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?