John G. Khalil OP
Given my own origins – Egypt – and the number of Arabic Dominicans in the region, which does not even amount to 15 brethren, of whom only a few are engaged in Christian theology, I would like to turn my attention towards the future and ask the question: What will Dominican theology in the Middle East be?
In the year 451, a schism occurred between the Coptic and the Carolingian Churches at the Council of Chalcedon. This schism impeded the Church’s theological development in Egypt, which had produced a great number of the Church Fathers. These left an extensive theological opus, the Alexandrian School, and, with St. Anthony the Great, founded Christian monasticism.
Today, we face the challenge of reconciling tradition and modernity. Theology needs liberation from its past. It is remarkable that, in Arabic, the words “objectionable renewal” (bidʿa) and creativity (ibdāʿ) have the same origin, which is why there are often concerns that “creativity” is accompanied by a turning away from what is right. Hence, theology of the last 1,500 years – with the exception of the period between the 9th and the 13th century – consisted mostly of no more than repetition of the ideas of the first five centuries. It was accompanied by a largely defensive, also partly aggressive, attitude towards the developments that arose from the questions of the following centuries. The conviction was that adherence to the faith and imitation of the past would safeguard the theological legacy.
The Dominicans, in belonging to an 800 year old order that dedicated itself to theological work, represent a counter model. This pursuit liberated itself from solely serving past traditions. It respects the religious legacy without letting itself be a prisoner of traditions. Above all, however, it is in touch with an authentic theological thinking that brings about renewals that do justice to the current challenges of our cultural, geographical and political situation.
Arabic Catholics have sought to overcome this isolation, in which other Arabic theologians also find themselves, by looking towards the West. This is not surprising, since they have studied at universities in Europe and America. This, however, led to their theology simply following the Western one. In addition, the majority of Arabic theologians who have studied in the West not only imported a theology, but also the theological contexts and discourses which reflect the European situation but not the Egyptian one. One example of this is the fear of Liberation Theology and its connection with communism, even though neither were common phenomena in Egypt.
This dependency on Western theology, on the part of Arabic theologians, went hand in hand with a kind of cultural and linguistic alienation, both of many theologians and of Arabic Christians as a whole. Most Christians in Egypt (and some in Lebanon), for example, do not see themselves as Arabs but associate themselves with other groups, such as the Copts, Assyrians, Armenians etc. At the same time, they do not refer to the Arabic heritage and its cultural sources, its philosophy, social sciences and culture. Thus, the majority of Arabic theologians isolated themselves, from the beginning of the 14th century, in a Christian thinking that denied the reality of an Islamic shaped culture and of a majority Muslim population.
In the future, Dominican theology in the Middle East will have to work on the liberation of theology and on the development of new approaches that are unaffected by colonial history, that counteract social alienation and that do not follow what is “Western”. This is the complex of Near Eastern Christians who reject the fact that Islam emerged in a situation of difficulty among Christians. Islam is a reality and part of our culture. Thus, the colonization of most countries in the Middle East was not a direct military colonization, but an ideological one, that resulted from the Arabic glorification of the West. Why are most Arabic theologians more attracted to Western European theology than to developing an Arabic theology? It is because they are still unaware of their complex which holds that everything Arabic is Islamic, and that the Arabic language and Arabic thinking belong only to Muslims. This Arabic complex and its Christian form outwardly criticize the Western world which they inwardly glorify and which they follow without resistance. The new Dominican theology will reappraise history from the viewpoint of the weak.
In future, Dominican theology should be one that is embodied: Monks and Friars should not simply imitate Western theology but rather build on it and develop new approaches that are applicable to their Arabic situation. Arabic circumstances should be the starting point. In this, the Dominican convent in Cairo, with its Institute for Islamic Studies, will play a role by advising theologians to choose a language that expresses our closeness to Muslims – a language that does not act as a deterrent. What will this new theology look like? Dominican theology will be characterized by the study of the Arabic theologians, the recognition of the religious heritage, serious critique and the development of ideas that help our times. Thus, a modern Arabic theology can be created which draws on the genius of earlier theologians and which, at the same time, is open to new questions and to a new spirituality. It will have recourse to the past, especially to the golden age of Arabic philosophers, and it will take its thinking from the Arabic theology of this time. It will be a theology with the Muslims in mind, not to convert them but to approximate itself to the theological language spoken by the majority of people around us – to build bridges and to overcome the misunderstandings, hatred and fears that a minority might have of the majority. Arabic Christian theology will be a pioneer by providing approaches to deal with the Arabic-Muslim intellectual heritage and by liberating itself from alienation and isolation.
Dominican Theology can play a decisive role in establishing a Christian Arabic theology of liberation that would deepen the concept of “earth”. In the same way that there is a post-Auschwitz theology, there will be a new reflection on a theology of revolution in the light of the Arab Spring, a theology after the two Gulf wars and the invasion of Iraq, and of course, a theology after the foundation of the State of Israel. Arab theology will be a theology that would examine the concept of earth, starting with its biblical and theological foundations all the way through to the Palestinian question and what the Palestinians have experienced beforehand in terms of murders, dispossessions and occupations without falling into an antisemitic theology. It will be a theology that refuses violence and sectarianism, that grants love to both the persecutor as well as the victim. To the victim by granting him justice and to the persecutor by revealing and criticizing his works without bitterness, and especially by calling upon a peaceful struggle against the objectivity of sin.
From the German by Eileen O’Connell OP and Sabine Schratz OP, both Dublin (Ireland)