January 2002

A Christian among Muslims

Chrys McVey OP

How does your understanding of the Church’s mission change when you have lived in a predominantly Muslim society? Chrys McVey, an American Dominican who has lived for many years in Pakistan and taught at the national seminary there, reflects on his understanding of the gospel, ‘To live outside the camp is to be in a privileged position, to discover, with others, what God is really about, and what it means to be Church.’

I BEGAN WRITING THIS, on leave in the US, just two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — events that have changed the way Americans and the world think and live. Despite some incidents of racial violence it has proved to be a time of discovery, a time to learn something about Muslims and what they really believe. Americans were surprised to discover that there are over six million Muslims in the US, many of them native-born. To those ready to listen, the media have introduced the basic teachings of Islam, the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the different faces of Islam, and just how aberrant the terrorist version is to the majority of Muslims as well as to non-Muslims.

This desire to know the Other is very promising, as I know from my own experience of living in Pakistan. Having begun my philosophical and theological training (in Latin) in the mid 1950s, I found myself in Pakistan at the beginning of the 1960s. You can imagine how ‘well prepared’ I was for that! It did not take long for me to realise that my education had finally begun.

The Pakistani context

In those early years in Pakistan, I was pastor and ‘missionary’ for nine years, followed by ten years in formation and teaching at the national seminary in Karachi. Almost all my contact was with the Pakistani Christian community, whose causes and perspectives became mine, and with whom I identified. I did have an early interest in Islam, had done some reading, but contacts with Muslims, though friendly, were limited. The next ten years were filled with involvement in administration and teaching at a pastoral institute in Multan, the organisation of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Conference of Religious and, almost simultaneously, Dominican provincial administration. These were also the terribly depressing years of the martial-law regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, whose policies (separate electorates for minorities, laws against blasphemy, new laws of evidence and the introduction of ‘islamic’ penalties) haunt us yet.

It is Zia who is directly responsible for the creation of the Taliban. Ever since his 11-year rule, violence has been part of daily life: Muhajir refugees from India against Sindhi, Shia against Sunni, Sunni against each other, everyone against the ‘heretical’ Ahmadiyya. This violence is buttressed by militant and armed extremist religious parties. In certain parts of the country, the culture itself sanctions lawlessness, and murderers of wives, sisters or female relatives for the sake of family or personal honour (karo kari) are rarely prosecuted.

It seems to be an axiom that when things are bad, good things happen. It was during this last period of martial law that my priorities began to shift and I came to see Christians and the Christian community in the context of ‘living among Muslims’. In the US, I am sometimes asked how many I have converted. To which, my standard reply is, ‘One — myself. And I’m not finished yet.’ My understanding of dialogue and encounter has grown, and I can isolate several moments in this process of conversion.

It was during the Zia period that dialogue really began on an organised level, and what was remarkable in at least two instances is that dialogue was initiated not by Christians but by Muslims. It was as if Muslims needed Christians as a witness to pluriformity and the possibility of an Islam other than the one offered by the monochromatic vision of Zia ul-Haq (who was, perhaps quite appropriately, called by the people ‘Uncle One-Eye’). Growing contact with Muslims, especially lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and women, developed into esteem and friendship with many of them. These meetings have helped me realise, as Bernanos once wrote, that ‘God does not seem to call the same people to hear his word and to keep it.’ Coming into contact with so many sincere believers, and so many Muslims committed to human rights — often at great risk to themselves — is a very humbling experience.

Renewed faith

The seed of a new understanding was sown, years ago, by a chance remark of a Little Brother of Jesus, living among the Baluchi in a Karachi slum. ‘We may never,’ he said, ‘convert the Baluchi, but they will serve to convert us to God’s ways.’ This was the beginning of a new understanding of the incomplete nature of faith — of faith not as certainty, but as invitation into mystery. There have been attempts, most notably at the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi, to develop a Christian theology within the context of Islam.1 What is so interesting about these efforts is the attention paid to the context and the implication that ‘living amidst the Other’ enters into the very definition of who a Christian is.

