Interview With Reverend Jack Cory, Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group - PART I & II
By Sheila Musaji
We have in previous issues discussed the CHRISTIAN-MUSLIM DIALOGUE AND RESEARCH COMMITTEE which has for the past two years been engaged in an on-going dialogue. Recently, I had an opportunity to visit Chicago and to interview Rev. Cory who with Dr. Hossein Morsi has been one of the leaders of this group.
Q: You have been involved for almost 2 years now in the Christian Muslim Dialogue group. What was the original motivation for getting involved, and can you remember your initial thoughts or expectations of where this dialogue might lead?
Rev. Cory: There probably were two motivations:
1) The primary motivation was a concern that Christians and Muslims come to understand each other and learn of one another because in the large picture I agree with Hans Kung the Roman Catholic interfaith theologian who says: “unless there is peace between the world religions, there won’t be peace in the world”. I am a firm believer in that. This is going to be increasingly true in the United States because we are becoming more and more of a diverse society. We need to learn more of one another so that we might learn to live with one another in harmony and peace.
2) The second motivation for me was that I might myself learn more of the Muslim faith, and see how it might coincide and what areas of commonality there might be between the Christian faith and between the Muslim faith. And I must say that in the two years I have learned a great deal about those commonalities and a great deal about the Muslim faith. I didn’t have any preconceived idea of where the dialogue might lead. I thought it might assist us in understanding and might even allow us to uncover some better understanding of the two faiths and of our common heritage. I must confess that it was done with an experimentation kind of model to see if it could be done in a small group of grass roots people and, then it might be duplicated in other areas of the country on a larger scale.
Q: Many individuals both Christian and Muslim, express concern that dialogue might be a “dangerous” undertaking as one party or the other might experience a loss or weakening of their own faith. Do you believe this is a valid concern?
Rev. Cory: There are concerns on both sides, in the Christian/Muslim dialogue, that this might be a dangerous undertaking in the sense that one might be weakening their faith or one might see more validity in the other person’s position and might convert to the other faith. My own personal experience is that the dialogue has driven me back to the roots of the Christian faith. It has driven me back to understanding more of the early aspects of the Christian faith. I have had to unpack a lot of history to get back to the New Testament times and to maybe the religion of Jesus and the teachings of Jesus. And Jesus seen as an example and a model.
Q: Are you talking about prior to the fathers of the church?
Rev. Cory: Yes! that’s right. and maybe getting back to a time in which there may have been more compatibility between the early Christians and the early Muslims. But! it has driven me back to a better understanding of the Christian faith. And in that sense has really strengthened my faith. But, it has strengthened a more mature faith, than I had before, and I think that’s crucial. There haven’t been any converts, one way or the other, between Muslims and the Christians in our group. In fact I think what it has done is to give us a great deal of appreciation for the other persons faith. And I think that has been very, very important.
Q: How have you managed to keep these dialogues from turning into debates and confrontations?
Rev. Cory: We have very carefully controlled the dialogues that we have had. And early on have chosen those topics where there might be more areas of commonality than areas of difference. For example, we have taken Jesus in the Bible and Jesus in the Qur’an. There’s obviously an overlapping and a great deal of commonality as Muslims and Christians look at Jesus.
We have been very insistent that the dialogues that we have and the times that we have gone out and spoken in Mosques and Churches, that it be in terms of commonalities. In terms of dialogue rather than debate or confrontation. We have insisted that be the format from which we talk.
Q: As opposed to choosing for example: “Is Jesus the Son of God”?
Rev. Cory: That’s right. Exactly so! We have taken the concept of God. And obviously we learned that we worship the same God. We Jews and Christians and Muslims all stem from similar Abrahamic faith. And we all three worship the same God. That was an area of commonality. We have also looked at Jesus and we have looked at Mohammed in terms of prophethood. We have looked at ethics and every day living. And ways in which we can co-operate with one another in a very practical way. There is a definite commonality in terms of being against drugs and drinking and gambling. And being for those things that would strengthen the community, in terms of education, in terms of the family, against pornography. In all of these we found tremendous areas of commonality. The stress on peace in both of the faiths was highlighted. We haven’t gotten into some of the areas where maybe, on the surface at least, there are more differences than commonalities.
