The financial crisis so dominates the news these days that reports on a meeting of the Christian and Muslim religious leaders and scholars pictured here zero in first on what they said about the economy. These men and women of faith would readily admit they look like anything but a group of portfolio managers, but comments on the crisis now get top billing no matter where they come from. We grabbed the crisis angle too, breaking out the economic statement from the final communique yesterday as our first item on this meeting. With that done, let me go back to look at the rest of the news from the latest Common Word dialogue meeting in Cambridge and London on October 12-15.
Probably the most interesting aspect of this meeting was how both sides — 17 Muslims and 19 Christians — worked to understand the other’s faith and find ways to spread that understanding within their communities. For example, in his opening address, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tackled the problem of how to deal with the the two faiths speak differently about God. “While what we say about God is markedly different, irreducibly different in many respects,” he said, “we recognize in each other’s language and practice a similarity in the way we understand the impact of God on human lives, and thus a certain similarity in what we take for granted about the nature or character of God.”
Meeting in Cambridge, they held sessions in the “scriptural reasoning” practiced at the university’s Inter-Faith Programme. In these sessions, Christians, Muslims and Jews read passages from their scriptures together and then explain them to each other. David Ford, an Anglican theologian from Northern Ireland who is director of the Inter-Faith Programme, told me he attended one such session with a British Anglican bishop, a German Jesuit priest, a Muslim sheikh from the Emirates, a Libyan Islamic theologian, a British Methodist theologian and an Iranian ayatollah. “We were all studying together and dealing with important issues,” he said. “Some of the Muslim scholars were doing this for the first time with Christians,” said Aref Ali Nayed, a senior advisor to the Inter-Faith Programme.
Nayed told me the theological issues they discussed included the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the way canons of scripture are established, the question of prophesy, the notion of a convenant with God and various aspects of hermeneutics, or how to analyse scripture. At their last meeting at Yale University in July, both sides explained how they understood concepts like love, compassion and mercy. The question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God was also discussed and that dialogue continues, he said.
If those terms seem overly academic, consider what an agreement could mean down at the level of the average church or mosque. If Muslims understand how Christians understand the Trinity, for example, then imams might not stoke tensions by preaching that Christians are polytheists. By the same token, priests and pastors might not condemn Islam as a false religion if they believed Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God and valued love, compassion and mercy in similar ways.