Book Review

  • Issue 95 / September - October 2013



    A Conversation Starter

    Justin Pahl

    The question of dialogues between different faiths and cultures is one of the most important questions of our fractured age. How can we reconcile so many, seemingly, vast and diverse viewpoints? What common ground can be found among people who are unhappy with the excess, violence, and poverty of our world? And what role, in particular, can faith play in that equation – especially when so many people have manipulated faith to advance causes of violence and destruction?

    With his new book, Insights from the Risale-i Nur, Thomas Michel sets out to answer some of these questions. Michel states his goal very early in the book: as a Jesuit priest, he wants to know where, if at all, he can find “points of convergence” between Christianity and Islam within Bediüzzaman Said Nursi’s (d. 1960) seminal “Risale-i Nur.”

    It turns out there aren’t just a few points, but many. And throughout Michel’s book – which is a collection of essays, speeches, and presentations the priest has delivered over the last two decades – he lays the groundwork for a healthy, constructive dialogue between not just Christians and Muslims, but peoples of all faith.
    Nursi wrote the “Risale-i Nur” in the wake of two world wars. He’d watched as the secular advances of Western civilization had led to the near total destruction of Europe – not once, but twice. The collateral damage had deeply affected his home, Turkey, and its neighbors. And he endured the ill effects of Turkey’s own modernization efforts, as he was repeatedly persecuted and imprisoned for his faith.

    Under such circumstances, it would have been understandable if his book had been rife with anger. Instead, as Michel astutely shows throughout his own thoughtful book, Nursi’s commentary is remarkably hopeful. He sought these “points of convergence” while also stressing what he believed as the truth of his own faith. Michel adeptly uses Nursi’s words to draw out the common ground between different faiths, and looks at how these similarities can be applied in our equally fraught contemporary age.
    Both Christianity and Islam pinpoint the destruction wrought by war and poverty as having germinated not from faith, but from rampant materialism run to its natural conclusion. In a quote that Michel returns to, time and again, Nursi writes:

    Europe is two. One follows the sciences which serve justice and right
    And the industries beneficial for the life of society it has received from
    True Christianity; this first Europe I am not addressing. I am rather
    Addressing the second, corrupt Europe which, through the darkness of
    The philosophy of naturalism, supposing the evils of civilization to be
    Its virtues, has driven mankind to vice and misguidance.

    Michel routinely connects Nursi’s, and Islam’s, distress about materialism and greed with Christianity and Judaism’s distress about the same things. The book’s second essay charts the overlaps between Nursi and Pope John Paul II in their approaches to forgiveness. Both men believed that materialism, and the selfishness it fosters, are antithetical to healthy, fulfilled communities. People of faith, no matter their belief systems, believe that a truly rich life involves more than the simple acquisition of transient materials. This common desire – for communities based on mutual love and respect instead of self-interest – is a major point of convergence. As Nursi writes, “Our enemy, that which is destroying us, is Lord Ignorance, his son [Master] Poverty Efendi, and grandson, [Mr] Enmity Bey.”

    Michel shows that, although Nursi believed adamantly in the truth of his faith, he also believed that true followers of the other “revealed religions” were friends and allies of Islam. Writing after the Second World War, Nursi stated that innocents who had died “were martyrs of a sort, whatever religion they belonged to.” In the aftermath of an invasion that mostly destroyed the city of Van, Nursi “…wept without distinction for both the Christian and Muslim victims, who had been his ‘friends and acquaintances.’” In these acts of kindness, Michel finds common ground with Nursi – both of their faiths value the dignity of every human life.

    In a world in which the pursuit of wealth and immediate satisfaction guides so many human interactions, this value is not always present. All too often, people from different walks of life are viewed as obstacles to a person attaining the material satisfaction they’ve come to believe is rightfully theirs.

    Michel sums up this perspective succinctly in one of the most important essays in the book, “Dialogue among Believers.” He writes, “Instead of fostering fellowship and mutual aid among nations, social values are too often oriented toward providing the populace with amusements, distractions, and opportunities for instant gratification.”
    Such striving for material rewards – the pursuit of which lies at the heart of capitalism, which often functions as a “secular” religion – has resulted in the debasement and poverty of a large portion of the world’s population. This dehumanization and desacralizing of human life is at the root of most religious concerns about contemporary culture. Instead of working towards a “higher good” – community, peace, or God – people are focused on self-actualization through consumption. But as Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 4, verse 4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The Qur’an echoes this when it says, in chapter 63, verse 9, “Let not your properties … divert you from the remembrance of God.” It’s not difficult to interpret these quotes to mean that humanity should not simply honor and respect God, but should also honor and respect God’s creations through reverence and peace. Material possessions alone cannot fill a person’s spirit; this is a belief almost all religions share.

    Both Nursi and Michel feel that the absence of religion – and not the differences between faiths – has led to the wars and poverties of the last century. This is a belief that many, many people of faith share. The essays in the book continually return to these themes of common interest. By having a dialogue with Nursi’s text, and by viewing that text in its best possible context, Michel establishes a space for further dialogue between people of all faiths to occur. Both men express their adamant belief that faith – be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something else – has an important, vital role to play in establishing a broad, lasting peace. Michel, like Nursi before him, remains hopeful about the future role faith will play in a more peaceful, tolerant world. This book serves as a dialogue between two religions, and it builds a foundation for future dialogues. It is a foundation built of respect, devoted faith, and a deep commitment to the dignity of every life. These are not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish values – they are universal values.

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