Now! it does not mean that we have not disagreed, but we have set for ourselves the standard of maybe disagreeing but not being disagreeable. We have been concerned that we treat one another with respect, and that we not try to convert one another. That we try to really listen to what the other person is saying. Really understand where they are coming from. As contrasted to waiting till they get done, so that we can make our point. Or trying to win someone over. We have attempted to present the information and the facts as we have known them.
Q: What were the topics which were the most difficult to deal with, which created the most tensions and emotional response.
Rev. Cory: To date we have purposely taken those topics where there is some commonality. And we, to date, have purposely not chosen those topics that might create tension. Now, we are moving into those areas where there might be, at the surface level, some differences, especially in terms of the death of Jesus, the crucifixion of Jesus, the trinity, salvation, etc. Since we have already established a relationship and mutual respect, these topics may now be able to be dealt with without confrontation.
Q: There might be some Christians who might say: “As a Christian I have an obligation to convert these people because if I don’t, they are going to burn in hell” Have you run into this tricky situation in dialogue?
Rev. Cory: That’s right, sure. The very conservative Christian would say that. And, other tricky areas might be: Salvation, vicarious suffering, atonement, original sin. These are areas of perceived difference. What one needs to understand is that there is a spectrum of Christian belief. All the way from the very conservative fundamentalist Christians who believe with their whole heart that the Bible is inerrant to the person who gives attention and some credence to the 240 year history of analysis. Literary analysis, critical analysis, historical analysis, linguistic analysis, cultural analysis of the scriptural tradition and faith. Which looks at the revelation, given through Jesus, as a truth, a given, and the Bible as inspired writings that point to that truth. From this perspective, the bible is not the word of God - the Word is Jesus as a human person. What the bible is then are books that are inspired, that point to or help us understand that word. But the words of the bible are not revelation themselves. It’s the life and the teachings and the religion of Jesus, that is the truth given through Jesus to us. I must say also that there is, in the Christian faith, a whole understanding and process of rethinking some of these items. The Christian church and Christian faith is always “semper reformanda”, “always being reformed” to speak to different ages and different cultures. And that is a very important point to realize and to understand. And that is true today.
Q: Are you talking about Protestants only, or are you including the Catholics?
Rev. Cory: Of course the Roman Catholics are included now, after maybe a little bit of catching up. In fact, some Roman Catholics are in the forefront of this kind of understanding. Hans Kung would be one, Edward Schillerbeck, David Tracy of the University of Chicago, Adela Collins, and John LaCrossan of DePaul University, in Chicago. All of these are people who have an appreciation for the historical critical look at the scriptures and the New Testament. And I phrase it in terms of apparent or perceived differences because it seems to me that there might be some more similarities than one would see at face value. And once you get into a critical understanding of the scriptures there might be a closer understanding of the Muslim faith.
Q: Were there any topics that you simply had to walk away from, because they were too volatile?
Rev. Cory: We haven’t yet had to run away from any. But we are now dealing with some questions that are crucial. It’s my understanding, that in the Muslim faith, all the attention and all time and all the analysis given by Christians to Jesus really isn’t where the Muslims are per-se. Christians are because that’s the medium of revelation that has been given them. The Ingeel through Jesus from God to us. We have sketches, fragments, pieces of a mosaic, in the New Testament, and we have to work very hard to uncover those. We all wish that it would have not been that way, that it had been given to us as revelation in terms of a book. But! it was not done that way, God in his wisdom or her wisdom did not do it that way. As the Qur’an says: ” ... had I wanted to do it this way I would have been able to do” I could have made you a unity, I could have made you one. But I chose not to do that.” And so we have the diversity within the Abrahamic faith of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. God could have done it. And He then bids us be patient and wait until the end time when we see Allah, Yahweh face to face. And then he will tell us where we were right and where we were wrong. So we even have some instructions. We are working on areas of Christology and a rethinking, an unpacking of ontological Christology that came down when the church turned from Palestinian-Jewish-Christian church to a Gentile-Hellenistic church. And then through wanting to appeal to the Greco-Roman world and did that through categories of neo-platonism and Greek and Roman thought dealing with ontological aspects such as substance and nature and essence and person. What is being done now is a rethinking of that. And moving back behind that. Then to rethink how that Christology may be reformed in different categories that are not neo-platonist, Greco-Roman categories of essence and person and nature.
