The Community of Friends of God
Lawrence Cunningham, a Catholic theologian, appraises the study of the saints as a neglected element in the Christian tradition, even within the Roman Catholic tradition where the veneration of the saints is one of its distinctive features, and there is an elaborate system to canonize saints. Cunningham wrote his critique in 1980, and yet its validity remains true even today. Although the study of the saints is still marginal in Christian theology, there are some notable efforts dedicated to rethinking the theology of saints. This dissertation, which corresponds to those efforts, deals with one question that emerges from today’s multi-faith context: “Is it possible for Christians to acknowledge individuals of non-Christian religious traditions as saints?” To give an affirmative answer to the question, this dissertation project proposes an inclusive theology of saints that includes non-Christian saintly figures. Assuming a confessional stance in the method of comparative theology, the primary purpose of this project is to enrich the Christian systematic theological discourse of saints and sainthood through learning from other traditions in this case Islam. Saints in Islam are called the “friends of God” (awliyā’ Allāh; sing. walī Allāh). The term is based on a Quranic verse, “Verily, the Friends of God have no fear nor sorrow” (10:62). Another textual ground for the saints in Islam is the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pl. ahādīth; sing. hadīth). One famous hadīth related to the saints states that, “When they are seen, God is remembered.” In this dissertation, I compare the notion of sainthood and saints from Christian perspectives with Islam, particularly with Ibn ῾Arabī’s concept of walāya. As a comparative theology work, I will describe first the discourse of saint and sainthood in each religious tradition, i.e., Christianity and Islam, prior to doing the actual comparison. Chapters 1 to 4 serve this endeavor. Chapter 1 and 2 explore the discourse from Catholic and Protestant perspectives. I will focus on several Catholic theologians who developed their theologies of saints during and after the Second Vatican Council, i.e., Karl Rahner, Jean-Luc Marion, and Elizabeth Johnson. Besides, I will also draw insights from two prominent Protestant theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich. Chapter 3 introduces the topic of saints and sainthood in Islam from a phenomenological, textual, and theological perspective. Ibn ῾Arabī’s concept of the walāya occupies the whole chapter 4. It is important to note that the chapter does not describe Ibn ῾Arabī’s thought exhaustively because I have already selected certain materials for the comparison. The comparison yields three theological constructs as features of an inclusive theology of saints: saints as manifestations and revealers of God’s self-communication, the hiddenness of saints, and saints as companions. Each of these theological constructs will be explored in chapters 5 to 7. These theological constructs correspond to the proposed metaphor of the community of friends of God that could enrich the current Christian symbol of the communion of saints. Last, chapter 8 functions as an excursion to underline the practical side of my proposal of an inclusive theology of saints. I will provide two contemporary cases of Muslim-Christian cross veneration of saints to connect the more theoretical aspects of this dissertation with the living reality of people.