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Can we talk?

"Can we talk?" Continued...

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

The death commandment occurs in only one of the six standard Hadith collections, where Muhammad prescribes execution for murderers, adulterers, and anyone who "reverts from Islam and leaves the Muslims" (Bukhari 9,83,17). Strict Muslims believe that even one such citation is binding, while moderates require only tenets found in two or more Hadith collections.

Rick Love, international director of Frontiers, which seeks to evangelize Muslims, explained why he endorsed the Christian response. Yes, the Muslims presented a different view of God, he admitted, and in resulting discussions both sides will profess contrasting beliefs. But if Muslim leaders treat love as more central than Christians have supposed and favor religious freedom, he said, Christians should be delighted.

Love believes that "Muslims worship the true God," though this "falls short of his perfections and beauty as described in the Bible." But Litfin wrote in Wheaton's campus newspaper that to say "the Quran's Allah and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ were one and the same" is "more than I am willing to grant."

Litfin, who declined an interview request, said he originally endorsed the Christian response in the interest of peacemaking but withdrew his name after critics prompted a rethinking. However, "I do not criticize others who do not share these qualms."

By coincidence, there's simultaneous debate over whether Britain should grant Muslim immigrants limited recognition of their religious law (Shariah). That proposal did not come from Muslim agitators but a speech and radio interview by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the Church of England and the world's 80 million Anglicans.

Like the pope, Williams is a onetime university professor who apparently forgot the difference between campus theorizing and the discretion expected of ranking churchmen. In the ensuing fury, some church delegates and numerous bloggers said Williams should resign, though that is unlikely.

A great debate

Christian thinkers Patrick Sookhdeo and Miroslav Volf face off on the response to A Common Word's call to Muslim-Christian dialogue

By Patrick Sookhdeo and Miroslav Volf

Sookhedo: Justin Sutcliffe | Volf: Craig Litten/Small Planet Photography

Patrick Sookhdeo is the international director of Barnabas Fund, a guest lecturer at the NATO school, adjunct professor at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies, and a cultural adviser to military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a native of Guyana.

In February, Wheaton College President Duane Litfin and two colleagues requested that their names be removed as signatories of the "Christian response" drafted by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture last October in response to the Muslim clerics' letter, "A Common Word Between Us and You."

Concerns about theology and what is being "put on the line" in the Yale Center response have caused serious reconsideration and an increasing debate among evangelical leaders since the Yale Center published its response on Nov. 13, 2007.

Litfin focuses his primary concern on the conflation of Muslim and Christian theology into something "encouraging that basic premise of civil religion, i.e., that we are all worshiping the same God." This premise of whether or not Christianity and Islam are to be understood as Abrahamic faiths revealed by the God of the Bible is indeed crucial. The Yale Center's "Christian response" takes pains not to address the question.

The Founding Director of Yale's Center for Faith and Culture, Dr. Miroslav Volf, did address the matter on the April 2, 2004, episode of the PBS television program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly: "[The] Christian God is different, is different than the Muslim God, but it's not other than the Muslim God. I do believe that Muslims and Christians and Jews pray to the same God. And yet they understand who God is in significantly different ways."

But what "significantly different ways" of understanding God aren't described in the Yale Center statement, and they are left unaddressed in the newer FAQ document which means to clarify key issues and to respond to concerns, such as those detailed by Litfin, John Piper, Albert Mohler, myself, and others in the West who are able to speak freely about the more difficult matters of Muslim and Christian relations.

The Yale Center response is silent about Christian and Muslim relations, other than its "acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the 'war on terror') many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors." It makes no mention of the systematic persecution and abuse experienced by Christians and other minorities (under Islamic law and at the hands of Muslims) nor does it encourage Muslims to first begin their dialogue and efforts at loving their neighbor toward those Christian minorities living in their own societies.

In the months subsequent to the Yale Center letter, church leaders and Christians across the Muslim-majority world have conveyed their bitter disappointment, concern, and sense of betrayal over the Yale Center response to the church in the West. One church leader in a largely Muslim country told me, "Now armed with apologies of Christian leaders of crusade (sic), our pressure has increased. . . . We have now been lumped with all the West is doing. . . . What we now have is Western Christians leading in apology implicating many others. . . . This situation plays perfectly into their hands to put us on that guilt trail that we cannot offer Christ for who He is to them."