The poet Rilke may have been overstating it a bit when he said we are nothing but the sum total of every person we have ever met, but there is a layer of truth in this: our identity does come from others; we are defined by our relationships. ‘Knowing the other is important, and part of the responsibility of ministry in a world in which we Christians are not alone. Equally important, however, is our radical need for the other, so that we may come to see ourselves more clearly.’2 How can Muslims help us to ‘see ourselves more clearly’? How can Muslims be a hermeneutic to help us ‘explain’ ourselves to ourselves?

Interfaith dialogue, as the theologian David Tracy observes, is ‘a crucial issue which will transform all Christian theology in the long run… We are fast approaching the day when it will not be possible to attempt a Christian systematic theology except in serious conversation with the other great ways.’3 This implies a willingness to go beyond our own inherited faith if we are to discover God’s purposes. In the words of the Indian ecumenical pioneer M.M. Thomas, we shall have to ‘risk Christ for Christ’s sake’. Just such an ideal is proposed by the theologian John S. Dunne, who believes ‘the holy man of our time … is not a figure like Gotama or Jesus or Muhammad, a man who could found a world religion, but a figure like Gandhi, a man who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions and comes back again with new insight to his own. Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.’4 How will this ‘going beyond’, this ‘passing over and coming back’, enlarge our vision?

A new way of seeing

Almost 60 years ago, amid the horrors of Nazi death-camps, the imprisoned Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about:

being driven right back to the beginnings of our understanding… In the traditional words and acts we suspect there might be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it… Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action… All Christian thinking, speaking, and organising must be born anew out of this prayer and action.5

It was Karl Rahner, echoing Bonhoeffer, who, years ago, urged the Church to act her way into new ways of thinking instead of thinking her way into new ways of acting. And — if I remember my Aquinas well — it is ‘devotion’, which he defines as a ‘readiness to act’, which is the most important element of prayer. Today we might describe devotion as ‘attentiveness’. Preparation for prayer demands ridding oneself of one’s own agenda in order to be attentive to God’s new word, God’s purposes, God’s agenda. Only attentiveness can make us receptive to God’s surprises.

Pakistan itself is a continual surprise. Last November I was in Lahore, where over 100 Sikhs, Muslims and Christians gathered to celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, the sixteenth-century pacifist founder of the Sikh religion. Among the Muslims present, there were both Shia and Sunni imams, and among the Sunni, representatives of the major schools of thought. By their appearance — tall Astrakhan caps, long beards, shawls — I did not really expect much.

Then, one imam after the other began to praise the message of peace and tolerance of Guru Nanak as needed in Pakistan now. One, the venerable former imam of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, believed that ‘although there is only One God, there are many ways to God’. Another likened the presence of so many diverse believers in one room as a ‘beautiful bouquet’, made up of different coloured flowers, to present to God. These were extraordinary statements for Muslim religious leaders to make in a public forum in Pakistan. It is this kind of serendipitous event that has forced me, again and again, to confront my own prejudices and helped me see things differently. Pakistan has changed the way I see God, Jesus, the Church and mission. ‘When Christianity meets the Other,’ as Gavin D’Costa writes, ‘all sorts of interesting and unpredictable things happen, in which patterns might be discerned; but only after, rather than before an engagement with these complex particulars.’

So much depends on how one handles complexity and confusion. There is a story about a young disciple who came to the wise elder and asked him, ‘Can you help me find enlightenment?’ The wise man replied, ‘Of course. You just give me all your certainties and I will give you back confusion.’ The elder’s ambiguous gift of ‘confusion’ is not always readily accepted. Fear of a complex world leads to a reaction like that of the Taliban — more ‘settlers’ than ‘seekers’ (the meaning of the word ‘Taliban’) — who barricade themselves against the Truth breaking in from the ‘complex particulars’ of the world outside. And we have all seen the effects wreaked on body and soul by extreme islamists and American televangelists, those sellers of certainty, who prey on people’s fears.

