Nostra Aetate unleashed a flood of scholarship, outreach, and transformative theological reflection. For those of us raised in the enclave Catholicism of the mid-twentieth century, this intellectual ferment was exhilarating. At least on the ecumenical and interfaith fronts, we suddenly became a vanguard Church and for several decades took the lead in organizing international, national, and regional dialogue forums. Through the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) and its affiliate organizations, by the 1990s, Catholic outreach to Muslim countries and communities had created a robust network of enduring engagements, with national bishops’ conferences and Vatican dicasteries both initiating and sustaining multiple forms of encounter. The momentum achieved in the decades following Nostra Aetate accelerated through the turn of the millennium and into the new century.
Less than two years into that century, however, the watershed tragedy of September 11 whipped through our world and interreligious engagement jumped from "church work" to front page news. Suddenly, departments of political science and international relations discovered religion, especially the religion of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Religious studies and theology departments put faculty recruitment in Islamic studies at the top of their hiring priorities. Students flocked to first-year Arabic and signed up for every course available on Islam and Islamic history, on Muslim cultures and societies, on the modern Middle East, and the role of religion in war and conflict. Bookstores could not keep introductory works on Islam in stock and scholars in the field found themselves besieged with lecture invitations, interview requests, bibliographic queries, and publishers’ book proposals.
The formation and funding of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs was a consequence of these events. The Berkley Center was born in a tumultuous decade, one that reached from the celebrations of the new millennium to the first euphoric weeks of the Arab Spring. Yet in the early weeks of 2011, soon after the Ben Ali regime fell in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime toppled in Egypt, and the Qaddafi regime tottered in Libya, revolutionary waves began to weaken and finally die under the crushing retaliation of forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi and, in Syria, to Bashar al-Assad. In August 2014, the geopolitical landscape again shifted with the emergence of ISIS and the eruption of its heart-rending atrocities, perpetrated on unbelievers and co-religionists alike. These horrors, plus the diabolical deployment of traditional and social media, focused world attention and drew recruits from across the globe.
Although there were celebrations of Nostra Aetate in 2015 and recognitions of its significance and legacy, as that year ended we were not swept forward on an ascending wave of interreligious harmony. Far from it. At least in the United States, we are reeling from a triad of terrorist attacks—the Russian plane downed over the Sinai, the Friday-night massacre in Paris, and the San Bernadino shootings—that have left us mired in an anti-Muslim backlash unlike anything I have ever witnessed. A presidential candidate advocates closing this nation’s borders to Muslims, while a college president urges students to bear arms against them. A tenured professor is threatened with dismissal for stating that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and a Virginia county closes its schools because a teacher used Arabic calligraphy of the Shahada, the Islamic profession of faith, as part of a lesson on world religions. And 2016 promises no respite from this backlash as ever escalating fears of terrorism mirror a Middle East falling ever more deeply into chaos. With refugees flooding into Europe, that continent’s fragile union flits on the edge of disintegration as xenophobic rhetoric runs rampant.
So how do we go forward? How do we sustain the promise of an institution like the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the ideals to which it has committed itself? How do we find a sense of hope and renewal when our nation—and much of the world—seems to be retreating into postures of virulent intolerance?
One place to look is our own history. As we lament the lunacy that passes for political discourse in this pre-election period, it may be useful to recall some of the other dark periods of the American past. We need look no further back than World War II and the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Two decades earlier, the 1924 National Origins Act put severe restrictions on immigration from Asia out of fear for the “yellow peril,” another instance of racist terror about alien cultures. Speaking specifically of religious intolerance, it is worth recalling the anti-Catholic sentiments that plagued earlier periods of American history, from colonial period restrictions to the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s to Ku Klux Klan cross burnings in the 1920s. The point of rehearsing this history is not to wallow in it but to remind ourselves that we have overcome and moved beyond these benighted eras.
Another basis of hope is the witness given by prophetic acts and voices. A few years ago, I contributed to a volume entitled Christian Lives Given to the Study of Islam, a collection of essays that spoke of the inevitable theological and spiritual transformation wrought by the prolonged encounter with another religious tradition. One of the essays evoked the memory of the Trappist monks in the Atlas Mountains who were kidnapped and murdered during the Algerian civil war. It quoted lines from the final testament that one of the monks, Fr. Christian de Chergé (1937–1996), left for his family and confreres in the event of his death:
“If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. . . . I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters. It is too easy to sooth one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. . . . Obviously, my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me as naïve or idealistic. . . .But such people should know my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I will be able—if God pleases—to see the children of Islam as he sees them, illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of his passion and of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences.”