Interview with British Theologian Prof. Oliver Davies



Kourosh Ziabari – We’re living in a tumultuous and confused era when human’s need for moderation and ethics can be felt more than ever. The self-alienated mankind is being immersed in a quagmire of immorality, depravity and corruption as a result of his enchantment with modernity and globalization. Traditional values are being lost and people behave toward each other dishonestly, deceitfully.

In such a turbulent time, it seems that religions can come to the help of sinking man to be rescued from the ocean of moral decadence and decline.

At the same time, the followers of different religions need to interact with each other effectively so as to settle the redundant disputes and come to a comprehensive and lasting understanding.

In order to probe into some of the most essential issues of religion, including the proofs to the existence of God, the position of Christianity on the other divine religions and the necessity of establishing interfaith dialogue between divine religions, I’ve interviewed the British theologian Prof. Oliver Davies of the King’s College, and proposed the questions about which I’ve been thinking for so long.

Prof. Davies has published several books including “The Creativity of God. World, Eucharist, Reason,” “Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales: the Origins of the Welsh Spiritual Tradition” and “God Within: the Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe.”

What follows is the complete text of my interview with Prof. Oliver Davies.

Kourosh Ziabari: What’s the position of Christianity on the authenticity and veracity of the message of other divine religions, especially Islam that emerged after Christianity? Does Christianity accept the plurality and numerousness of religions? Does it recommend its followers to respect and venerate other religions and their prophets?

Oliver Davies: Generally very hospitable in well worked out ways among educated Christians, I would say, and more instinctively so among the less well educated. But there are other options it is possible to take, and these often get the headlines. They tend not to be particularly theologically literate. It is important to recall however that Christianity also has had an important long-term dialogue within itself, between Catholic and Protestant. These denominations exist side by side to a much higher degree than Sunni and Shiite. It is also the case that they not only confront each other in many ways but are also clearly complementary in key respects Protestantism is the expression of the modern world, in which Catholics also live, though as an ancient form of Christianity. Inter-faith issues tend to be deeply influenced by positions already taken in the internal ecumenism between Christian denominations.

KZ: Muslims believe that the Holy Quran is consisted of the words which the Almighty God has directly pronounced to Prophet Muhammad through his trusted angel, Gabriel. They believe that no distortions have happened to Quran and that the present Quran which we have today contains the exact words which were sent 1,400 years ago. What’s the viewpoint of the Christians regarding the New Testament? Do they hold the same viewpoint regarding their holy book?

OD: No definitely not. For the Christian, Jesus is the revelation as a person and not the Bible as a book. There is no problem using a translation therefore. This does not mean that the Bible is not an intensely sacred text for Christians or indeed that many conservative Christians would not hold to its inerrancy. But it would be quite bizarre for a Christian to hold for instance that the Bible is revealed while Christ is not the revealed Son of God.

KZ: Today, we’re witness to an unjustifiable rise in the Islamophobic sentiments in Europe and the U.S. Muslims in the Western societies are subject to harassment, persecution and discrimination, being deprived of many essential rights which the other minorities freely enjoy. What’s, in your view, the reason behind the emergence of such anti-Muslim attitudes? Why do the Western media equate Muslims with terrorists and portray a blackened, distorted image of Islam in the eyes of Western public?

OD: I think this has a lot to do with fear and with a basic unfamiliarity with Islam. It may also crystallize the fact that Western societies have become highly pluralistic quite rapidly and so there must be all kinds of tensions just below the surface. Perhaps there is a particular problem in the U.S. also with the strong tendency to absorb ethnic minorities into a generalized American identity, reflecting the Judaeo-Christian tradition in all its considerable diversity. There may be a tendency to see Islam as standing outside that and even challenging it. 9/11 unquestionably had a huge impact on the American psyche. They have had very little experience of attacks on their own soil.

KZ: Muslims and Christians have many misunderstandings about each other. It’s unfortunate to see that both of them worship the same God, at least in my view, but they haven’t come to a comprehensive mutual understanding of the pillars of each other’s religion and in some cases, behave toward each other belligerently, as if they’re fated to be enemies forever. What’s your viewpoint on these enmities and the necessity of fostering inter-faith dialog between the Muslims and the Christians?