The great mystery

Aristotle thought 60 was the age of wisdom. The great observer of human nature must have been on to something because older people often seem better equipped at dealing with inconsistencies, content to live in the mystery of incompleteness. The moment of enlightenment generally comes with the sudden realisation that God is not who he used to be! Such a moment of enlightenment is captured by the poet Denise Levertov: ‘How confidently the desires / of God are spoken of! / Perhaps God wants / something quite different. / Or nothing, nothing at all.’7 Muslims and Christians both need to remember the God neither one knows. While God is concerned about humankind, knows people intimately, and can act in history, God is and remains, for Muslims, transcendent: ‘No vision can grasp him, but his grasp is over all vision. He is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things’ (Qur’an 6:103). Thus, people cannot know God directly. The Qur’an does not reveal God, but God’s will or law for all creation.

This is similar to Aquinas’ teaching that God is incomprehensible to us precisely because he is creator of all that is and outside the order of all beings. We can know something about God from his effects, but all that we can safely affirm is what God is not. Or as Justin Martyr put it: ‘No one can give a name to God, who is too great for words; if anyone dares to say that it is possible to do so, he must be suffering from an incurable madness.’ Both Muslims and Christians confess their inability to know God, yet both, very often, think they know exactly what God wants. Remembering the mystery is a good corrective to bad behaviour — as one Muslim scholar reminded TV listeners a week after the terrorist attacks: ‘If you limit God, you create God.’

The Jesus coming to be

For me, living among Muslims, the Jesus of faith is someone whose uniqueness lies in his unqualified acceptance of others in their differences. More than that, Jesus presents these others as models of belief and action: the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Samaritan, lepers, women, publicans and prostitutes. The Jesus of faith is a surprising God and a beckoning God, for the gospel is not behind us but in front of us. And Jesus is found not in the past but in the future. He who is Lord of history reveals himself, little by little, in the present, and especially when Christians and Muslims meet. He is the Word incarnate, the Word spoken, but also the Word being spoken now in all the ‘complex particulars’ of our world. He is incarnate and being incarnated.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews invites us to ‘keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (12:1-2). This ‘pioneer’ is way out ahead of us, elusive, never-caught-up-with, but leaves trail-markings for us to follow and perfects our faith to the extent we do so. Highly revered in the Sufi tradition of Islam, Jesus is often called ‘the traveller’, or ‘the one on the road’. This Jesus-coming-to-be beckons us to take the road, not toward certainty, but toward mystery and into deeper faith. It is risky but profitable, according to some contemporary writers,8 to rethink the role of Jesus, to put Jesus in his proper place. For the sake of perspective, we might try to reverse the order in which we commonly think of the Son and the Spirit in the world. ‘God first sent the Spirit, and then sent the Son in the context of the Spirit’s mission, to bring it to completion.’ And ‘since the Spirit is the way that God is present to humankind from the beginning of its emergence, then we Christians are already in relation to women and men of other religious ways’.

A church at home

Some years ago, Claude Geffré suggested that the originality of Christianity lay in ‘the unforeseeable power of the gospel’ and not in its being a ‘religion’. He asked whether it were ‘possible to be both Buddhist and a Christian or both a Muslim and a Christian’. Given the ‘early coexistence of the Jewish religion and Christian practice’, he believed this was not at all ‘an absurd question’.9 I am sure he has refined this idea since, but I was quite taken with the notion at the time and mentioned these ideas favourably in a letter to the great Islamic scholar and Egyptian Dominican, Fr Anawati. I received an immediate and blistering reply, urging me not to repeat ‘such nonsense’ because some of my assertions looked ‘really absurd’, and he pleaded with me not to add more confusion to what is sufficiently confused in ‘modern’ theology!

It is still, however, quite tantalising to play with and it opens up many possibilities. If, for example, Christianity is not a religion like other religions, then there is the possibility of its becoming truly incarnate, ‘at home’ anywhere, in any culture, with any religion, and never in competition. In this, St Paul challenges us as much as he did the Corinthians: ‘Do you really think that you are the source of the Word of God? Or that you are the only people to whom it has come?’ (1 Cor 14:36).

