Meetings of theologians don’t usually make news. But trends can make news. A series of meetings can start to show some direction the participants’ thinking is going in. If it’s a new direction, and one with potentially positive results, then we journalists on the Godbeat take notice.
The “Common Word” conference now underway at Yale Divinity School in the United States is at the heart of a trend towards increasingly frequent and detailed discussions among Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders. This trend is a reaction to September 11 and other Islamist attacks in Western countries. To our 24/7 news culture, this sounds like a very slow-fused reaction indeed, but changing attitudes and building trust takes time.
Just about every conference participant I’ve spoken to has stressed that work towards greater understanding between Christians and Muslims was now moving ahead on several fronts. “There’s definitely something in the air,” remarked Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian who runs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. As University of Cambridge theologian David Ford put it, “People were almost waiting for an initiative around which they could gather and which generally gave some way forward for Muslim-Christian engagement. Many initiatives were on the Christian side before but this was a Muslim initiative. It’s had the desired effect.”
We’ve blogged a lot here about the Common Word dialogue appeal last October by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders. That appeal prompted Volf and three Yale colleagues to write a welcoming response signed by about 300 theologians and church leaders, mostly Protestants in the United States. It led to a meeting at the Vatican in March that agreed on a conference and meeting with Pope Benedict in November and a regular Catholic-Muslim forum. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams also hosted a meeting of Christian theologians in June to write another response that will be discussed at another Common Word conference at the University of Cambridge in Britain in October.
An interesting twist has been the burst of interfaith activity by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose strict Wahhabi sect of Islam came to be seen as a stumbling block to better relations between Islam and the West after it turned out that 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudis. Abdullah paid a surprise visit to Pope Benedict at the Vatican in November and announced he wanted to promote interfaith understanding. This was initially greeted with scepticism, including on this blog, because it looked like this might be more a PR exercise than a serious initiative. But Abdullah held an interesting meeting in early June of Muslim scholars — Sunnis, Shi’ites and others — to win approval for his project. He then convened a surprising interfaith conference in Madrid this month that brought together Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others.