Christians & Muslims together
Reflections by Barnabas Fund on the Final Declaration of the Yale Common Word Conference, July 2008.
The ‘Common Word’ process is an interfaith dialogue initiated in October 2007 by a letter from 138 Islamic scholars to the Pope (see ET, February 2008, p.1). As a continuation of this process, and following the initial response from a large group of Christian leaders, a conference was held at Yale during 28-31 July 2008 entitled ‘Loving God and neighbour in word and deed: implications for Muslims and Christians’.
It involved more than 60 Muslim delegates, a similar number of Christians (including some prominent Evangelicals), and nine Jewish guests. The conference ended with the publication of a Final Declaration of the Yale Common Word Conference, July 2008. The reflections in this article are a response to this declaration and its attendant documentation.
We fully affirm and support all endeavours to work for peace in this torn world and to alleviate its widespread and shameful poverty. We also affirm the need for respect for all people and the primacy of love in our dealings with others. We accept the sincerity and goodwill of all involved in the process.
However, noting that the Final Declaration received the unanimous support of delegates, and their professed intention not to compromise on essentials, we have reservations about its biblical and theological basis, as well as certain of its underlying assumptions.
The opening address at the conference raised five points, including concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US foreign policy (and the purported influence of ‘Christian fundamentalists’ upon it) – points that seem designed to put Christians on the defensive.
But these are not issues for which Christians may fairly be held responsible, and our supposed guilt in respect of them should not be assumed in Christian-Muslim discussions and declarations.
The opening passage of the declaration includes the Qur’anic commandment to speak to Christians and Jews (Q 3:64) – which sounds harmless enough but is actually a call to them to convert to Islam.
It also includes the ‘ascribe no partner’ phrase, which is a Muslim critique of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus. Muslims consider these doctrines to involve the most grievous sin of shirk (i.e., associating a created being with God) and declare those who hold such beliefs to be infidels (kafirun). It seems that the implications of this verse were not realised by participating Christians or discussed.
The opening address also raised mission as one of the five main factors causing tensions in the world. However, it is unclear whether the imbalance in the Muslim view of Christian mission and Islamic mission (da’wa) was discussed. The former is seen as an aggressive attack on Muslims, but the latter as fully legitimate in all its forms. Indeed, any obstruction of da’wa is considered a legitimate cause for jihad.
The Bible and the Qur’an
The affirmation of the Islamic source texts as ‘sacred texts’ along with the Bible is ambiguous. Many will read it as implying that the Qur’an is a revealed word of God.
The statement that ‘no Muslim or Christian … should tolerate the denigration or desecration of one another’s sacred symbols, founding figures, or places of worship’ requires clarification.
For orthodox Muslims, it is blasphemy to declare that Muhammad is not a prophet or that the Qur’an is not divinely inspired, or to encourage a Muslim to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity and the only way to God. Yet these are all Christian imperatives that we need to affirm constantly.
Taken in isolation from other divine attributes, the unity and absoluteness of God reduces our understanding of God to its lowest common denominator. This accurately expresses the Muslim view but not the biblical and Christian one, which is Trinitarian and teaches divine immanence.
Including Islam in ‘our common Abrahamic heritage’ and in the ‘Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic heritage’ implies raising Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an to the same level as Christianity – suggesting that they too are God-sent, God-given, and God-revealed.
This is a step towards affirming that Muhammad is a prophet and the Qur’an a word of God. But as Christians we declare that the promises of Abraham are fulfilled in Christ (Galatians 3).
The rights of man
We agree with the declaration when it asserts that all people have the right to the preservation of life, religion, property, intellect and dignity. We note, however, that the document does not similarly assert the right of individuals to choose, change and proclaim their religion without fear of sanctions.
We do not feel that the issue of full reciprocity has been effectively addressed. For instance, Muslims in Western states have freedom to propagate their faith and build mosques. The reciprocal freedoms for Christians freely to propagate Christianity and build churches in Muslim lands are severely limited or, as in Saudi Arabia, totally non-existent.
The declaration mentions that freedom of religion was discussed during the conference. But it is unclear whether these discussions included the Islamic law of apostasy, and the persecution of Christians in Muslim states.
Shari’a law imposes discrimination and disabilities on Christians (and other non-Muslims) – including their exclusion from positions of authority over Muslims and limitations on the public expression of their religion.
No message of hope
We suggest that the message of ‘A Common Word’, as elucidated by this conference and the ongoing process – a message which participants have committed themselves to carry back to their churches and communities – is much less than the message of hope that ‘our world is longing for’, and not one that will ‘heal’ and ‘nourish’.
It falls far short of the gospel of Jesus Christ as set forth clearly in the Old and New Testaments as the only hope for this world.
The conference paper on ‘Love and World Poverty’ seems to imply a utopian eschatological vision of ‘a better world’ to be brought into being by Muslims and Christians co-operating to alleviate poverty.
We fully affirm the need to take practical measures to tackle poverty, but the biblical view is that the Kingdom of God rests ultimately on the preaching of the gospel of Christ and the building up of his church.
A clear stand needed
We raise these issues because of our concern for the biblical Christian faith and for the implications of the ‘Common Word’ process – its implications for Christian minorities in Muslim lands, Christian mission in Muslim lands, and converts from Islam to Christianity around the world.
Although we respect and love Muslims, Christians cannot accept Islam as an equal and valid revelation from God. The denial of the deity of Christ and his redemptive work, as well as of the Trinity, will always stand in the way of interfaith dialogue and co-operation.
Just as Muslims cannot accept the Christian denial of Muhammad’s prophethood and the Qur’an’s status as the word of God, so Christians must take a clear stand on the central doctrines of their faith. To do so might result in a loss of popularity and influence, but loyalty and faithfulness to Christ, to his people and to his mission are much more important in God’s eyes.
We strongly affirm the need to address the many pressing issues faced by our world – including social and economic injustice, environmental concerns, and religious intolerance and violence. To this end we encourage the active co-operation of all people of goodwill, of all religions and none.
But the proper basis of such co-operation is our common humanity, not a supposed common theology such as that proposed in the declaration. Furthermore, the source of some of the world’s problems may lie, partly at least, in the religious source texts and their interpretations. This needs to be acknowledged.
In sum, inherent in this process is the danger of downplaying the uniqueness and deity of Christ, the Bible as the word of God, and mission as a Christian imperative. It may also promote Christian acceptance of Islam and other religions as valid and salvific ways to God.
We pray that in our varied globalised and plural world contexts, we as Christians may continue to be faithfully focused on Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour – and not lose heart in bearing witness to God ‘in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
© Barnabas Fund, 2008. Reprinted by kind permission.