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A Common Word. A Common Faith?

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Last week I wrote a brief article about apostasy and heresy and concluded with a portion that dealt with the difference between dialog and controversy. I quoted an article written by David Samuel. He dealt with this same subject and said

I think this explains the ease with which many in recent years have been able to enter into dialogue with Roman Catholics and even Muslims and Hindus. It demands a certain detachment from the truth to be able to do that. You are obliged to put a question mark over it, otherwise you are not genuinely engaging in dialogue, which means, at least in principle, you are prepared to change and qualify your beliefs. I think we must be very careful to distinguish between dialogue and controversy. Dialogue carries with it implicitly this assumption, that you will be prepared to modify and change your position, in the light of the debate, if it so requires you. But controversy, in which all the Reformers engaged, is quite a different thing. You start from what you know and believe to be the truth, and your object is to expose the error and confusion of the opponent’s position and, if possible, persuade him of the truth. It was dialogue in which Satan engaged Eve in the garden. She would have been safe if she had insisted on controversy. When men have not a fervent love of the truth and no sense of abhorrence of error they are in the anteroom of apostasy. It is said that the apostle John fled from the public baths, where Cerinthus the heretic appeared, lest they should fall on him. Today some evangelicals would be glad to stay and engage in friendly dialogue.

He is correct that dialogue carries with it the assumption that there is a question mark hovering over my beliefs. It is consistent with a postmodern mindset, in that I acknowledge that though I believe what I believe quite strongly, it might just be all wrong. Certainty is sin. Those who dialogue enter into their dialogue with that attitude and it is no wonder that they are often persuaded that they are indeed wrong. As Christians we have no need, no right, to dialogue about our faith. We are not on equal footing with others when it comes to the fundamental doctrines.

In October of this year 138 Muslim scholars and clerics sent an open letter to Christian leaders and teachers around the world. “A Common Word between Us and You” was their call for these two faiths, which claim billions of adherents from across the globe, to peacefully co-exist. It was a call to base all future interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims to be built upon what these Muslim clerics believe is the common ground between the faiths. “The basis for this peace and understanding already exists,” they say. “It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.” And our common ground should lead to this:

Thus in obedience to the Holy Qur’an, we as Muslims invite Christians to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love.

So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.

Their rationale is based in part on their Scripture and in part on matters perhaps more practical:

Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.

And to those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say that our very eternal souls are all also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.

Four scholars at Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture chose to respond to this with a full-page advertisements in the New York Times (that was published on November 18). They titled this response “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You.” It was endorsed by over 100 Christian theologians, pastors and scholars, among whom were Rick Warren, Brian McLaren, Leith Anderson, Timothy George, Richard Mouw, Robert Schuller and John Stott. It has long been an observation that efforts of this kind create strange bedfellows. This is no exception.

The letter was one of penitence and delight—penitence for wrongs committed by Christians against Muslims, and delight for the efforts of the Islamic scholars to find this common ground between the faiths. Some might even see a tone of pandering. “As members of the worldwide Christian community, we were deeply encouraged and challenged by the recent historic open letter signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars, clerics, and intellectuals from around the world.” These Christian leaders agree with the common ground between these two faiths.

What is so extraordinary about A Common Word Between Us and You is not that its signatories recognize the critical character of the present moment in relations between Muslims and Christians. It is rather a deep insight and courage with which they have identified the common ground between the Muslim and Christian religious communities. What is common between us lies not in something marginal nor in something merely important to each. It lies, rather, in something absolutely central to both: love of God and love of neighbor. Surprisingly for many Christians, your letter considers the dual command of love to be the foundational principle not just of the Christian faith, but of Islam as well. That so much common ground exists—common ground in some of the fundamentals of faith—gives hope that undeniable differences and even the very real external pressures that bear down upon us can not overshadow the common ground upon which we stand together. That this common ground consists in love of God and of neighbor gives hope that deep cooperation between us can be a hallmark of the relations between our two communities.

