daily lives. We can participate and journey with them. We need to listen to young people at the start of their adult lives. (Right now, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the United States.) And we need to listen to and journey with older people, like my archbishop friend, as they confront their own questioning and life transitions.

I want to repeat a thought I have expressed a number of times: Our communities of faith – like our schools, study groups, and our parishes — should be centers of excellence where people speak courageously about their awareness of the Divine Presence through personal shared faith stories, through drama, through music, and through art. 

Regardless of our place in the human journey, The Gospels remind us that God lives and walks with everyone: all races, all nationalities. God is not focused on gender or sexual orientation. Matthew 25 is very clear: “’Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Writing my reflection this week a lot of thoughts were going through my head: the archbishop, my student Michael, and George a good friend who died a few days ago in Detroit. I have been thinking a lot about George because he and I were once young questioners and searchers who supported each other. We were in college seminary together in Detroit. Later we were fellow-students at the Catholic University of Leuven, called “Louvain” back then. Like me he did not seek ordination. He got married as I did.  He became a “lay theologian” and a university professor in Michigan. Our journeys together were truly life-giving. Yes. I know. Life is changed not taken away. Sometimes, however, the change is hard to get used to.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” Jesus says in John’s Gospel. (John 14:6) 

And so my friends we continue on our journeys.


Inter-religious Dialogue: Some Theological Reflections

A friend commented after reading last week’s post on Islam: “Can one really be saved without becoming Christian?” I replied that I am certainly not anti-Christian but that God is bigger than Christianity. I also reminded him that the historical Jesus was a Hebrew not a Christian.

Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking about inter-religious understanding are: Jesus Symbol of God by Roger Haight SJ, and No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward World Religions by Paul Knitter.

Roger Haight SJ (b.1936), is currently a scholar in residence at Union Theological Seminary in New York. This year in June, the Catholic Theological Society of America honored him with the John Courtney Murray Award for Distinguished Theological Achievement. In December 2004, however, his now greatly respected book Jesus Symbol of God had brought a notification from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that it contained serious doctrinal errors. Well, institutional change happens but sometimes very slowly.

Paul Knitter (b.1939) is currently emeritus professor at Union Theological Seminary, where he was the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture. He is also Emeritus Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he taught for 28 years before moving to Union. Knitter is well known for his work on religious pluralism, especially Buddhism and Christianity. He also came under criticism by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-prefect of Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and later Pope Benedict XVI, for his alleged “relativism.” 

In 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document Dominus Iesus, which pointed out the dangers of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.” Well we do – or we can – grow and change. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child,” Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:11. 

We can grow in our search for truth, realizing that understandings change over time. As believers we have moved far beyond the medieval mindset, as well as the mindset of the 1950s, which I knew so well and once lived. There will, of course, always be some people who want to resuscitate archaic perspectives, for a variety of reasons. But are they healthy?

When it comes to non-christian religions, my own thinking has moved beyond a couple more or less rigid theological viewpoints: “exclusivism” and “inclusivism.”

“Exclusivism” maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Today major Catholic and Protestant theologians find exclusivism problematic. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all. There are no indications that God, as proclaimed by Jesus, was interested in saving just a distinct group of human beings. Jesus of course was a Hebrew believer.

While exclusivism is clearly a minority theological position today, the same is not true of the “inclusive” view that Jesus causes the salvation of all. In one form or another this has been the dominant theology of mainline churches for some time. “Inclusivism” maintains that God is present in non-Christian religions but ONLY through Christ. This viewpoint gave rise to the concept of the “anonymous Christian” by which God saves through Christ, even when the believer knows nothing about Christ or Christianity. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984) popularized inclusivism with his “anonymous Christian” understanding. Rahner was a great theologian but I would suggest, however, that we have now moved beyond his inclusive perspective. 

Theologian Roger Haight (b.1936) and contemporary biblical scholars are strong in their assertion that Jesus was not self-centered but other-focused and God-centered. The message of Jesus is theocentric: God saves and God is love. Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. A theocentric perspective on Jesus – where I am today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions. 

