Christians, Muslims walk thin line between peace and conflict

Published 31 July 2008  |  Katherine T Phan, Christian Post
Christian and Muslim scholars meeting at Yale University for a discussion on peace and reconciliation this week forewarned that a clash of "global proportions" would inevitably unravel in the near future unless Christianity and Islam learn how to co-exist.

"Why have you come here?" asked Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Divinity School's Center for Faith and Culture, in opening remarks at the "Common Word" conference Tuesday. "Because, as I do, you see [a] heavy and dangerous storm of Muslim-Christian tensions menacing the world in which we live."

According to Volf, the motto of the Yale conference, "Loving God and Neighbour in Word and Deed" is simple: "What bounds Christians and Muslims together is their common belief in the oneness of God and the commitment to love God and to love neighbour."

He said that although relations between Christians and Muslims have been at a low point since the Crusades, he saw the "Common Word Between Us and You" document among the "rays of sun" penetrating the dark storm. The letter, signed by 138 Muslim clerics in October, called on the two faith communities to move past "polite ecumenical dialogue" and toward more sincere discussions on peace.

Volf, who helped pen the Christian response to the Muslim letter, said that over 500 Christian leaders had endorsed the Christian statement because they too "sensed a danger of global proportions if the peace between Muslim and Christians did not win over".

While Volf did not mention how that danger might materialise in today's context, Prince Ghazi bin Muhummad of Jordan, who played a leading role in writing the Muslim letter, was more explicit in his foreboding address to the 150 high-profile Christian and Muslim leaders on Tuesday.

Prince Ghazi discredited one part of Samuel Huntington's 1993 vision by stating that post-9/11 governments of Islamic majority countries have not banded together against government of Christian majority countries. He said, however, that Huntington was correct in predicting that tensions between Christians and Muslims would heighten on a global level after the collapse of atheistic communism.

On that note, he boldly compared the hostility between Christian/Western societies and Muslims to the prejudices held by Rwanda's Hutu and Tutsi tribes before the 1994 genocide.

He said that such a predicament is "more likely" to happen when catastrophes such as global climate change strike and competition for food and other natural resources become more fierce.

On Monday, Senator John Kerry had appropriately summed up the lesson of the conference: "We must love one another or die."

The four-day conference, which concludes on Thursday, is the first inter-faith event to have spawned from the "Common Word" exchange. As part of its Reconciliation programme, the YCFC has scheduled four other conferences that will each take the peace initiative one step further. Those events will take place in October at Cambridge University, November at the Vatican, March 2009 at Georgetown University, and October 2009 at Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute in Jordan.

While inter-faith dialogue is nothing new, organisers and participants attending this week's conference were very optimistic of the implications that the "Common Word" dialogue would have on Christian-Muslim relations. Many speakers referred to the event as having the potential to be "historic" or "watershed".

Speakers on Tuesday also dedicated part of their addresses to respond to their critics.

Volf challenged the argument that religion would only fuel conflict rather than resolve it. He said he believes the world is becoming a "more religious" place and that in order for there to be peace among people, religion must be taken seriously.

"The deeper your faith is - and by deeper I mean more intelligent, more informed - the more in harmony with others you will be," he argued. "A deep faith does not lead to clashes."

Prince Ghazi characterised the "Common Word" letter as "an extended global handshake" or religious goodwill, friendship and inter-religious peace. He said it was not intended to "trick Christians or force Muslim theology on them or even to convert them to Islam".

"Neither was it intended," he added, "to reduce both our religions to an artificial union based on the two commandments."

A few of the main concerns raised by Christian theologians - including R Albert Mohler Jr, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and John Piper, pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church - in their criticism of the Christian response letter were also addressed on Tuesday, during the first conference panel.

Earlier in the year, Mohler expressed his concerns that claims in the Christian letter did not "clearly define the Christian understanding of God as the Trinity". He also said he could not see why the letter had apologised for the Crusades, noting that he was "very thankful that the Muslim effort to reach a conquest of Europe was unsuccessful".

Piper also argued that what was missing from the Christian document was "a clear statement about what Christianity really is and how we can come together to talk with Muslims from our unique, distinctive, biblical standpoint". He further rejected the letter's emphasis on the common ground of the love of God, arguing that the love of God for Christians is starkly different from that of Islam.

But speaking on the topic "God is Loving", Christian panellists asserted their beliefs in the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God as necessary in understanding God as love.

"The centrality of love in Christian revelation ... stems directly from the startling fact that the revelation of God is in Christ," said the Rev David Burrell, Hesburgh Professor of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

"So the telling similarity-come-difference of Islam and Christianity can be displayed in the parallel formulae: Christians believe that Jesus is the word of God made human while Muslims believe the Qu'ran to be the word of God made book."

Volf read from 1 John 4: 7-12, emphasising that Christians believe "God is love" as the basic claim and "God is loving" as the secondary claim.

God's love is not reactive, explained Volf, but originary. He went on to say that creation is the result of the already existing love of God.

He also affirmed that Christian belief in God's love cannot be understood apart from a Triune God: "God is the source; God is the word; God is the breath" or "God is the Father, God is the Son and God is the Holy Spirit.

"That is important for us as Christians because when we say that God is love, God can be love, self-giving love, only if God is internally self-differentiated. Because otherwise God would end up being the one who loves simply himself."

Other notable evangelicals participating in the panels included Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Tunnicliffe spoke on the subject of "Love and World Poverty" on Wednesday and is scheduled to deliver closing remarks on Thursday.

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