By Paul Gray
Australian Catholic University has appointed two distinguished scholars, one a prominent a Jewish leader and the other an internationally recognised Jesuit expert on Islam, to its Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue.
They are Rabbi John Levi AM, an author and co-founder of the Australian Council for Christians and Jews, and Rev Dr Daniel Madigan SJ, an Australian currently based at Georgetown University in Washington.
The appointments are the latest sign of the national Catholic university’s growing commitment to inter-religious dialogue.
The university founded the Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue in 2006, and last year appointed a Turkish expert in the Koran, Dr Ismail Albayrak, to its Fethullah Gulen Chair.
In an email interview from Washington for The Record, Dr Madigan said projects like the APCID are especially significant today.
“I think it is extremely important for the Church to be identified publicly and officially with efforts at mutual understanding,” Dr Madigan said.
Hospitality is an essential element in dialogue, and last year’s appointment of Dr Albayrak is a sign of such hospitality, he added. “We are ready to listen to Muslims and to learn from them how they see their own faith.”
Dr Madigan, who has had ongoing roles in inter-religious work at the Vatican for the past 10 years, says Catholic openness to non-Catholics is rarely wasted.
“Those Muslim professors who have come to Rome over the years have been greatly affected by such hospitality and have reciprocated it, thus learning a great deal about Christianity, not just as it is formally written but as it is lived.”
The ACU’s inter-religious dialogue centre was set up to promote dialogue, mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Christians and other religious communities in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, religious dialogue itself remains controversial in sections of the Australian community, with some media voices urging a tough line against Islam.
One former federal parliamentarian, John Stone, has even advocated a curb on Muslim immigration to Australia. Meanwhile some think that a fundamental “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West must be resolved.
The Record asked Dr Madigan what he thought about the term “clash of civilizations” which was coined by political scientist Samuel Huntington. Dr Madigan answered: “Most of those who use this terminology have not read and have scarcely understood what Samuel Huntington was getting at in his book.
“I think there is a clash of civilisations,” Dr Madigan continued, “yet the civilizations are not in my experience defined by religion. There is one ‘civilization’ of people who believe that they have all the answers and so nothing to learn, that they have little or nothing to be ashamed of or to ask forgiveness for, either in the present or in history – people who believe that the violence they do is justified and even divinely sanctioned, and that they can do no wrong.
“They inevitably see themselves as innocent victims.
“There is another ‘civilisation’ of people who know that they still have much to learn and so are open to others, who can see and admit their historical failings without losing faith or hope, who do not believe that violence and harsh division will resolve our world’s problems.
“Though they may have been victimized, they know also they have been victimisers.” Dr Madigan says in his experience there are Christians and Muslims in both these ‘civilisations.’
Samuel Huntington pointed out that civilizations are not closed and that people can and do change their civilisational identities. However “few people noticed” when Huntington said this, Dr Madigan added.
He said changing people’s civilisational identities is the purpose of dialogue.
Dr Madigan is a consultor of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims at the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue at the Vatican. He is also international visiting fellow at the Woodstock International Center at Georgetown.
From 2000-2007 Dr Madigan was a professor of Islamic studies and inter-religious dialogue at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. There he was also the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures, designed to prepare people to work in the field or interreligious dialogue.
Originally from Melbourne, he held numerous posts in Australia including executive director of Jesuit Publications, a role at Catholic Communications in Melbourne and teaching at St Aloysius College in Sydney.
Today he has impressive expertise in Islam, with his book The Qur’an’s Self-Image: Writing and Authority in Islam’s Scripture being published by Princeton University Press in 2001. He is widely regarded as one of the non-Islamic world’s leading experts in Muslim scripture.
Dr Madigan says it was the Jesuit tradition of obedience that first led him to study the Koran. Ordained in the mid-1980s, he says he volunteered to work in Pakistan “at least partly wishing to avoid an academic career.”
Dr Madigan worked in Lahore and Multan in Pakistan where he oversaw a library specializing in the study of religions, and became editor of a bi-lingual Urdu/English journal of theology and spirituality.
But in the late 1980s the Australian Jesuits handed responsibility for these Pakistan projects to Sri Lankan Jesuits. At this time Dr Madigan was meant to travel east to undertake study to work in China.
“At the last minute, a letter came from our headquarters in Rome asking me to do Islamic studies instead. So instead of Hong Kong, I went to Cairo to do Arabic.”
This eventually led to his undertaking a PhD in Islamic religion, with a dissertation on the Koran, awarded by Columbia University in New York in 1997.
He also became an exchange scholar and fellow in residence at Harvard University during the 1990s. Dr Madigan’s knowledge of Islam and his experience around the world have led him to a strong belief in the importance of dialogue, which he does not see just as a job for Popes and bishops, but as one of more global importance.
“We have a tendency to measure progress by what is happening in Rome and what the Pope is doing,” he says. “Yet interreligious dialogue is obviously not one of the Pope’s main jobs, even though following Vatican II it is one of the Church’s constant concerns.”