OD: It is absolutely critical that this dialogue takes place and mutual understanding is developed. But it might take some while. There are tensions in both camps but also in the Islamic world which is undergoing extensive social change, not least in terms of the relation between modernity and tradition. Potentially they have a great deal to offer each other since there is much they have in common and the differences between them can be illuminating. There are increasingly signs in the UK for instance that Christians who are under pressure from what can at times be an aggressive secularism in the public sphere are looking increasingly to Muslims as allies in that public debate.

KZ: Why has secularism extended its roots such deeply in the political structure of Western societies? As a professor of theology, do you believe in the separation of religion from state? Don’t you believe that secularism in politics will lead the youths to a kind of identity crisis and undermine their moral and ethical values? Let me make it clearer. Religion is an instrument for promoting modesty. If religion is removed from the society, the people will go astray and lose their values. Religion has always been an important part of culture and civilization. Why do the Western societies insist on limiting the role of religion and endorsing secularism?

OD: This is a complex question. One of the reasons for the prevalence of secularism in the West probably has to do with the intensity of conflict within Christianity from the sixteenth century onwards. Europe was exhausted by this and there was a sense that a consensus was needed based on secular principles. It has been argued that Islam has traditionally been a more tolerant religion. I am not sure that the picture you give here is wholly correct for either the U.S. or the UK. Religion is everywhere in American politics and an apparent secularism can in fact be based simply on the need to be religiously inclusive in terms of the different religious identities of ethnic groups. In the UK the Government is currently attempting to embrace religious organizations as playing an important social role contributing to community-building. It is true however that there is a very vocal community of militant atheists and of militant secularists in public life in the UK. Perhaps these go together in the sense that religion is a very complex phenomenon to understand if you are not part of that life or very closely connected with it. The militant atheism is generally quite uninformed about what religion is and isn’t, while there is a pronounced tendency in public life to accept the demands of well organized human rights pressure groups without taking much account of the effects of legislation on other sections of the community.

We have seen that recently in the banning from public life of Catholic adoption agencies on the grounds that they were unable to follow other agencies in allowing same-sex adoptions. The whole issue was discussed recently on the grounds of the rights of same-sex couples to adopt children without ever considering the effects of closure of these agencies, which tend out outperform other agencies with the more difficult children, on the rights of vulnerable children themselves to be cared for adequately.

KZ: Many atheists, in mutual debates, ask me that what proofs and evidence I do have for the existence of God. I respond by saying that logically, the existence of every creature implicates the existence of a creator. Such a multifaceted, complex and intricate universe could not have appeared overnight without the premeditated and conscious planning of an intelligent designer. I say that even a simple timepiece needs creator and cannot be brought into existence without planning and design. We, the multifaceted and complicate human beings could not have tumbled on earth without an intelligent, invisible creator who dominates the whole world. Then, they ask me that who has created this all-powerful creator? Who is the creator of this creator which we say? What’s your response? How does Christianity respond to the question of the proof of existence of God? How do you convince an atheist that there’s a God who has created this universe and whatever exists in it?

OD: Personally I wouldn’t attempt it in that kind of way. I think the existence of a fine-tuned universe is consistent with belief in a Creator God but does not demand it (the universe might just be like that). I think there are more effective ways of presenting the case. The first is in the kind of life we lead, involving a unity of belief and action. This is for us a meaningful life and can be recognized as such by others, even if they don’t share our beliefs. Secondly, it is not easy to explain the extension of religions such as Islam and Christianity through space and time on such an unparalleled scale unless there is something in them that ‘works’. Human beings are generally very pragmatic and hard-headed creatures, and societies based on crazy ideas tend to self-destruct. Everyone who has their own ideas about the world would like to think that their ideas could last for centuries and influence countless numbers of people. It would be difficult not to take that as a validation of the ideas themselves and the person or people who had them.

We don’t often think of religions in this way, but in fact they are the most enormously successful forms of community, with a global extension and extraordinary longevity. How can we explain their survival often under difficult circumstances unless to be a Muslim or a Christian offers us a profoundly meaningful way to live as a human being? To live a meaningful life in a thorough-going unity of belief and act requires real powers of judgment, resilience and responsibility, and Islam and Christianity must have these at their core substantially for them to have survived so long.