Q: Trying to find the Aramaic Jesus?
Rev. Cory: Maybe trying to restate for our time, in categories that mean something for us today, the essence of Christ. Those categories might be interfaith categories. They might be categories stressing the oneness of God. They might be relational categories of needing to relate to one another, ethical aspects, learning to live with one another. We have a long way to go and we understand that and we certainly will be getting into topics that will be more tender than others. But I’m excited by the fact that we might find more areas of commonality than we think. Even at the present time.
Q: What do you think were the lasting benefits to the participants?
Rev. Cory: The local Mosque and the United Methodist Church here had an Interfaith Worship Service just before the Desert Storm War. And in that worship service we had readings, from the Qur’an and readings from the bible. We had prayers from the Qur’an and prayers from the bible. We had participants who were Muslims and participants who were Christians. In the congregation there were Muslims and there were Christians. And then for the sermon time, for the instructional time we had a dialogue sermon between Dr. Hussain Morsi and myself. Afterwards we had a coffee hour where we informally could talk and answer questions. This service really set the tone and gave some foundational understanding for the congregation to view the whole Desert Storm conflict. And, when the bombs fell on the bomb shelter where civilians were (when it was thought that it might be a military installation) and civilians were killed including women and children - on that Sunday we prayed for both sides. We prayed for those that were suffering during the war. People were in tears because of those casualties. An offering was taken by our World Wide United Methodist Church, for the refugees of Kuwait and of Iraq, and the response on the part of people was overwhelming. They poured out their hearts, in one of the largest offerings that had been taken in a number of years. And I think the Interfaith service was partially responsible for this because it humanized the war, and made us see that we are brothers and sisters fighting against one another. And somehow we have got to learn a different way to solve our differences, than killing one another. It was a very meaningful experience to go through. That I think was a lasting benefit on the part of participants. It has been a change in people, essentially that has taken place. We hope that can continue to take place.
On the part of the participants in terms of the dialogue itself. I think it has shown us the great amount of work that needs to be done, yet, in interfaith dialogue. Especially interfaith dialogue with Muslims, who already have an appreciation for diversity. And, an appreciation for an aspect of relating to other people, especially in the Abrahamic faiths.
Q: Is dialogue an undertaking that anyone can partake in, or do you believe that there are special particular academic or spiritual qualifications that are necessary?
Rev. Cory: I must say to you that the people that took part in our study and in our research were just ordinary people from our congregation and from several of the Mosques in the area. When we came to a topic like the nature of God, we would do research. Then one of us would present a paper from the Christian point of view and one present a paper from the Muslim point of view. Then we would dialogue and talk that out from a very lay understanding.
As a result of this experience and seeing the benefits to the participants, I don’t think that there are any particular qualifications other than goodwill, and an understanding that we are not here to convert anybody but to appreciate the point of view of the other person. I think that is the only real qualification necessary.
Now, maybe when you get into some of the finer points of the theology and history (from both sides) then one may need to do some homework and catch up. But dialogue can take place without specialized degrees and academic qualifications. In fact, I think some of the most meaningful dialogue can take place certainly around those areas of living involving ethics and concern for one another, being neighbors with one another, living in the same community with one another. Those things where we can assist one another and work together with one another to better our community, to better our family relations, to be a better neighborhood, to have better schools and education, to have our children learn that we need to get along in the world and have world peace. I think when we talk about those things we need not have any advanced understanding or spirituality or academic degrees. (Audio tapes of dialogue sessions arc available from The Christian Muslim Dialogue Group, PO Box 758, Oak Lawn, IL 60453.)
Q: Has this experience of dialogue changed your attitudes about Islam or about Christianity in any significant way?
Rev. Cory: I think that the necessary study has deepened my faith in a very significant way. What I have learned about Islam and about living in relationship to another part of the Abrahamic family has changed my attitudes. I consider myself a Muslim at heart because my obedience is to Allah/Yahweh.