Christians can indeed regard other world religions as true, in the sense that they too are mediations of God’s salvation.  As Roger Haight has stressed: “The normativity of Jesus does not exclude a positive appraisal of religious pluralism. Christians may regard other world religions as true, in the sense that they are also mediations of God’s salvation.

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest that we have to work together in what Paul Knitter has called “unitive pluralism.” We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions and develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer. We move from tolerance to collaboration. From collaboration to genuine appreciation. From appreciation to learning from the other.

Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future. Our goal does not have to be the reduction of all faiths into one. We do need to look for commonalities, different expressions and understandings of the Sacred, and a basis for common ethical responsibilities in a turbulent and anxious world. And yes, all participants in the conversation must remain humbly open to the challenges of mutual criticism and correction. No faith tradition has all the answers. 

I would stress, however, an important addition to the discussion. Inter-religious dialogue is essential for our survival today, but what is also essential today – and what I rarely see — is serious and respectful dialogue with those who are not religious: the “Nones,” people without a religious affiliation. When asked on surveys to identify the religion to which they belong, the “Nones” check the box that says, “no religion,” or “nothing in particular,” or “none of the above.” 

Starting about thirty years ago, the percentage of Nones in the United States, for example, has risen dramatically from 5 percent, according to the University of Chicago’s well-regarded General Social Survey (GSS) in 1990, to something like 25 percent today. That’s roughly 60 million US Americans. But…God loves them as well. And what do we do? Last week I got an email from one of my former students, a very bright and kind young man. He wrote that he needed to talk with me and then added: “Once a Catholic, I am now a non believer.But if I could experience the presence of God, I would commit my whole life to God.” I wrote back to him: “Be patient and open. God is closer to you than you realize. And of course we will continue this discussion.” There are so many like him…looking today for answers. Looking for that taste of the Divine.

We are all learners about that ultimate inexpressible Mystery which encompasses our existence. We are all on this journey together. The problematic people are not necessarily Muslims and people from other religions. The problematic people – regardless whatever religion they belong to — are the arrogantly self-righteous and the willfully ignorant.


Muslims in the United States Today


Several readers have asked for my thoughts about Muslims in the United States. Certainly a topic worth exploring, especially today. Although some historians suggest that there were Muslims on Columbus’ ships, the first clearly documented arrival of Muslims in America occurred in the 17th century with the arrival of slaves from Africa.

As of 2023, about 25% of the world’s population are Muslims and currently 3.45 million Muslims are living in the United States, representing approximately 1.1% of the total population. Especially noteworthy today, more than 100 US American Muslim appointees are currently working in President Joseph Biden’s administration. Not the case of course in the previous presidential administration.

More than 20 years since the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that US American Muslims still endure record discrimination and marginalization. Donald Trump’s vitriolic anti-Muslim presidential campaign rhetoric in 2016 was a preview to his strongly Islamophobic administration. The 45th president and his White House staff and advisors targeted Muslims in both speech and policy: the use of anti-Muslim rhetoric; the elevation of Islamophobic staff members to key White House positions; banning visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country; and a lack of response to the rise in US hate crimes targeting Muslims.

Islam is one of the three historic Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today Christianity is the world’s largest religion with about 31% of the world’s population. Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with 25%. Judaism is the smallest with only 0.2% of the world identifying as Jewish. Islam, however, is the world’s most rapidly growing religion and is forecasted to grow faster than Christianity by 2050.

The founder of Islam was the Arab religious, social, and political leader Muhammad (c.570 – 632). According to Islamic doctrine, he was a prophet divinely inspired to preach and confirm the monotheistic teachings of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.

An historic perspective is important. The Islamic Golden Age, from the eighth to the thirteenth century CE, was a period during which science, literature, geometry, astronomy, and other fields of knowledge flourished. During this Golden Age, some of the most significant advances in medieval scholarship were made by Muslim scholars. Muslim conquerors had come into possession of numerous Greek and Roman manuscripts. Muslim scholars carefully preserved them and translated them, especially philosophic and scientific works. Without the preservation and translation work of Muslim scholars during this period, much of ancient Greek knowledge would have been lost forever. Algebra, which comes from an Arabic word, was developed during the period. We owe our numerals to Arabic scholars. And a great many stars were discovered and astronomical theories developed by Muslim scholars during this Islamic Golden Age.