‘Our theology would improve,’ writes John V. Taylor, ‘if we thought more of the Church being given to the Spirit than of the Spirit being given to the Church.’10 So would our idea of mission. The Church has always been ‘mission-minded’, but not ‘other-centred’. If the essence of the Church is in extending the Incarnation and in being ‘at home’ with other religions and cultures, then the Church needs them for her self-understanding. Perhaps the major task of the Church today is to create what Emmanuel Levinas called ‘a culture of otherness’, a culture of relatedness. (This surely is a good description of the kingdom that Jesus preached.) Levinas describes this culture of otherness as ‘one in which each constituent, acknowledging its finitude, seeks to recognise and respect as equals those others whose very different narratives and perceptions affect and change our own’.11 Others who believe and act differently are vital for our understanding of what the Church is. I have often wondered: if it is true that Islam will be the largest religion in the world in the twenty-first century, then perhaps the way minority Churches live and act in Muslim countries may serve as a model for the world Church on how to live as minority in this new century. Minority is thus not only witness to the powerless Jesus; it is also a service to the church-coming-to-be.

A theology of hospitality

Another task for the Church, recognising her need of ‘others’ for self-understanding, is the development of a theology of hospitality, of welcoming strangers, for as the Letter to the Hebrews says, ‘by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it’ (13:2). The reference is, of course, to Abraham’s welcoming of the three strangers at Mamre (Gen 18:1-19). They share a meal under a terebinth and deliver a message of promise and hope, thus changing the fortunes of Abraham and his family. What is implied here is really much more than ‘hospitality’, for the Greek word philoxenia means not merely welcoming strangers but loving them.12

Perhaps the reason it is important for us to welcome others is because our Mamre, our halt on the journey, is today’s world, and the ‘others’, all those ‘strangers’ who join us, are really angels bearing God’s message of a future different from the one we imagined. If a theology and practice of hospitality were operative in the Church then we might be able to develop a theology of mission as ‘befriending’ and ‘loving strangers’. If a theology and practice of hospitality were truly operative in the Church, then how different in tone and content would be the documents emerging from Vatican congregations!

This is challenging, in the dictionary meaning of the word. A challenge is ‘a calling into question; a demand for an explanation…; an invitation to engage in a contest of skill’. It is in this sense of ‘questioning’ and ‘explaining’ and ‘engaging in a contest’, that every challenge can also be seen as an opportunity. An opportunity to question ourselves, to discover new meaning, and engage in the difficult struggle from which, like Jacob wrestling with the angel (Gen 32:22-31), we too emerge with a new name and a new future. Like Jacob, we too will be wounded in the struggle and may find ourselves hobbling painfully into the future the Wrestler has prepared for us.

Basic human rights

The Church in many Muslim countries has to struggle for basic human rights, for the rights of Christians as citizens; she has to struggle for her right to run schools and give religious education, so necessary for the life and future of the community. She has to struggle daily against discrimination and intolerance. But the greatest challenge is to become and remain Church: to embrace powerlessness and vulnerability. If there is one lesson to be learned from Jesus’ parables about the kingdom, about how God works in the world, then we have to take seriously these images of a mustard seed and yeast (Matt 13:31-33). Seed dies, yeast is absorbed and works mysteriously — even the gospel image of light is that of something useful to others. These are all images of littleness, of minority. In Jesus’ life we see the reality beyond the image: Jesus is compassionate, vulnerable and powerless.

The greatest struggle for the Pakistani Church — and the greatest struggle for any Church, anywhere — is to resist being co-opted by those in power for their own purposes and propaganda; to resist being tempted by official patronage. The struggle is to remain faithful to the truth of who we are: powerless and marginalised, like Jesus. I think often about how this temptation of unfaithfulness works itself out in a country like Pakistan, with its culture of power. Church leadership is at constant risk of becoming a mirror image of the larger society, whose coin is party, patronage, corruption and arrogant unaccountability. In such a culture, embracing powerlessness makes little sense even to Christians who should know better.13

A privileged place

Last June, a small international group of philosophers and theologians met in Aachen at the Missiological Institute to evaluate a survey of the state of philosophy and theology in the world. The replies to questionnaires over a three-year period indicated, among other things, a great deal of dissatisfaction over a lack of contextuality. One inescapable conclusion from this was that it is not in seminaries or institutes that one looks for theology (or philosophy). Theology happens ‘outside the camp’. And so does mission.

