Churches take stock of Christian-Muslim dialogue

October 25, 2008

Christian churches have been taking stock of where they stand on dialogue with Islam. With so much interfaith discussion going on, they’re not all singing from the same sheet and wonder whether they should (or even could). So about 50 church leaders and experts got together near Geneva last weekend to exchange information on their approach to, and experiences concerning, dialogue with Muslims. “With such a succession of meetings where we get together with Muslims, we wanted to have a meeting among ourselves and ask whether we have 2,000 different answers and what that might say about us,” said Thomas Schirrmacher of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

The World Council of Churches (WCC) said the idea for the meeting“emerged from an ecumenical process of response to the Common Word”  initiative on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Held outside Geneva, it brought together representatives from the WCC, World Evangelical Alliance, Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, World Methodist Council, several Orthodox churches and other Christian groups. I have spoken to a few of the participants and received some texts since the meeting to get an idea of how their exchange shaped up.

“The idea was that we come together to share our different experiences with Islam and our different theological approaches to Islam to seek an ecumenical understanding,” said Rima Barsoum, the WCC’s person responsible for relations with Muslims. An “ecumenical understanding” does not mean a common understanding, as became clear at the meeting. Participants described various points of view that no two-day meeting could overcome. Orthodox and eastern churches that live as minorities in Muslim countries have a different perspective from those in the West that know Muslims as a minority. The Vatican’s approach is to focus more on the theological questions while the World Evangelical Alliance has stressed the issue of living together peacefully. “My feeling after Geneva is that there is such a wide spectrum of representation that a common stand would be very difficult indeed,” said David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham in Britain.

Catholicos Aram I, the Beirut-based head of the Armenian Apostolic Church(See of Cilicia), displayed that view of minority Christians in the Middle East in his opening speech. “The prevailing misperceptions, ambiguities, polarisations, tensions and collision (of values between Muslims and Christians), hijacked and sharpened by politico-ideological agendas and geo-political strategies, can be transformed only through a shared life in community,”he said. Josiah Atkins Idowu-Fearon, former Anglican bishop of Kaduna, gave a run-down on the often tense relations between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria: “Our biggest problem is that of ignorance: both communities are ignorant of their religion and that of their neighbour.”

Rev. Dan Madigan S.J.warned in his presentation against trying to fit the Abrahamic religions into a standard schema with pre-determined categories. This often leads to parallels between the Koran and the Bible or Mohammad and Jesus, he said, but this was a category mistake. “The most important common belief our traditions share is that the Word of God has been spoken in our world — the eternal divine word that is the essence of God,” he said. However, Jews hear the word of God in the Torah and rabbinic reflection and study. Muslims hear it in the Koran. “For Christians, on the other hand, God’s word is spoken primarily, not in words, but in the flesh … What Jesus is for the Christian, the Koran (not Mohammad) is for Muslims. What Mohammad is for Muslims (the human channel through which the word of God entered the world), Mary could be said to be for Christians. Of course, that Mary role does not exhaust the reality of who Mohammad is for Muslims.”

Rev. Peter Colwell of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland told me Madigan’s comments were “quite a revelatory observation for many participants. I think you’ve got to come out of the Catholic or Orthodox tradition to actually see that.” BTW Colwell has produced a short guide to the Common Word as “a resource for churches and individuals who wish to explore these issues more deeply and who wish take the opportunity the letter affords to develop local inter-faith relations.”

Schirrmacher said several church representatives asked him why the World Evangelical Alliance gave such a quick and positive reply to the Common Word invitation to dialogue while issuing quite a critical note analysing the content of the Common Word statement. “There’s a simple answer,” he said. “The WEA was founded in 1854 on the issue of freedom of religion. For us, agreeing on content and sitting down under the roof of religious freedom to live together peacefully are two different issues. We could sign on immediately to this peace offer — which is what it is, they’re saying they want to live peacefully with Christians in the world –- without taking much time to think about which consequences that may have for the Trinity or whatever. This is tougher for the Catholic Church because they have not conducted the dialogue politically, but from the basis of having the same God and wanting to talk about theological issues. The Orthodox churches, which have always been minority churches and persecuted, had no problem with the evangelical approach because the theological and political issues are separate for them.”

A second meetingwas held in Mechelen near Brussels in mid-week, this time with Muslims. Some church delegates went directly from one meeting to the other. This one was less focused on interfaith dialogue as such, but did mention in its final statement: “As Muslims and Christians we call for mutual learning through opening up of mosques and churches to visitors from other communities and also to learning through engagement of people. This includes scholarly encounter and academic interaction. We need to get into the spirit of religions, as well as their outer clothing. We pledge ourselves to avoid generalisations about the other.”

“We need to get into the spirit of religions, as well as their outer clothing…” — that’s an interesting way of putting it.

The Christian-Muslim dialogue trains continues to roll. The next stop is the Vatican on November 4 and 5, when about 25 signatories of the Common Word will meet Pope Benedict, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran and other interfaith experts of the Roman Catholic Church.

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