For Christian and Muslim scholars meeting at Yale University this week, though, there has to be a starting point. An examination of love is their starting point.
Their formula is simple: Both Christianity and Islam believe in one God, and their followers are supposed to be committed to loving the one God and loving their neighbors as themselves. If Christians and Muslims can accept that they share these fundamental goals, tensions are bound to relax.
That’s the premise, anyway.
“Why have you come here?” Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, asked an assembly yesterday of some 150 Muslim and Christian scholars, many of them high-profile figures in their home countries. “Because, as I do, you see a heavy and dangerous storm of Muslim-Christian tensions menacing the world in which we live.”
Volf acknowledged that skeptics will question whether a focus on love, which some may call a “soft and nebulous emotion,” should take precedence over grappling with politics and regional conflicts. But progress toward understanding cannot be made without facing the importance of faith in people’s lives, even in this supposedly secular age, Volf said.
“The deeper your faith is – more intelligent, more informed – the more in harmony with others you will be,” he said. “A deep faith does not lead to clashes.”
The genesis of the gathering was Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s criticisms of Islam. In response, a group of 138 Muslim scholars signed an open letter to Christendom last year calling for a new era of understanding between the two world faiths. The letter, awkwardly titled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” focused on the Abrahamic traditions of loving God and loving the neighbor.
Although the document received little media attention, many Christian communities have responded with enthusiasm. The Vatican started a new dialogue with Muslims leaders who signed the letter. And a statement from several scholars at Yale – eventually signed by hundreds of Christian leaders – began the path to this week’s conference. Over the next year, similar gatherings will be held at Cambridge University, the Vatican and Georgetown University and in Jordan.
Yale President Richard Levin said he hoped he was witnessing a “conversation that will change the world.”
A leading figure in the writing of the Muslim letter and the organizing of the Yale conference was Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, a Jordanian prince and special envoy to King Abdullah. He told the gathering yesterday that the mutual demonizing between Muslims and Christians may well lead to additional wars and genocides, especially as “competition for food and natural resources becomes more fierce.”
He said that the drafting of the Muslim letter was done neither to convert Christians nor to capitulate to them.
“It was simply an attempt to find a theologically correct, pre-existing common ground between Islam and Christianity, rooted in their sacred books,” he said.
As if to demonstrate Islamic seriousness about pursuing peace, Prince Ghazi introduced many Muslim scholars in the audience, who came from Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Bosnia, Kosovo, Indonesia, Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and numerous other countries. He referred to them as brilliant scholars, as heroes, as seekers of peace.
He also cited Ingrid Mattson, a professor at Hartford Seminary and the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America, as “a modern role model for the entire Islamic world.”
Prince Ghazi said that Muslim leaders reached out to the Christian world because of its size and influence, but that other religions are welcome to join the dialogue. Several Jewish leaders are observing the conference at Yale, and Rabbi Douglas Krantz of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk is expected to take part in a closing panel tomorrow.
“These are people who have differences – and they’re talking,” Krantz said yesterday. “That is significant. And everyone is not necessarily agreeing on everything.”
The participants, Krantz said, were showing great civility and respect for one another.
“We all had lunch together today and nobody used their knives – except to eat a meal,” he said, smiling. “These are not trivial matters.”
Toward the end of the day, the Palestinian chief justice, Shaykh Tayseer Rajab Al-Tamimi, made one of the day’s few overtly political statements when he accused Israeli rabbis of giving religious approval to violence against Palestinians. He called Jerusalem the “scene of the most horrible genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
He criticized those who use religion to “achieve their own interests, political interests or expansionist interests.”
No one in the audience commented on Al-Tamimi’s statement.
Earlier, in the keynote address, the grand mufti of Bosnia, Shaykh Mustafa Ceric´, talked about the pride he takes in the fact that Bosnia Muslims did not seek revenge against Serbs after suffering greatly during the Balkan violence of the 1990s.
The two lessons he’s learned, he said, is that “the law is not in the book, the law is in the heart” and that “tolerance is a sign of strength, intolerance a sign of weakness.”
Much of the day was spent talking about love – examining God “as love” and exploring what it means to love God and to love one’s neighbor. The discussions got pretty academic, with interpreters struggling to keep English and Arabic speakers on the same trains of thought.
“Love, in Islam, means to follow one of the saints of God, one of the prophets of God,” said Ayatollah Seyyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad, a moderate Iranian scholar in Islamic law. “The relationship between man and God is stronger than the relationship between father and son.”
Prince Ghazi drew one of the only hearty laughs of the day from the rather serious crowd when he talked about opening the new dialogue to other faiths, including Buddhism. He mentioned a conversation with the Dalai Lama.
“I would like to say this: He is a lot nicer than you Christians,” the prince said.