By Fr. Ryan J. Maher, S.J.
July 20, 2008
The class I was teaching was called "The Problem of God," but I was facing a more immediate problem. Would I, one of my students had asked a classmate, be going to hell? The class held its breath; I pretended to focus on erasing the board. After what felt like an eternity, the other student replied, "Yes." And then, "Sorry, Father." Not quite what I was hoping to hear. But her answer -- and my experience with a class of mostly Arab Muslim students in Doha, Qatar -- revealed more than I ever imagined it would about the struggle to teach about faith in a world where religious fervor fuels many of the fires that our diplomatic corps struggles to put out.
In the spring of 2005, I was asked to move from Washington to Doha for two years with a group of Georgetown faculty members opening a branch campus of our School of Foreign Service at the invitation of the Qatari royal family.
I was the first Jesuit priest ever assigned to that tiny Persian Gulf emirate, a distinction that my Irish friends cheerfully assured me would be worth a line in my obituary.
We were all aware that we were engaging in something novel, a college class of mostly Sunni and Shiite Muslims exploring with one another and with their Catholic priest professor some of the basic theological issues: the existence of God, free will, sin, prayer and Judgment Day.
But there were many more for whom religion was something more profound: the outward manifestation of an inner relationship with the divine.
An Egyptian Muslim friend I met in Qatar helped me understand what that something was. Talking with Americans about faith and religion, he told me, is like having coffee with Forrest Gump: pleasant enough, but not of much substance.
The majority of Georgetown students I know are fairly knowledgeable about religion. They can talk intelligently about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The glitch is that they talk from the perspective of anthropologists and sociologists and historians.
My friend argued that Sen. John F. Kerry's reluctance to talk about his own faith was a good thing, showing that the candidate understood that faith has no place in politics or public policy.
Their sentiments come down to something like this: "You have your religious convictions, I have mine. Let's acknowledge our differences and agree to disagree with one another within the confines of polite debate."
A person of Muslim faith and a person of Christian faith engaged in honest conversation about religion are not like two fans pulling for their respective teams.
Father Ryan J. Maher, S.J. is an assistant dean at Georgetown University.