This is hardly a new insight: mission begins with an experience of God, and theology is a reflection on that experience. Early in the Bible, it is written that ‘Anyone who wished to consult the Lord would go to the meeting tent outside the camp’ (Exod 33:7). ‘Outside the camp’ is where we meet God. Outside the institution, outside culturally conditioned beliefs and perceptions, ‘outside the camp’, God speaks to us ‘face to face’ (Exod 33:11). It is ‘outside the camp’ that we meet a God who cannot be controlled. And it is outside the camp that we meet the Other who is different — and discover who we are. And where our home really is.

To live outside the camp is to be on mission. To live outside the camp is to be in a privileged position to discover, with others, what God is really about, and what it means to be church. But this knowledge comes at a price. The image of going outside the tent or outside the camp in order to meet God is found not only in the beginning of the Bible, but also toward the end. In the Letter to the Hebrews, an even more profound meaning is given: ‘Jesus suffered outside the gate to sanctify the people with his blood. Let us go to him, then, outside the camp and bear the abuse he suffered’ (13:12-13). Many Christians, in many churches, suffer outside the camp. Many others, like the Trappist martyrs and Bishop Claverie OP of Algeria, choose to be with them and suffer outside the camp.

I would like to end with the words of Pierre Claverie, written shortly before he was assassinated. His words and the witness of his life and death express all that can be said about the Church’s mission in today’s world: ‘The church accomplishes its vocation and its mission when it is present in the ruptures which crucify humanity in its flesh and its unity. Jesus is dead, spread-eagled between heaven and earth, arms stretched out to gather together the children of God dispersed by the sin which separates them, isolates them and sets them over against each other and against God himself. God has placed himself on the lines of brokenness born of this sin. In Algeria we are on one of those seismic lines which divide the world: Islam/the West; North/South; Rich/Poor. We are truly in our place, because it is here that one may glimpse the light of the Resurrection.’


1. See Christine M. Amjad-Ali, ed., Developing Christian Theology in the Context of Islam, Rawalpindi: Christian Study Centre, 1996.
2. Diana Eck, ‘The Perspective of Pluralism in Theological Education’, Ministerial Formation in a Multi-Faith MilieuGeneva: WCC, 1986, p.55.
3. Dialogue with the Other, Louvain: Peeters Press, 1990, p.xi.
4. The Way of All the Earth, Experiments in Truth and Religion, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972, p.ix.
5. Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. by E. Bethge, New York: Macmillan, 1967, p.171-172.
6. Review of John C. Hawley, Historicizing Christian Encounters with the Other, in Reviews in Religion and Theology, 1998, No. 4, p.94.
7 ‘The Tide’, in The Stream and the Sapphire, New York: New Directions Press, 1997.
8. Cf. the writers cited by Stephen B. Bevans SVD, ‘God Inside Out: Toward a Missionary Theology of the Holy Spirit’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 22, No. 3, July 1998.
9 ‘The Testimony of Faith in a Non-Christian Culture’, in The Risk of Interpretation New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1987, pp.159-180 passim.
10. In Stephen B Bevans, op.cit.
11. Nicholas Lash, ‘In Search of the Prodigal’, America, 13 June 1992, p.507.
12. A very helpful new book on hospitality is by Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1999
. 13. Cf. John O’Brien CSSp, ‘Pathways for the Church in Pakistan’, Focus, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1997, pp.223-236.

More by Chrys McVey OP
Contents Page
 Back to Top

Home Page | Buy this Issue | Subscribe | Contents Page | Archive | The Tablet