Professor Paul L. Heck

Georgetown University
2006-2007 Tuohy Chair Holder

Listen to an interview with Dr. Paul Heck on his new book, “Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism”.

Paul L. Heck is a scholar of Islamic studies with an interest in the implications of religious pluralism in today’s world. He was educated at Harvard University (B.A), Oxford University (M.A.), and the University of Chicago (Ph.D.). Prior to his current appointment in Georgetown University’s Theology Department, he was a member of Princeton University’s Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts (2001-2004). His publications, which focus on religious knowledge and its implications for society, include The Construction of Knowledge in Islamic Civilization, Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality, and The Theology of Islamic Politics (forthcoming 2008).

In the Tuohy lecture series — Spring 2007, Paul L. Heck, assistant professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, examines ways in which Muslims and Christians can be together in today’s world, not despite but through their respective religious traditions. The shared dynamics are striking and theological reflection on them suggests the possibility of religious friendship — i.e. mutual enrichment — as the proper framework of Muslim-Christian relations. This is not to equate or conflate two unique sets of beliefs but rather to argue — by exploring the intellectual heritage of Islam alongside that of Christianity — that Muslims and Christians have responded similarly to common challenges: In the depths of their uniquely Muslim and Christian souls, they are moved in comparable ways.

“Religious Pluralism Today: Being Christian with Islam”

Scripture: Does the Qur’an Belong in the Bible? 3-13-07

The Bible and the Qur’an share much material, similar stories, and many of the same prophets. Do they also share a single religious message? There are varied emphases within the many books of the Bible itself. Is the Qur’an so different — for example, in its view of Jesus Christ — to warrant its exclusion from the biblical heritage? Or, varied emphases notwithstanding, do the Qur’an and the Bible express a single understanding of God’s purpose for the world and its human inhabitants? Scholars take Bible and Qur’an as part of a single scriptural continuum, not irreconcilable versions of God’s message. Can believers do so too?

Skepticism: How Many “Good Books” Can We Have? 3-20-07

Religious pluralism raises doubts about the existence of a single religious truth. Is fundamentalism — i.e. unquestioning adherence to the specific truths of one’s own religion — the only way to remain a believer in a pluralistic world? Or does the presence of other claims to religious truth enrich one’s own understanding of it? If so, skepticism, i.e. reservations about the autonomy of a single religion’s claims, becomes an indelible part of what it means to be religious: Muslims and Christians actually need each other to be who they are meant to be. The greater thinkers of Islam and Christianity wrestled with the question of religious pluralism, not without challenging dilemmas: If truth can be extended in some measure to existence entire, what is the point of divine revelation as given to specific communities.

Spirituality: Do We Pray to the Same God? 3-27-07

When Muslims and Christians speak of God, do they mean the same thing? Is the Christian understanding of the Trinity an affront to the Muslim view of the singularity of God? Is the God to Whom Muslims submit in prayer also the God Whose Son Christians reverence as Savior? It is not simply the descriptive content of the names Muslims and Christians attribute to God, but more so the purpose which their respective use of divine names serves, that suggests a common desire to know and encounter the God who encompasses both joy and suffering. This resonance in relating with God is particularly striking in the mystical heritage of Islam and Christianity, as will be featured here.

Jihad: Is it Christian Too? 4-03-07

Jihad, which means “struggle,” is a struggle directed against evil. But how is evil to be defined and under what conditions can the human mind locate evil? Muslims and Christians have understood evil similarly — as a satanically inspired distortion of the human soul that results in corruptive behavior in society. The legacy of jihad-thinking suggests that evil can only be adequately confronted by treating both the unhealthy attachments of the soul and the corruptive behavior in society that results from them. Christianity also locates evil in both soul and society. What, then, are the criteria by which we can talk of the possibility of a joint Muslim-Christian jihad?

Power: Is Islam More or Less Democratic Than Christianity? 4-10-07

Religion has never existed as a mere idea, and yet there is contestation over its relation to human society. Is it meant to guide people or govern them? Muslims and Christians alike have struggled to understand the compatibility of divine sovereignty and democratic rule. Human decision-making in general, whether autocratic or democratic, can result in laws and policies that are indifferent or hostile to the values of religion, but religion can also act as a source of authority to challenge political tyranny. The vicissitudes of political Islam during the last century show that the democratic tendency of religion is played out ambiguously as believers negotiate a balance between their relation with God and their relation with the world. Here, we seek to specify the sources of democratic sentiment in religion, chiefly in Islam but with Christianity as a backdrop.

Justice: God’s Rights and Human Rights 4-17-07

The view that believers have of other humans moves in two directions, one recognizing a nature common to all humanity and another awarding full personhood only to those who share one’s faith. This tension has had enormous implications for the way in which diverse believers interact with each other in the public square – both civilly and uncivilly. What are the limits of freedom when it comes to belief in God? The way Islam and Christianity have struck a balance between particular communal concerns and universal human rights in forging the common good in society is extremely relevant today. Can the good of all be served without neglecting the demands of particular beliefs? If the good of society is not separable from religious values, what exactly is the relation between the two? This question is particularly pressing in the context of today’s Europe, increasingly the site of a clash of cultures featuring Islam but also involving Christianity.