Nevertheless, according to the Pew Research Center, many contemporary US Americans have negative views about Muslims and Islam. About 50% say they don’t personally know anyone who is Muslim and know “not much” or “nothing at all” about Islam. Yet they have strong anti-Muslim feelings. US Americans, however, who are not Muslim, but personally know someone who is Muslim, are more likely to have a positive view of Muslims and less likely to believe that Islam encourages violence more than other religions.

I am a Christian theologian and I have worked for decades, promoting inter-religious dialogue and understanding, especially with men and women belonging to all three Abrahamic religions. A few years ago I was a key speaker at a gathering of about 70 imams in Brussels. The topic was freedom of expression. And it went very well. Reactions to a great many questions and responses were positive. And I also learned a lot. In fact I told my audience I was not there to teach but to listen. Wherever it is found, however, Islamophobia is hard to combat. Far too often, if a person calls for a factual and well-researched understanding of Islam, that person is often labeled “unChristian,” or “unpatriotic,” or simply “dangerous.”

After seeing and reading a lot of anti-Muslim political and religious rhetoric, one has to ask just what are the truths and misconceptions behind contemporary anti-Muslim beliefs?

I see four big misconceptions:

  • That Islam is a violent religion: Anti-Muslim groups frequently pull passages from the Quran as evidence that Islam promotes violence. Actually anyone who is looking can also find passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that justify intolerance, violence, genocide, and slavery. Yet both books — the Quran and the Hebrew Scriptures — include abundant passages advocating tolerance, peace, and love. We need to remember that every religion has extremist elements. Far right Christian nationalist violence is increasing in the United States. And of course right now Christians are bombing and killing other Christians in Ukraine.
  • That Islam is inherently sexist and anti-female: Actually the Quran and related teachings of Islam promote many views regarding gender that were quite progressive for the time in which the prophet Muhammad lived. Women can own property, for example, and keep their last names after marriage. Muhammad also strongly advocated the education of girls. “Searching for knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim male and Muslim female,” Muhammad said. We need to remember however that Muslims, like Christians, interpret and follow the teachings of their religion under a variety of cultural influences. In progressive cultures, Muslim women can rise to the tops of their professions as doctors, lawyers, and scholars. In conservative cultures, however, women may be prevented from participating fully in public life. In either case, this status may not be unique to Muslim women. Understanding cultural influences on all religions is very important, yesterday and today.
  • That Muslims and Jews hate each other: The alleged enmity between Muslims and Jews does not do justice to the rich and complex Muslim-Jewish history and to today’s reality of Muslim-Jewish relations. For many people, of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has shaped their perspective on Muslim-Jewish relations. In the Iberian Peninsula — the former Islamic states in today’s Spain and Portugal – Jewish people were able to make great advances in science, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, during the Muslim Golden Age. See the book by Mark R. Cohen, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Today there are certainly positive Muslim-Jewish developments. Earlier this month, July 2023, members of the Latin American Jewish Congress and the Muslim World League met for two days in Buenos Aires. Over 40 participants discussed ways to collaborate and published a “decalogue” of agreements, which includes future interfaith programming in South American schools and invitations to members of each group to participate in holiday services of the other faith. Great progress is being made today in Muslim–Jewish interfaith dialogue groups in the United States, like, for example, the “Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society (JIDS) of Washington,” started in 2009. Monthly dialogue groups meet across the country bringing together Jews and Muslims for friendly, yet frank, encounters.
  • That Muslims want to establish Shariah law in the United States: Shariah law refers to the moral and legal framework about how Muslims should behave and relate to the world. It does influence legal codes in Muslim-majority countries, but it is more of a philosophical and religious precept, not a universally applicable set of laws. However, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Iran, have combined state and religious power to create a theocracy. In the United States, however, US law always supersedes Shariah law. No US court has ever made a ruling based on Shariah and, according to the US Constitution, no court ever can.


For further reading I recommend two books: The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Hatred of Muslims, by Nathan Lean. And The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West by Todd H. Green.