A common word?
Last October the issue of interfaith dialogue was thrust into the limelight by a letter from 138 Islamic scholars addressed to the pope and other church leaders. At a time of heightened international anxiety over Islamic terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the growth of militant religious fundamentalism, it seemed that moderate Islamic scholars wanted to talk. A door was opening.
The letter was headed, ‘A common word between us and you’, and subtitled, ‘An open letter and call from Muslim religious leaders’. Dated 13 October 2007 and widely publicised, the letter was signed by some of Islam’s most influential scholars and called on Christians and Muslims to work together for world peace.
The tone was conciliatory: ‘If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace’, they declared. The letter proceeded to outline areas of perceived theological agreement, such as the unity of God in Islam and Christianity, the necessity of love for God in both religions, and the need to love our neighbour.
A Christian response
The letter called for a response and some church leaders and Christian groups have welcomed the Muslim approach as constructive and helpful. For example, a formal invitation has been extended by the pope to the 138 scholars to meet him at the Vatican for further discussion.
Again, over three hundred predominantly American theologians, authors and pastors — including some considered to be Evangelicals — have pronounced themselves deeply encouraged and challenged by the letter.
In a full page advert in the New York Times these ‘Christian leaders’ pledged themselves to undertake a series of major joint conferences and workshops involving the letter’s signatories and other members of the international Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities.
What are Evangelicals to make of this approach and what is our position on the broader issue of interfaith dialogue — especially when the possibility of world peace is offered as a prize?
If we stand aloof, are we in danger of ignoring an opportunity for peace, polarising attitudes and aggravating an already tense situation? If Islamic moderates are asking for help — perhaps seeking to marginalise Muslim extremists — ought we not to listen?
A genuine request?
First, we have to decide whether the open letter represents a genuine desire for dialogue leading to greater interfaith understanding. There is good reason to doubt this. Patrick Sookhdeo, a Muslim convert and experienced commentator on Islamic faith and practice, argues compellingly that the letter is simply part of an ongoing effort to Islamise the Christian world — while at the same time denigrating the Jewish and Old Testament roots of Christianity.
In his helpful article1 Patrick Sookhdeo concludes: ‘The message is that if Christians will accept Islam’s concept of the unity of God (thus denying the basic doctrines of the Trinity and deity of Christ), Muslims will accept the Christian values of love for God and neighbour as central to Islam. Thus a radical revolutionary change in Christianity is demanded in exchange for a superficial change of emphasis in Islamic perceptions’.
Basically, the letter demands Christian subordination to Islamic doctrine, offering peaceful co-existence between the religions in return. It is the logic of conquest and subjection.
What of interfaith dialogue?
But even assuming that the open letter is a genuine request for dialogue, and offers a route to greater interfaith understanding and mutual respect, should we, as Evangelicals, be involved? The answer is no.
This is not because we refuse to speak to the followers of other faiths. As those who proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, we see an obvious need to speak to all men everywhere about God, sin and salvation.
Nor is it because we are sceptical about what such dialogue might achieve in practical terms. We are well aware that by compromise and concession men can negotiate a solution to almost any situation if the need or desire is great enough.
Rather, the answer is no because, as Evangelicals, we believe that true unity and genuine peace in this world can never be found in agreements made by men, no matter how carefully devised they may be.
Peace with God is the only lasting basis for peace on earth — and such peace can be found only in Jesus Christ. The uniqueness of God’s way of salvation by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the essence of the Christian faith. It is non-negotiable.
Efforts to find common ground among different religions may sound attractive, especially if they offer peaceful co-existence, but such endeavours are superficial and self-defeating. The Islamic Allah is not the Triune God of the Bible and no amount of massaging can change this fact.
The Prophet Muhammad is not another Messiah like the God-man, Jesus Christ, and no true Christian could ever accept such a view. To seek to submerge our differences with Islam in an outward show of ‘unity’ is a hazardous undertaking. ‘Differences’ are vital because they differentiate between truth and error. No amount of discussion or accommodation can make true what is false.
There are, of course, genuine questions, even amongst Evangelicals, as to the value of Christians making common cause with those of other faiths. Christians active in humanitarian organisations sometimes find themselves working alongside such people to bring aid to those in need. Sometimes the only way to enter a particular country is by working together with those of other faiths.
Again, Christians campaigning for moral reforms may find supporters among the devout followers of other religions.
We believe the principle here is that such co-operation as is necessary and useful to the end of serving Christ cannot be wrong. How else can we obey his command to love our neighbour (and even our enemy) as we love ourselves?
But such activities must be distinguished from any that dilute the distinctiveness of the Christian faith or compromises our belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as God’s way of salvation.
Christians are in the world but not of the world. While we must let our light shine in the world for the glory of God (Matthew 5:16), we cannot glorify God if we compromise his truth as it is in Christ Jesus — even in pursuit of seemingly noble earthly ends.
True peace on earth is more than an absence of violence and can only be experienced personally if Jesus Christ reigns in a person’s heart. It will only be experienced ultimately when Christ comes in power to gather his church and establish his kingdom in the new heavens and the new earth.
Until then, Christians are called to contend faithfully and earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. At the very least that means we must stand apart from all attempts to mix truth with error in seeking humanitarian ends.