KZ: In July 2010, Terry Jones, the extremist pastor of an evangelical church in the U.S., sparked international controversy when he announced that he would be burning copies of the Holy Quran on the anniversary of 9/11 attacks. In the recent months, also, American soldiers in Afghanistan burned copies of the Holy Quran. The U.S. government reacted to the incident very passively and didn’t condemn it as contradictory to the spirit of religious tolerance. What’s your idea about burning the holy books? Why hasn’t the U.S. government adopted a serious stance in this regard?

OD: I think these incidents are indicative of how destructive small groups of individuals can be. The media focus very quickly on extreme groups of people as being newsworthy even when they don’t necessarily represent the view of a majority or even of a significant number of people. After all, these acts are clearly attempts not only to intimate but also to provoke violent feelings or confrontations which can be in nobody’s interests. My impression is that the U.S. government doesn’t like this kind of thing at all, for all kinds of reasons and not just security ones, but their condemnations don’t get the same headlines. It is also the case that such events are an attack upon religious identities which in the Islamic world are also to a large extent, political identities. Western governments are not representative of religious identities in that sense at all; the secularist traditions make that impossible. Religious institutions and, even more, religious values inform political life in the West, but even where one kind of Christianity predominates, religious representation through leadership is often at odds with political representation.

KZ: As a professor of theology, do you think that religion has solutions for universal problems which the human being faces today such as poverty, racial hatred, state oppression and occupation? Can we use religion as a basis for solving the major problems we grapple with?

OD: I think a key aspect of religions for today is their global character (they are the most global forms of human community). This is bound to give them importance. I think there is a substantial though also developing awareness in the West that secularism struggles to offer robust ethics which can shape and change society. There are real concerns at present that the lack of an ethical centre may be undermining the economic success of the City of London for instance: what is the social price of profit? There is clearly a great potential for world religions and especially Christianity and Islam to work together in ethical ways on the world stage. I would like to think that we will see such a much more united front around basic ethical issues developing before long. I know that this is already a significant emerging political force in London, where there are so many different religions in close proximity to each other, facing the same kinds of social and ethical challenges.

From a more academic or theological perspective there is also the challenge of understanding exactly how it is that world religions such as Islam and Christianity can develop such strong systems of solidarity and community which function across the major divisions which separate us human beings from one another. Is there something to be learned about how to be a truly global society in today’s world, including Middle East and the West, as well as China and India, from the historical experience of humanity in our world religions? The dialogue between Judaeo-Christian traditions and Islam would play a very important role here and that is something which we are very much concerned with at this point at King’s College London.

KZ: What’s the message of Christianity for world peace and brotherhood among nations? What does Christ say about the necessity of promoting peace and friendship in the world?

OD: For all its manifest failings, Christianity is the bearer of a powerful image of goodness in life. It represents an ideal of human love. It tells us that the ethical life, even the most radically ethical life, is ultimately the most meaningful. It is also a religion that tells us strongly that we don’t always get it right and that we need always to be aware of our own shortcomings. We need to be able to start again. This is the language of resilience, and of hope, as well as a pragmatic common sense about what it is to be human, caught between fear and hope. Most centrally perhaps it tells us – against Western individualism – that we are all in this together.

The way ahead for each one of us is through community and that community can never be closed off as a pure collectivism of corporate self-interest but is intrinsically open-ended. The two tendencies, towards closedness and openness in our community life, can seem at times to be equally strong. But the meaning of both Christianity and Islam as they are passed on across the generations is that ultimately it is the open, inclusive and hospitable community which survives in all contexts. These two religions may be representative of what is perhaps the most fundamental thing of all about human beings in our long social and biological evolution, which is our capacity to form an open-ended bond, beyond our own immediate family and kinship group. Only when we share our resources, and share positively the time and space we have in common with each other, can we adequately deal with the challenges which come our way.

We are as a species currently at the beginning of an immense challenge to ‘pull together’ in the face of all kinds of global challenges arising from technology and the effects of technology as well as the social complexity of the forces of globalization. Since we are already ancient and very successful forms of ‘global’ community, Christians and Muslims will need to learn to cooperate together in humanizing the forces of globalization and in developing new forms of solidarity that cut across the boundaries that divide us, even the boundary of religion itself.

This interview was originally published on Online Opinion.