There are three affirmations that Christians have been able to make because of their increased understanding of their relationship because of this dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The first is, that indeed the Qur’an can be seen as revelation. Although there needs to be interpretation of what revelation means, nevertheless this is an affirmation that Christians who have done study and research can make today. Secondly, they also can make the affirmation that indeed Muhammad, peace be upon him, can be seen as a prophet, in the line of prophethood and prophecy. Again interpretation needs to be made, but certainly Muhammad can be seen as a prophet. And third, there are those who affirm the fact, even as the Roman Catholic Church has indicated, that there is salvation outside the Christian church, extended by God to non-Christians. And that is something new. So, I think those are three affirmations that Christians who have been involved in the study can affirm. And I think when ever I reiterate those to a Muslim audience, they are flabbergasted that Christians could affirm those three beliefs within the Christian faith and remain committed Christians.
Q: Are you using “Muslim “in the universal sense of that word?
Rev. Cory: Yes! I often get the question from Muslims when I speak: ‘If you believe that then why aren’t you a Muslim?’ And my response is I’m trying to be a good Muslim at heart. I do not participate in such necessary aspects of the religion as the five pillars, but in terms of obedience to God, I’m trying to be a good spiritual Muslim.
Q: There has been a long-term dialogue between Christians and Jews, and now between Christians and Muslims, but there has been very little contact between Christians, Jews and Muslims (trialogue) ISNA does have observer status at the National Conference of Christians and Jews, but an observer is not a participant. Do you have any insights into tile possible reasons for this?
Rev. Cory: This is a crucial point. We have seen the necessity to move toward the inclusion of all three parties in the Abrahamic faith. Obviously, however if you deal with two sets of questions and two sets of commonalities and differences it’s a little bit easier than if you deal with three sets. And, the Christians have as part of their scripture the Jewish scripture, so there is a kind of built-in relationship there.
There are also unfortunate aspects of our history that have played against a trialogue (e.g., the Crusades and the Inquisition between Christians and Muslims, the establishment of Israel between Jews and Muslims, etc.)
Today we see the necessity to learn to understand and respect one another so that we can learn to live with one another. We need to take a long term view and approach it with some understanding and patience.
I think Hans Kung is right, we need to establish peace among the world religions, that we might have peace in the world. I think that maybe one of the reasons that we have come together is to begin with the Abrahamic faiths and see how we can relate to one another. I think there needs to be extension of the right hand of fellowship to one another. I think there needs to be an asking of forgiveness and an extending of forgiveness to one another. I think there needs to be a recognition that we live under God’s Grace and pray that God’s Grace will extend to us, that we might learn to forgive one another and to live with one another. I think those are all component parts of this aspect of coming to understand one another. Confessing our past sins toward one another and then moving on into the future from where we are now.
Q: Do you feel, also, that there are some Christians, who might call you on the carpet for those very affirmations. Who might disagree with you strongly.
Rev. Cory: Of course! It is a minority point of view. There are a number of Christians (primarily those who have been involved in research on the relationship between the Muslim faith and the Christian faith) who can affirm these, e.g. Hans Kung. And there are those Christians who would not be able to affirm anyone of the three.
My denomination (the United Methodist) has been very much involved in Christian-Muslim dialogue. Three years ago, our summer Christian Mission Study was the book One Way One Faith, by R. Marston Speight. This was available nation-wide, for any conference or local church, to participate in, and many did.
The Presbyterian Church has done the same thing, maybe two or three years before The United Methodist Church did it. They have their own study book on the Muslim faith. So there are denominations that are doing that. We have in our conference, and within each local church, a group that is concerned with this dialogue. We have, within the United Methodist Church, a commission entitled “Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns” that deals with inter-faith. Marston Speight deals with that, with the National Council of Churches, Office of Christian-Muslim Relations. We have that in our own conference and we have in our own denomination such a commission that deals with those aspects of ecumenical dialogue, within the Christian churches and also interfaith between world religions.
In fact we have just been invited (Dr Morsi, Dr. Dave Schmidt and myself) to have an inter-faith worship service at this coming annual conference, when 1,000 delegates will gather in Decalb. Isn’t that amazing. And we have been supported very much.