If Western evangelicals, and especially the signees of the Yale letter, aren't having these conversations, they must have noticed the recent news reports in the English and Arabic press about the expulsion of more than two dozen expatriate Christian families and individuals from Jordan, or the eight more Christian workers arrested there last week. This action comes from a government pursuing "dialogue" with Western Christians through the "Common Word" letter of its Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.

Is there a Christian response?

See more from Sookhdeo at barnabasfund.org/news/archives/article.php?ID_news_items=381

Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology. He is a native of Croatia.

Gratified and puzzled, pleased and disappointed-these words express how I feel about the varied reactions to the Yale Response to A Common Word.

Why gratified and pleased? Because the Yale Response has generated a booming, positive echo in many Christian circles, including deeply conservative clergy and senior missions leaders. Some of the most prominent evangelical leaders are its signatories. Their endorsement is a sign that, without giving up their fundamental convictions, Christians and Muslims can overcome deep suspicions and burning animosities. A ray of light from influential places has penetrated the darkness of tense relations between the two most numerous religious groups in the world. In A Common Word, a group representative of most influential Muslim leaders worldwide has subscribed to Jesus' summary of the Law and the Prophets: God is one, and we must love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). Even more, they affirmed that this dual command of love belongs to the heart of Islam. Along with the drafters of the Yale Response, many Christians found these affirmations reason to celebrate. Who wouldn't?

Well, some influential evangelical leaders have complained bitterly not only about A Common Word but especially about the Yale Response. That's what puzzles and disappoints me. Here are just three complaints about the latter and my reasons for thinking they either rest on a misunderstanding or are mistaken.

(For others see yale.edu/faith/abou-commonword-faq.htm.)

• The Yale Response gives up key Christian convictions, such as that God is triune.

It doesn't. A Common Word didn't contest the doctrine of the Trinity, and it was an attempt to find common ground. Therefore the Yale Response didn't explicitly affirm the doctrine. But it is clearly implied in the statement that God is love-not just that God loves human beings but that God's very being is love (1 John 4:8). For if God weren't the Holy Trinity, God couldn't be love before creating the world as the object of God's love.

• The Yale Response apologizes for Christians' violating Muslims in the course of the Crusades but doesn't ask Muslims to apologize to Christians.

The objection assumes an un-Christian understanding of apology. When Christians apologize, we're not striking a deal-I'll apologize if you apologize-just as we're not striking a deal when we forgive. We apologize because we've wronged someone-irrespective of whether or not the person we've wronged has wronged us or apologized to us.

• The Yale Response hasn't taken up the cause of Christians persecuted in some Muslim countries.

A Common Word states twice that love of neighbor demands respect for religious freedom. The Yale Response insists: "When freedom to worship God according to one's conscience is curtailed, God is dishonored, neighbor is oppressed, and neither God nor neighbor is loved." This statement issues a mandate to all to take up the cause of religious freedom, including that of Christians in Muslim countries.

The Yale Response couldn't address all issues in relation between Muslims and Christians. It's a first word in a long conversation about all issues of concern. And it's a word primarily about the topic at hand: love of God and of neighbor. In this regard, the Yale Response highlights what is absolutely essential to the Christian faith: God loves even the unlovable, and so should we.

As a 20-year-old, I came from Yugoslavia to the United States to study at Fuller Theological Seminary. Some among the student body were suspicious of me, coming as I did from a communist country. They were scandalized that I didn't speak with animosity about the "godless communists." They doubted the sincerity of my faith. When I reminded them that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44), they acted as if I were quoting from the Communist Manifesto. Even when told that I was discriminated against, beaten, and jailed on account of my Christian faith, their suspicions remained. Why, I wondered? Did they fear communists more than they loved God, who loves all people (John 3:16)? Don't they blatantly disobey Christ and despise His example of love for the ungodly (Luke 23:34; Romans 4:5) just to protect "Christian civilization"? Was nation their god, and the Father of Jesus Christ its servant? Reading some of the reactions to the Yale Response, it is hard for me to avoid asking the same questions.

If our lives were aligned with God's, would we not love-truly love-our Muslim neighbors, including our Muslim enemies? Anything less than that is sub-Christian.

Richard N. Ostling
Richard N. Ostling

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