There’s an old joke about “dialogue sessions” between Catholics and Muslims: they get together and agree that “Catholicism and Islam have a lot in common, especially Islam.”
I thought of this while reading the sad story of Fr. Hilarion Heagy: a former Orthodox priest who converted to Eastern Catholicism, only to abandon it all—the priesthood, Catholicism, Christianity—for Islam. Taking the name Said Abdul Latif, he began blogging about his religious journey last fall and just a couple of days ago “went public” with his apostasy.
His blog comments strike me as emblematic of what may happen when we grow too attached to the concept of “ecumenical jihad”: the idea that mere sectarian or even interreligious disagreements are a distant second in importance to the need for religious believers to band together and combat secularism. Or as Latif quotes a Muslim source on his blog: “It is even recorded in authentic traditions of the Prophet that at the end of time the truly pious among the Christians will unite with the People of the Qur’an and fight their common enemy, irreligion.”
Since Islam has no true revelation of its own, it’s forced to appropriate authentic Jewish and Christian revelation and twist it to suit its purposes. Then it turns around and claims that the Bible and the Gospels are in fact the perversions—of authentic Muslim revelation about salvation history and Jesus’s ministry (the record of which, Muslims claim, is lost). This is why it’s so important for Muslim apologists (and their Christian fellow-travelers) to hammer the point that there is actually very little difference between the two religions. If good Christians (like Fr. Heagy) are just a nudge away from being good Muslims, that’s a validation for Islam’s claims.
Case in point: a recent email we received at Catholic Answers from a Muslim, urging us to understand that Muslims “accept ALL of the Prophets that Christians also believe in . . . believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, revere and honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, and believe in the Bible.”
As you can read in our book Not Peace But a Sword, making common cause is fine as far as it goes, but it must not cause us to downplay the very real and important differences between Islam and Christianity. Such downplaying can lead to indifferentism, which leads us from the Faith. And there are real pragmatic limits to how successful our cooperation can be in fighting secularism and the culture of death, because of the differing principles upon which Christians and Muslims base their support for traditional marriage, unborn human life, religious freedom, and so on.
The priest formerly known as Hilarion Heagy hints at a key theological difference as one of his motivators, citing a Muslim mystic’s assertion about God’s nature:
None can know Him; only He can know Himself. He sees Himself by Himself; He conceives Himself by Himself; He knows Himself by Himself. None other than He can see Him. None other than He can know Him. That which hides Him is His oneness. None but He can hide Him. The veil that hides Him is His own being.
This unknowability, this radical transcendence—making impossible true human communion with the divine—is a core feature of Islamic theology that distances it from Christianity not by sliver but by a chasm. To which G.K. Chesterton replies, with greater eloquence I think:
Western religion has always felt keenly the idea “it is not well for man to be alone.” The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent. If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian. For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)—to us God Himself is a society. . . . [T]his triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.