“Common Word” Christian- Muslim talks kick off at Yale
Readers of this blog will know we have been following the “Common Word” initiative for Christian-Muslim dialogue from its beginning last October. We already have a long list of blog posts about how the 138 Muslim scholars invited Christian leaders to a new dialogue, how some churches responded promptly and positively while others (especially the Vatican and some evangelical Protestants) were more wary but came around, how the preparations for their dialogue have progressed, etc. Now the first in their series of dialogue conferences, with a Christian side made up mostly of United States Protestants (including some evangelicals), has kicked off at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.
The conference started with a closed-door meeting among theologians from Friday to Monday for an initial round of discussions of how Christianity and Islam view what the Common Word says are the two core principles they hold in common, i.e. that love of God and love of neighbor are the foundations of both faiths. This is one of the novel aspects of the Common Word initiative, identifying core concepts that many Christians and Muslims did not think they shared so closely. This half of the meeting is partly a getting-to-know-you session, since most of the Muslims come from the Middle East and Europe while most of the Christians come from the United States. But it is also a forum to test out some theological ideas in debates without television cameras or journalists hanging on every word. The journalist in me would like to be in there following the debates, but it’s obvious the participants need a little time warming up before they can discuss these issues in public. The second session, from Tuesday to Thursday, will be open to the public.
Since I’ve been in New York all this month at Union Theological Seminary attending a research colloquium run by CrossCurrents magazine, I was able to dash off to New Haven for the start of the conference and will be covering it this week. Here is my opening report on the meeting.
Several participants told me they saw this conference as the beginning of a new phase in relations between Christians and Muslims because the Common Word group could speak for a broad consensus of the mainline Muslims that Western critics often accuse of being silent when confronted with acts of Islamist terrorism. Individual Muslim leaders severely condemned Islamist attacks in New York, Madrid, London, Bali and elsewhere but their declarations often went unheard because Islam has no pope or other central authority who can speak for all Muslims. By providing a platform for mainstream Muslim scholars and leaders, the Common Word initiative gave them a voice that many Christian leaders have now recognized.
Listen, for example, to Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia, as he recounts to me how mainstream Muslim scholars have been trying to establish a dialogue with Western leaders since 9/11.:
“Muslims were trying to find a way to reach the West, to send a message of opening new gates, new doors for a kind of dialogue. There were many attempts. but the most successful is this Common Word with 138 Muslim scholars who signed… the West has received this message more (clearly) than any other messages that we were trying to send. So the significance of this is that we have broken the ice of mistrust between West and Islam with this initiative and we have opened many doors now… I don’t think we’ve removed all suspicions yet, we have a lot of work to do, but this is a good beginning.
“You can send a message, but if there’s nobody there to receive it, it’s useless. Also, you may be ready to receive a message, but if there is nobody there to send it, then you’re also left empty-handed. Here I think we are fulfilling both sides.”
An interesting aside: two main figures at the conference on Friday were from former Yugoslavia, a country where Christians, Muslims and communists lived in relative peace until Serbian nationalists such as the late Slobodan Milosevic and the recently arrested Radovan Karadzic waged wars that tore the country apart. Ceric lives in Sarajevo, the once multicultural city besieged by Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb forces. By the way, he speaks fluent English thanks to this Ph.D studies at the University of Chicago. The other former Yugoslav is the conference’s Croatian-born co-host Miroslav Volf (picture below), a Protestant theologian who runs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
Volf told me: “One of the most exciting things about this conference is that it brings to the table a signficiant number of evangelicals. In this country, evangelicals command quite a bit of influence on politics. If they’re open to improving Muslim-Christian relations, I think that’s good news.”
Among the evangelicals who signed a Yale Divinity School letter welcoming the Common Word initiative are Leith Anderson and Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary, David Neff of Christianity Today, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church.
Many evangelicals have not exactly been friendly to Islam in the past, so I’ll be asking evangelical leaders attending the public conference what made them support this initiative.
Do you have any questions you’d like put to them?