The letter concludes with further agreement that this common ground ought to be the basis for further interfaith dialogue. It concludes with the promise that these leaders will continue to labor towards the goal set by these Muslim clerics.

“Let this common ground”—the dual common ground of love of God and of neighbor—”be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us,” your courageous letter urges. Indeed, in the generosity with which the letter is written you embody what you call for. We most heartily agree. Abandoning all “hatred and strife,” we must engage in interfaith dialogue as those who seek each other’s good, for the one God unceasingly seeks our good. Indeed, together with you we believe that we need to move beyond “a polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders” and work diligently together to reshape relations between our communities and our nations so that they genuinely reflect our common love for God and for one another.

Given the deep fissures in the relations between Christians and Muslims today, the task before us is daunting. And the stakes are great. The future of the world depends on our ability as Christians and Muslims to live together in peace. If we fail to make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony you correctly remind us that “our eternal souls” are at stake as well.

We are persuaded that our next step should be for our leaders at every level to meet together and begin the earnest work of determining how God would have us fulfill the requirement that we love God and one another. It is with humility and hope that we receive your generous letter, and we commit ourselves to labor together in heart, soul, mind and strength for the objectives you so appropriately propose.

So here is an example of dialogue. This is not controversy such as the controversy carried on by the Reformers during the time of the Reformation. It is not controversy like the controversy generated by Jesus’ Apostles as they took the gospel to the nations following the Lord’s death. Rather, it is dialogue, the likes of which we saw when Evangelicals and Catholics attempted to get Together. It is dialogue that, by all appearances, places Christians and Muslims on equal footing as they attempt to work together to arrive at some kind of agreement. Perhaps most shockingly, the documents takes for granted that the God of Christianity is the god of Islam. Nowhere in this document would one come to believe that the God of the Bible is different than Allah of Islam.

Nowhere in the Bible do I find Jesus telling us to find common ground with other faiths—with people who chase false gods and who are wholly committed to the downfall of the Christian faith. Nowhere do I see the Apostles, as Christ’s representatives, engaging in dialogue or seeking common ground in which to pursue God together. Rather, I see the promise of division and hatred. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, “says Jesus.” “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Robert Munday read the document and the reply and offers six questions, all of which are worth considering. Essentially he asks, “Do the men and women who signed this document really understand what they have signed?” Do they understand that Islam always has been and always will be fundamentally opposed to the foundational beliefs of Christianity? Do these people not realize that Muslims will and must reject the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, the existence of the Trinity, the atoning death and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ?

In a follow-up article Munday says, “There is much that is commendable in interfaith dialogue [He and I would feel differently on this point]. But if it is to have any real significance for Christian believers, those who engage in it must start with what Scripture teaches regarding the essential nature of the Gospel. Many of those who claim to represent Christianity in interfaith dialogue have already succumbed to a relativism that lacks such a foundation. And, increasingly, Christian respondents are so eager to find common ground, in light of the terrors that have occurred and fears regarding the future, that they are taking the course of appeasement in the face of Islam, eager to find “Peace for our time”—peace at any cost. It will not serve Christians well if they underestimate the true distinctiveness of the Gospel. And it will not serve anyone well if we underestimate the challenges that the world faces from the religion known as Islam.”

He touches on something important here. As Christians we have the Bible and within its pages we have the gospel. This is something that is distinctive to Christianity and something that has been given to us by God as a sacred trust. This is where we must begin. We cannot downplay or ignore the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we lose the gospel, we lose everything. There is no need, no call, to dialogue about the gospel. And there is no reason to dialogue with people who have and will and must reject it.

If you are interested, here are the documents (in PDF format): A Common Word and the Christian Reply.

What do you think? Do Christians have any business being engaged in dialogue with Muslims? If so, what would we hope to accomplish? What would our goal be? How can we defend this from the Bible?

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