A Review of
Christian de Chergé: A Theology of Hope.
Paperback: Cistercian Publications, 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Richard Goode.
Interfaith dialogue can occasionally feel like a chess match. Participants may be civil enough toward one another, yet an underlying quest is to work rivals into such untenable positions that the adversary must capitulate and concede the contest. For one side to win, the other must lose. In this volume Christian Salenson delineates Fr. Christian de Chergé’s far more robust model for interfaith dialogue.
The 2010 award-winning film, “Of God’s and Men,” popularized the plight of de Chergé, prior of Our Lady of Atlas, shepherding his small Cistercian band as they wrestled with their vow of stability. Should they pray and work in Algeria, long wracked by civil war and sectarian violence? Would they remain in Tibhirine, serve their Muslim neighbors and tempt martyrdom, or was God calling them—via the Algerian government and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA)—to relocate to a more secure environment? For all the film’s strengths, it is Salenson’s book that reveals de Chergé’s creative, promising theology for interfaith dialogue.
From his earliest days in Algeria, interfaith concerns captured de Chergé’s heart and mind. In 1961, for example, local militants murdered de Chergé’s friend, Mohammed, for physically protecting de Chergé. This Christ-like act by a Muslim “elder brother” simultaneously raised questions for de Chergé about Islam’s place in God’s plan, and clarified his vocation. “Dialogue with Islam,” Salenson notes, “would be part and parcel of de Chergé’s monastic vocation, a vocation he received through Mohammed” (27). Later, a Muslim guest to the monastery entered in the darkened church after Compline, humbly requesting de Chergé to pray for him. De Chergé responded with his own invitation: “Teach us to pray together.” From that point forward, de Chergé’s purpose in Muslim Algeria was “to be someone ‘praying among others who pray’” (30), which came to mean an “incarnated communion of saints”—Muslims and Christians—“learning to pray together” (189). Abandoning his presumptions about Islam’s place in God’s plan and re-envisioning dialogue as something other than “narrow-minded jousting,” he launched the Ribat es Salam (Bond of Peace). In other words, instead of competing against Islam, de Chergé grew to appreciate a single faith—this communion of saints—under one merciful God, even to the point that he understood Mohammed as “a prophet authentically inspired by the Spirit of the One and Living God” (45). Utilizing a classic monastic image, de Chergé pictured a ladder “composed of the two religious traditions, Islam and Christianity” (129), where “both parties, by climbing similar rungs, allow themselves to be converted toward the One God” (63).
The intrepid de Chergé pursued the consequences of such beliefs. He warned Christians, for example, against presuming to have the person and work of Christ figured out, i.e., as if all that Christians needed to know about Christ could be known exclusively from Christian texts and traditions. Christians will know Christ better, de Chergé insisted, to the extent that they hear Muslims teach Christ from the Quran and Islamic traditions. “In order to enter in truth into dialogue,” de Chergé counseled, “we will have to accept, in the name of Christ, that Islam has something to tell us on behalf of Christ” (93). Stated differently, Christians must pursue interfaith dialogue because none has a monopoly on the truth, and because such an encounter may provide an “Emmaus Road experience” where Muslims are Christ to, and for, Christians. “True dialogue then becomes the requirement for each participant,” Salenson concludes, “to rely on the particular grace and different gifts of the other, even if this results in being challenged and rubbed raw” (120). This, of course, changes everything. “Missions” are not a project where Christians take their “surplus” of truth to their deficient neighbors, but a quest to be taught by the communion of saints. “Without the encounter with Islam,” Salenson explains, “the Church will never completely sing its Magnificat. Without the encounter with other religions, the Church will not be able fully to celebrate the Eucharist” (152).
Upholding this cooperative Islamic-Christian ladder leading to our One God, de Chargé contended, is “eschatology;” a theology less about what might happen some day at some end-time, and more about what God has already accomplished. God has reconciled all people to God’s self and to one another. Humanity does not engineer reconciliation. God has done that. It is finished. That’s eschatology. Humanity’s task is to live as the reconciled people they are. “Hope” is, therefore, made manifest in faithful fraternities that incarnate God’s reconciliation here and now. This was the hope that sustained the Tibhirine monks. Part of a very real and present body—one communion of saints—they were their brother’s keeper; whether those brothers were Sayah Attiyah’s GIA “brothers of the mountain,” or the Algerian government’s “brothers of the plains.” Likewise they were brothers kept by their Muslim partners. Even in anticipation of his death, which came in May 1996, de Chergé reveled in the reality of reconciliation. In a “Testament” to be opened on the occasion of his death, de Chergé offered words of hope to his unknown assassin: “And also to you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you are doing: Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a ‘GOD-BLESS’ for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. AMEN! INCHALLAH!” (201). Even with the murder of seven of its members, the Tibhirine community was (and continues to be) a living witness to the reality of reconciliation; an attestation to the one hope.
With this volume Christian Salenson champions Fr. de Chergé’s provocative theology of interfaith dialogue, and Nada Conic renders an accessible translation, but in conclusion they extend something of an altar call. To the extent that we engage in interfaith dialogue as a competitive chess match, we deny our hope. “If it is true [however] that right now we are seated together at the Father’s table, the table that Christ has prepared and to which all people are called, the table of sinners, then, strong in this unity realized in God, we can make progress on the path of diversity. . . . The sequel is up to us” (195).
Richard Goode is Associate Professor of History at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.