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Facilitating Interreligious Dialogue

Jesuit Daniel Madigan Uses Scholarship For Better Muslim-Christian Understanding

Fr. Daniel Madigan

Daniel Madigan, S.J.

Ever since he took his first theology course at the Jesuit Theological College in Melbourne, Australia in 1973, Daniel Madigan, S.J. knew he wanted to be a theologian.

While many of his novitiate peers in the Society of Jesus were contemplating psychology or social work, Madigan became focused on theological study and academia. But one simple question gave him pause as he set out for the classroom: When will you be back? 

The question came from one of the leprosy patients he had cared for during a summer of pastoral work in India, and it helped propel him into an arena that would influence heavily the interreligious scholarship that interests him today.

Madigan, Georgetown's Jeanette W. and Otto J. Ruesch Family Associate Professor of Theology, recalls immersing himself in India's traditions, customs and culture. For a brief period, his home was a mud hut in a Bihar slum, where he worked with patients. He recalls spending many hours in prayer during a retreat weekend, silently reciting the Lord's Prayer as hundreds of people filled the streets around him. The words, "our Father" took on greater significance for him.

"When we say ‘our Father,' it's a very big ‘us,' " he says, explaining how he realized God was everyone's Father, not simply the Father of Christians or people in the Western world.

Spiritually and emotionally moved by the people he had come to know, he began to worry that his experience would soon fade and become a mere anecdote about his life before academia. "Will I be back?" he asked himself. 

Once he received his theology degree from Melbourne College of Divinity and after much thought and discussion with his Jesuit companions and superiors, he volunteered to return to South Asia and eventually added a number of other places onto his list of travels.

Madigan finished his theology work in Delhi, India, where he studied Urdu and Islamic studies, and later took an assignment to serve in Lahore, Pakistan.

Throughout his time in Lahore, the Jesuit priest continued to reconcile his scholarly ambitions with his desire to stay connected to the people and places he had met along the way.

"In Lahore, I gradually learned that it was not enough to put just my heart into this service," says Madigan, "but that whatever intellectual abilities I might have were called on as well."

It wasn't until he went to a meeting in Cairo in 1986, that the Australian Jesuit would come to fully understand the work calling him. In Cairo, he met up with a group of Jesuits who taught him that a life of scholarship does not have to be exclusive or distant from work outside the walls of academia.

"Each one of these Jesuits seemed more scholarly than the next, with an impressive array of publications and degrees, yet they worked in widely different situations -- pastoral, intellectual and cultural -- throughout the Muslim world," said Madigan. "I think it was from them that I learned that an academic career did not have to be a withdrawal from the world."

Madigan, who later received his master's and Ph.D. in Islamic religion from Columbia University, says his experiences in India, Pakistan and Egypt remain with him to this day. He's gone on to publish numerous works that explore the Quran, Muslim-Christian understanding, the question of prophecy as it relates to Jesus and Muhammad and religious pluralism. 

"Dan Madigan is a first-rate scholar with training in both Christianity and Islam," says John Esposito, director of Georgetown's Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "His expertise especially in Vatican Catholic relations with Islam compliments and enriches both the theology department and Georgetown's leadership in Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations."

Building Bridges Through Scholarship

Madigan, who also serves as a senior fellow at the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, explains that Georgetown's commitment to interreligious dialogue stems in part from Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius of Loyola's belief that God deals directly with each person.

"(Jesuits) take seriously, with discernment, religious experience and religious faith of other people, even though those other people do not always fit into the structures with which we are comfortable," Madigan says.

As a scholar, Madigan has devoted himself to creating opportunities where people of diverse faith traditions can comfortably engage with one another.

Prior to coming to Georgetown in 2007, he spent several years in Rome, where he served as a consultor of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims. He continues to hold that post with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He also served as the founder and director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Opening just one year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Roman institute proved especially useful in facilitating a better understanding of Islam due to Madigan's work. He assisted Muslim students looking to work in the field of interreligious dialogue with their study of Christianity and Judaism. 

Madigan often refers to this work as building "mutual theological hospitality."

"New things emerge when we can be at home in each other's theological spaces -- (then) we're not a threat," he said. "I'm not invading their area. I'm exploring it with respect and with questions that come from my being a Christian, that come from my being trained in other ways."

Dialogue in the Classroom

As part of the Georgetown community, Madigan teaches several undergraduate and graduate courses and recently just took the helm of the theology department's Ph.D. program.

Madigan's courses explore a variety of areas including the relationships and tensions between Christianity and other world religions, Christian theologies responsive to Islam and Islamic Studies. This semester, he's teaching The Qur'an and Its Readers, which has attracted students from a wide range of cultural and faith traditions.

"He has a great and profound knowledge of the Quran, and it is extremely helpful that he has also a unique knowledge of Christian theology," says Zeyneb Salim (G'15). "It makes it easier both to Muslims and Christians in the class to understand the differences and similarities in both traditions -- Islam and Christianity."

Melanie Trexler (G'14), a graduate student studying comparative scriptures, agrees.

"As a Jesuit priest, Professor Madigan brings a humble, reverent appreciation to the Muslim sacred canon," she says. "His training in biblical studies enables him to draw fair, balanced comparisons between the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic traditions."

Madigan relishes the moments when he can expose his students to new insights and new ways of understanding. Building on his idea of mutual theological hospitality, he believes his students enjoy the opportunity to think outside their comfort zones. 

"It's really very interesting," he says. "You're walking a very fine line when you're talking to people about their sacred texts, a text which is not scripture for me, but I recognize its sacredness to them. To bring certain insights to it, which on the one hand come from outside their traditions, but on the other hand are respectful of their traditions, I find that stimulating."

At this point in his academic career, Madigan says the university is a good place for him to be.

"Georgetown, because of its commitment to this area of interreligious understanding and its resources -- particularly in Muslim-Christian relations and Islamic studies," he says, "is the best place for me to do what I do."

Source: Blue & Gray

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