I myself have not received any negative feedback. In fact I have received encouragement from the Bishop and from my district superintendent and from this congregation for entering and continuing the dialogue.
There are of course other people who want to put down any sort of dialogue, or any sort of understanding. And, these are also found on both sides. These people attempt to show that they have the sole truth about all religions. Their task is to deride and to put down other world religions.
Q: You made one point that I think most Christians aren’t aware of. I have talked to many Christians and none have been aware that the Catholic Church has made a statement specifically regarding the Muslims, and generally regarding non-Muslims that “There is salvation outside the church”. In fact they generally believe that it’s a lie, or some kind of Muslim propaganda, and I need to tell them to go and look up Nostra Aetate and see what it says. People are still thinking that the teaching of at least the Catholic church is that there IS no salvation outside the Church. And Evangelical Protestants seem to be maintaining that position to date.
Rev. Cory: And I think that people are not really up to snuff on the facts. This was possibly first stated clearly by Pope John the XXIII, when he called Protestants for the first time, brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe that it was Pope John Paul II, the present Pope, who has made a statement expanding the relationship between the Catholic faith and the Muslims. We need to augment that, make it come alive and make it become very real. He has extended a very real concern for dialogue and relationship to take place, and to be fostered.
We are just taking the first baby steps here in this relationship. I think we need to see it in a long-term kind of understanding. And see that there are going to be difficulties, there are going to be pitfalls. But if we approach it as people of good will, I think we can come to some real understandings here.
Q: The various dialogues, statements by various churches, etc. do not seem to be “public knowledge”. Do you think that there is a purposeful effort to “keep these quiet” on the part of some authorities?
Rev. Cory: Not at all. There is no intention for it to be kept quiet. The books are published anyone can get them. It’s just something that has not been of interest to most people. The tragic thing is, it has not been an interest in the past, and it is not an interest now even among most of the learned people. And I must say that this seems to be true on both sides with a few exceptions.
Q: You used the term “Mission Study” which brings up a personal concern in this whole thing. Is it possible that the whole “dialogue thing” is just a plot, to get more Missionaries into Muslim confidence - to make friends with us and pull in more missionaries? When you say “missions” that word has become attached to colonialism, with all sorts of other things which makes some of us nervous. Is there a definition, a neutral definition?
Rev. Cory: I don’t know exactly how I used the term mission that triggered that response from you. Our study in the summer is called The School of Missions. It is a vernacular term for all sorts of studies. It is mainly informational, educational studies. That the term School of Missions could be seen as threatening or as something adverse is an interesting point. I never even thought about that. This is perhaps an example of what I said about our past history being an obstacle to dialogue.
Q: Are you hopeful about the future of the dialogue movement?
Rev. Cory: I think the most positive outcome is yet to come. I think our greatest achievements, if there are going to be any, are yet to come. We are going to have some people who are going to resist what we are trying to do. But, I think we are on the right track and that belief will sustain us. I think we are on the cutting edge of something. I think we are involved in dialogue in the spirit of goodwill as a cooperative effort of people who see each other as brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic faith. And I think that there is no way that we cannot succeed in what we are about.
Q: We have to do it for our children.
Rev. Cory: That’s exactly right. I think we need to take the long look at this. And see that we may not reach the promised land, but there will be those who will.
We need to do some networking and share what those involved in dialogue have learned, and increase participation so that others might catch fire and our enthusiasm might catch fire with them. John Wesley, who was one of the sparks of United Methodism said:
“I’m on fire, with preaching about God, and about the love of God. And people love to come and see me burn.”
And I think that same thing about dialogue. We are enthusiastic about what we are doing. We only have a limited amount of time, a limited amount of resources. But we hope other people catch the enthusiasm.
Q: Are you looking to hear from people who are interested?
Rev. Cory: We are looking to share the responsibility, share the enthusiasm, and to Allah goes the glory.
Video tapes of many dialogues are available from Community Productions, 1632 Meyer St., Elgin IL 60123, and a video tape of the 1992 annual dialogue/meeting is available from Lawrence Video. You may contact the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group at PO Box 758, Oak Lawn, IL 60453.
The American Muslim
Part I originally published in the Summer 1992 print edition of
Part II originally published in the Fall 1992 print edition of