‘Reasons for Our Hope’: Video Series Presents Christian Belief to the Muslim World
Inspired by Church teaching on interfaith dialogue, the initiative aims to foster ‘mutual understanding’ by exploring common elements between the two religions while also not shying away from relevant difference.
“In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions,” begins the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, written in 1965.
In our own time, a group of scholars are putting these principles into practice in a format that the Council Fathers would never have anticipated: YouTube.
Reasons for Our Hope, a joint project between the Oasis International Foundation and the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame, is a YouTube series intended to advance mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims. In so doing, the series seeks to be respectful to Muslim believers (quoting Muslim philosophers and writers, closely studying the words of the Quran and Muslim traditions, and consulting Muslim scholars) while also being honest about the different worldviews that Christianity and Islam present.
The collaborative project traces its roots to a 2017 symposium between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and its Muslim counterpart, the Al-Azhar Center for Dialogue, held in Cairo. At the symposium, Gabriel Said Reynolds, Notre Dame professor of Islamic studies, met Martino Diez, the scientific director of the Oasis International Foundation. Founded with the initiative of Cardinal Angelo Scola in 2004, Oasis aims to foster dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, facilitating research, conferences and public conversation on the topic.
Both Diez and Reynolds realized while attending the symposium that, among Christians, there was both a lack of knowledge about Islam and a lack of resources for attaining that knowledge. Similarly, many Muslims regularly encountered misinformation about Christianity and Catholicism.
John Cavadini, director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, similarly noted the problems facing Muslim-Christian dialogue. A project that would aim to educate Catholics on theological differences between themselves and Muslims was a good fit for the McGrath Institute’s goal to “empower faithful Catholic leaders at all levels.”
“Let’s face it: Most Christians and Catholics couldn’t very easily ‘give an account for the hope that is in them’ when it comes to the Trinity, [for example],” Cavadini reflected. The aim in the series is to avoid the polemic mode that characterizes some Muslim versus Christian rhetoric, “so that we are not engaging in mutual caricature, because it certainly doesn’t serve Christian apologetic interests to caricature in return.”
To help remedy the many problems at hand, the collaborators turned to YouTube. “People are accessing information through YouTube, for better or for worse,” said Reynolds of the rationale for the project.
He added that Muslims already have a number of video resources on YouTube for explaining their religion, but that there wasn’t much on the platform explaining Christian beliefs to a Muslim audience, “at least that’s beautiful and accurate. So we felt that there was a real need for this.” The first video was posted in May 2021 as a joint initiative between Oasis and the McGrath Institute.
The introductory video for Reasons for Our Hope begins: “Many Christians who have studied Islam hear from Muslim friends, ‘You know Islam now; why don’t you become a Muslim?’”
These videos help to answer this question. Inspired by Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Novo Millenio Inuente, Diez reflected that the videos “are an attempt to [bring] together dialogue and proclamation. The core of the document is that we do not have to choose between dialogue and proclamation. But the two things are like two faces of the same thing.”
With this relationship between dialogue and proclamation in mind, Diez views the project with gratitude for its deepening of his own faith. “Maybe I cannot induce the fruit that I would like in my own interlocutor, but I have already observed that my own understanding of the Christian faith and the Christian event ... has been increased by this work.”
The series takes the form of six episodes, with more coming soon, elaborating on the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam, with titles such as “Jesus in the Bible and the Quran,” “The Gospel(s) in Islam and Christianity,” and “The Problem of Tahrif (Falsification).”
Intricately animated and set in lush soundscapes, the videos are striking for their sensory appeal. In Reynolds’ words, the project set out to create something “aesthetically distinct ... that has a larger history of Catholic thinking behind it; in some ways, it’s meant to capture some of the Catholic tradition on beauty.”
Currently, there are six episodes (plus an introduction) available in English, but the videos are in the process of being translated into French, Italian and Arabic; at least one video is available in each language. The series will next turn to the topic of “God in Islam and Christianity.”
The topics chosen arise from Reynolds’ and Diez’s experiences and research in Muslim-Christian dialogue. They are not afraid to shy away from contentious questions, while also remaining respectful to both sides.
In a divisive time, with divisions often entrenched by social-media platforms such as YouTube, “the challenges are really clear,” said Diez. “The fact is that, especially in social media ... the message that is easier to convey is a polarized message."
He added that while polemical videos get more views, those kinds of approaches “only convince those who are already convinced.” While he said that there are those on both sides of the divide who “are not receptive to our message,” he knows “Muslims that are interested in this kind of polite, civilized conversation.”
This renunciation of the polemic mode also means that the intended audience for the video series is, quite simply, anyone who wants to watch them.
“Viewers won’t find that the videos are contrived or carefully crafted attempts at bringing you to be baptized as a Catholic,” Reynolds explained. “They’re basically informational, but there’s so much misinformation out there about the Catholic Church — and about Islam — that disentangling those webs or knots of disinformation and then allowing people to observe and understand Islam and Christianity, we think, renders a really important service.”
While the videos do aim to correct misinformation about Christianity generally and Catholicism in particular, they are not intended as an “evangelistic” project. Reynolds explains that the broader backdrop of the videos is an increasingly secularized society, where commonground between Christians and Muslims may be more significant than ever.
“The real fruit of that mutual understanding ... [is that] Muslims and Christians can sort of sit together here,” said Reynolds. Given more clarity, understanding and appreciation, he hopes that Islam and Christianity can be “two communities seeking God and even encouraging each other.”
Mutual understanding does not, however, mean shying away from real theological differences. “Christianity is not a religion of the book,” one of the videos points out, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church and correcting a Quranic statement that “describes Christians and Jews as ‘people of the book.’” This is a misinterpretation: “Why? Because Christianity is ultimately a religion of a person: God has revealed himself not in words or commands but in a human being, in Jesus.”
“God’s ultimate language is the flesh and blood of Jesus,” the video continues.
It is this figure of Christ that, as has been the case throughout the ages, Muslim-Christian dialogue turns upon in these videos. The series captures an important point: that while the person of Jesus is the most important shared point between the two religions, the essential question about him — God or not God? — is also what divides the two.
“For many Muslims, the Christian teaching about Jesus [as the Son of God] is not only incoherent, but is actually offensive, because Islam teaches that God is one and God can have no son,” Reynolds said frankly. “If you look at Christian teaching from the perspective of that Islamic idea, then you necessarily have a disposition that leads to polemics.”
The videos strive to emphasize that “what Christianity is claiming about Jesus is above all a view of divine love, love for creation.” With this in mind, Reynolds said, hopefully “some of that disposition toward polemics ... is lessened by an appreciation of the beauty of the Christian faith.”
Engaging in Dialogue
Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Novo Millenio Inuente exhorts, “Dialogue ... cannot be based on religious indifferentism, and we Christians are in duty bound, while engaging in dialogue, to bear clear witness to the hope that is within us.”
While not all Catholics will agree with the Reasons for Our Hope series’ commitment to respecting the “inner coherence” of Muslim theology, nor the series’ intentional avoidance of direct apologetics, its proponents believe it is a positive contribution to Muslim-Christian dialogue in the spirit of St. John Paul II and the Church’s wider teaching — and that the encounter it aims to foster can lead to deeper fruits.
Emily Lehman is a visiting researcher at the University of Notre Dame and the artistic director for Core Virtues at the University of Dallas.
- interfaith dialogue
- christian-muslim dialogue
- McGrath Institute for Church Life