The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, where he co-teaches a course on faith and globalization with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A native of Croatia and member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., he has been involved in international ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, most recently in Christian-Muslim dialogue.
By Miroslav Volf
I am tempted to say that in Cairo President Obama delivered an historic speech on relations between “the United States and Muslims around the world.” Speeches aren’t historic when they are delivered, however; they become historic after they’ve shaped history. What is certain even now, mere few hours after the speech, is that it was brilliant — visionary and practical, deeply human and political, moral and pragmatic, all at the same time. These wise words, beautifully crafted and compellingly delivered, have the potential of becoming seeds from which a new future will sprout and flourish.
The perspective that pervades the whole speech was signaled when the President recognized his own Christian faith, while at the same time noting that his father came from a family that includes generations of Muslims. Thus, in his own biography, the President embodies what his speech was ultimately about: relations between the United States and Muslims around the world should not be defined simply by “our differences” but by “overlaps” and “common principles” as well. This point is crucial. In encounter with others, if we see only differences, the result is exclusion; if we see only commonalities, the result is distortion. Only when we see both-undeniable differences that give others a peculiar character and commonalities that bind us together-are we able to honor both others and ourselves.
Especially since September 11th, many in the West deny that there are commonalities between Christianity and Islam or between Western Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilizations. They see only differences, envisioning the West as bathed in soft welcoming light and Islam enveloped in forbidding darkness. Photo: Professor Miroslav Volf at Yale, 25 July 2008/Tom Heneghan)
It is then no surprise that they speak of clashes: Yahweh vs. Allah, reason vs. violence, human rights vs. tyranny, religious freedom vs. persecution. Now, the differences are undeniable, and we can certainly point to cases in which they take the form of immoral practices. Yet a denial of commonalities is born out of fear, and rests not on truth but on distortion. And with distortions it is as with violence: as the President said, engaging in them is “not how moral authority is claimed, [but] how it is surrendered.” While we must honor differences and decry abuses of rights when they occur; in order to be truthful, we must affirm commonalities and, where appropriate, praise the virtues of others.