Some Catholic Christians are apparently upset by news that photo-journalist James Foley converted to Islam during his months of harsh imprisonment by ISIS, an imprisonment that tragically ended last August with his beheading by the extremist Islamic group.
In a recent New York Times piece Jim Yardley notes that:
[F]or many of his fellow Roman Catholics, Mr. Foley’s death in Syria transformed him into a symbol of faith under the most brutal of conditions.
One Catholic essayist compared him to St. Bartholomew, who died for his Christian faith. Others were drawn to Mr. Foley’s account of praying the rosary during an earlier captivity in Libya. Even Pope Francis, in a condolence call to Mr. Foley’s parents, described him as a martyr, according to the family.
Then came an unexpected twist: It turned out that Mr. Foley was among several hostages in Syria who had converted to Islam in captivity, according to some freed captives. What had been among some Catholics a theological discussion of faith and heroic resistance quickly shifted to a different set of questions:
Is any conversion under such duress a legitimate one? Why would a man who had spoken so openly about his Catholic faith turn to Islam? Given his circumstances, is it even surprising if he did?
Hmm, I can't say these were the questions that came to my mind when, as a Catholic, I first heard news of Foley's "conversion." From its earliest days, the debate about whether this conversion was "genuine" or "legitimate" failed, in my opinion, to acknowledge the most crucial reality: that regardless of whether he identified as "Catholic" or "Muslim," James Foley was (and remains) an inspiring symbol of faith under brutal, dehumanizing conditions.
From my reading of his months in captivity, James was sustained by a faith in the Divine Presence that not only gave him hope and strength to endure hardship, but also connected him in a deeply spiritual way to many of those around him and to his family in the U.S.
Yet clearly for many people it's important that James "died a Christian." For me, the more important thing is that he died knowing he was one with the loving and sustaining Divine Presence, however one labels it or one's self.
I'll talk about this further in a moment, but first I share another excerpt from Jim Yardley's New York Times article.
The issue [of Foley's conversion first] arose after Mr. Foley’s  captivity in Libya. In a series of articles in Global Post, as well as during an appearance at Marquette [University], Mr. Foley described how he had agreed to pray with his Muslim cellmates, jailed as enemies of the Qaddafi government. He was surprised when, after he had washed himself, they declared him converted.
“So, from then on out, I prayed with them five times a day,” he said at Marquette. “It was so powerful, and it was something I needed to do to commune with these guys who were relying on their faith in Allah. But it was difficult. I was thinking, ‘Jesus, am I praying to Allah? Am I violating my belief in you?’ ”
“I don’t have an answer to that,” he continued. “I just know that I was authentically with them, and I was authentically praying to Jesus. I don’t know theologically. But I thought I was being authentic.”
His family said his Syrian captivity was much the same.
Actually, "Allah" is an Arabic word for God used by both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. I also think it's rather sad that the different religions instill in people the kind of doubts that James expressed: the idea that a different name implies a different God. This is especially unfortunate when one recalls that members of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all acknowledge and pray to the same God – the "God of Abraham."
From my perspective, it's the same Divine Presence we all pray to, regardless of the names we give to it or to ourselves. It's a presence bigger that us – or our theologies, religions and dogmas.
In his experience of the sustaining love of this Divine Presence, I like to think that in the last months of his life James Foley transcended the religious boundaries that so many people feel they need to emphasize and enforce so as to justify the perceived uniqueness or superiority of their particular faith tradition. In this transcendence, I like to think that James became, or at least was beginning to become, an embodiment of that level of consciousness and stage of faith development known as universalizing faith.
I've come to find hope in the possibility that this stage of faith is one to which we're all ultimately called. It's a faith embodied by people like Mahatma Gandhi (who famously responded to those disturbed by his praying as a Hindu with those of other faiths: "Yes, I am [a Hindu]. I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew") and by mystics of all faith traditions. For as Andrew Harvey imparts, a mystic is "someone who has a direct and naked perception of God, beyond dogma, beyond ideas, beyond any possible formulation in words of any kind."
Universalizing faith is catholic in the most profound and meaningful sense of the word. For as theologian Ilia Delio reminds us, originally "the word catholic literally meant an active process of making whole." In her book The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe, Delio also notes that the reign of God preached by Jesus "meant a new consciousness of being in the world, a consciousness of relatedness, inclusivity, non-duality, and community. Jesus ushered in a new presence of God . . . [and] the good news that emerged in the life of Jesus was the news of God's healing love; the binding of wounds; the reconciling of relationships torn apart by anger, hurt, jealousy, or vengeance; the revelation that love is stronger than death and that forgiveness is the act of love that creates a new future.
In his words and actions, James Foley embodied so much of what's conveyed within these beautiful insights articulated by Ilia Delio. And it's an embodiment independent of any label.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• James Foley: "Prayer Was the Glue That Enabled My Freedom, An Inner Freedom"
• "Even in This Darkness"
• Prayer of the Week – February 16, 2015
• Michael Morwood on the Divine Presence
• Thoughts on Prayer in a "Summer of Strife"
• Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
• The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All
• The Source is Within You
• In the Garden of Spirituality – L. Patrick Carroll, S.J.
Related Off-site Links:
Life on the Front Lines: A View from James Foley’s Camera – GlobalPost (August 8, 2015).
Beheaded Journalist James Foley’s Mother Says He’d Be 'Devastated' by Revenge Killing of 'Jihadi John' – Jordan Chariton (The Wrap, November 13, 2015).
Covering War to End War: New Film Recounts Life and Legacy of James Foley, Journalist Killed by ISIS – Democracy Now! (January 28, 2016).
Image: James Foley outside Aleppo, Syria, in July 2012, a few months before his abduction. (Photo: Nicole Tung)