Why I Signed the Yale Response to "A Common Word"

Over the last few weeks, various Christians have contacted me because they are troubled over encountering my name amidst dozens of other signatories listed in a recent New York Times advertisement as supporting a public statement of support for a recent document from moderate Muslims, “A Common Word between Us and You.” (I’m glad to say that others have contacted me to express their appreciation that I did sign it.) The statement of support, entitled “Loving God and Neighbour Together,” was drafted by several professors at Yale Divinity School, including my friend Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology.

(For all of the relevant documents, see the pertinent press releases and links here.)

It was Miroslav who e-mailed me to ask if I’d like to sign the statement for the NYT publication. I read the original Muslim statement and the Yale response, and didn’t sign right away. I was concerned that differences between the faiths, particularly about the divinity of Christ and God’s triune nature, were not as clearly set out in either statement as I would have preferred. Had I drafted the statement myself, I would have made changes elsewhere as well.

But I wasn’t being asked to help draft it. The thing was done, and the question now was a simple, binary one: Sign or not?

I relayed some of my concerns to Miroslav, and he sensibly replied that the differences were indeed acknowledged on both sides. The emphasis of the documents, however, was commonality of belief as a basis for mutual respect and joint action for justice and peace. The documents therefore were truly political, meant to get good things done within the constraints of the important differences remaining between the parties.

As an instructor in world religions (which I have taught now for more than a dozen years), I am aware, of course, of how deep and how many are the differences between Islam and Christianity. As a Christian theologian, I am jealous of Christian doctrine and want it to be as clear and robust and compelling as it should be. And as a Christian of traditional conviction, I want everyone to come to saving faith in Jesus Christ, including all of the Muslims of the world.

I can see how some would fear this dialogue as blurring lines between the faiths in one or more of the previous respects. But I don’t think the dialogue has to be read this way. Nor do other signatories of the Yale response, such as Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, or Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, or David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, or John Stott, dean of evangelical Bible teachers.

Instead, we all hope that in a world that is riven and roiled by people who relentlessly emphasize and ruthlessly capitalize on our differences in order to pursue their own political (or ministry!) goals, some of us can get some good things done politically–such as finding ways to stop killing each other and to stop inciting such killing.

Declaring that we are not totally different, and therefore not totally alien, and therefore not totally unsympathetic, is a way forward in this respect. Even better, emphasizing that our traditions both share some moral imperatives from God to restrain our violence of speech and act, is a way even further forward.

These documents, therefore, ought not be interpreted as relativistic, or pusillanimous, or sneaky, or capitulative. Everyone who signed either document knows that he or she risks being misunderstood and condemned as a heretic or apostate by intemperate and simplistic conservatives in their respective tradition. We also recognize that certain liberal members of our religions will be quick to paper over the real differences that these documents acknowledge.

All we can do, then, is try to explain what we’re doing, and why. And the challenge remains for those who don’t like it: What are you doing instead, and better, to make shalom in this world God loves, which includes both Christians and Muslims he loves?

0 Responses to “Why I Signed the Yale Response to "A Common Word"”

  1. ericdarylmeyer

    Amen, and Amen…

    Thank you for putting your name to the response. I was very glad when I first saw the document (and was one of the first fifty or so people to sign it). I was equally glad to see my Bishop, Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pen a warm response.

    The original document, as I read it, is not aimed at some ecumenical merger of faiths. It is simply a statement that when Christians and Muslims are busy hating and killing one another, NO ONE, is living up to their respective traditions. To acknowledge that we ought to be able to have a conversation with one another is a far cry from pretending that our visions of God, humanity, and the rest of the planet are of one accord.

    Thank you, Prof. Stackhouse for signing the statement, and thank you for recognizing that a political gesture of friendship (which does not entail theological capitulation!) is one important way of loving our neighbors. After all, there is no room for proclamation amidst guns and bombs… and no one left to listen.

    In hope that we’ll find Jesus in Bethlehem again today,
    Eric Meyer

  2. Chad Hillier

    John, I missed your name among the signatories but commend you on your doing so. It’s important that leading evangelical voices show that dialogue is not a scary thing.

    Cheers,
    Chad

  3. John Stackhouse

    Brother Aaron,

    Just for the record, “Allah” is exactly “God”–in Arabic. (Check any Arabic translation of the Bible.) “Yahweh” = “Jehovah” or “the LORD” in English Bibles.

  4. Brian

    I think the problem is the notion that samness or nearness to same is a key constituent in saneness. To be peaceable and respectful does not require any level of agreement or commonality other than to peaceableness and respectfulness. Brother Aaron got it right on the substance, and you got it right on the definition divorced from meaning.

  5. Lee Collier

    I would urge anyone who is interested in this debate to read the document on this page: http://www.pilcrowpress.com/response.php which is a detailed analysis of the original document by two former Muslims.

    Particularly it explains that the Qur’an verse fragment “…that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto
    Him…” which is referenced several times is actually part of the Islamic doctrine of a unitarian god, i.e. the “partner unto Him” is Jesus. In other words, this verse is a core doctrine denying the deity of Christ, which is something we should never agree to as Christians. This is very different to the Old Testament verse “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is
    One…” which allows for a Trinitarian but “One” God.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Brother Collier,

    There’s not much question in my mind that the standard interpretation of that verse is as you say. But clearly this Yale dialogue took the position that, once you have defined the true God (and Christians define God as triune), then one must describe no (other) partner to him.

    No one at the dialogue I attended expected Christians to agree in anti-Trinitarian Muslim convictions! So we Christians haven’t agreed to abandon the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian Definition by signing what we did–let me assure you.

    Whether the Muslims are mis-interpreting their own Scriptures or creatively re-interpreting them is at least mostly their business. And it’s an interesting business to observe, no?

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