Last month, 138 Muslim scholars addressed an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders in which they call for a new dialogue between Christianity and Islam based on sacred texts.
Entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” the document claims that the shared Muslim and Christian principles of love of the One God and love of the neighbor provide the sort of common ground between the two faiths that is necessary for respect, tolerance and mutual understanding.
The publication of this letter coincided with the anniversary of a previous open letter in response to the pope’s controversial Regensburg address on Sept. 12, 2006, when he appeared to link violence in religion to the absolute transcendence of God in Islam. His point was that according to Muslim teaching, God’s will is utterly inscrutable and therefore unknowable to human reason – with the implication that divine injunctions cannot be fully understood and must be blindly obeyed.
Against this background, the latest initiative by Muslim scholars marks an attempt to move interfaith dialogue away from debates about reason and revelation towards scriptural reading. Christian-Muslim relations, so their argument goes, are best served by engaging in textual interpretations that highlight shared commandments and common beliefs.
But to suggest, as the authors of “A Common Word” do, that Muslims and Christians are united by the same two commandments which are most essential to their respective faith and practice – love of God and love of the neighbor – is theologically dubious and politically dangerous.
Theologically, this glosses over elementary differences between the Christian God and the Muslim God. The Christian God is a relational and incarnate God. Moreover, the New Testament and early Christian writings speak of God as a single Godhead with three equally divine persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is not merely a doctrinal point, but one that has significant political and social implications. The equality of the three divine persons is the basis for equality among mankind – each and everyone is created in the image and likeness of the triune God.
As a result, Christianity calls for a radically egalitarian society beyond any divisions of race or class. The promise of universal equality and justice that is encapsulated in this conception of God thus provides Christians with a way to question and transform not only the norms of the prevailing political order but also the (frequently perverted) social practices of the Church.
By contrast, the Muslim God is disembodied and absolutely one: there is no god but God, He has no associate. This God is revealed exclusively to Muhammed, the messenger (or prophet), via the archangel Gabriel. As such, the Koran is the literal word of God and the final divine revelation first announced to the Hebrews and later to the Christians.
Again, this account of God has important consequences for politics and social relations. Islam does not simply posit absolute divisions between those who submit to its central creed and those who deny it; it also contains divine injunctions against apostates and unbelievers (though protecting the Jewish and Christian faithful).
Moreover, Islam’s radical monotheism tends to fuse the religious and the political sphere: It privileges absolute unitary authority over intermediary institutions and also puts a premium on territorial conquest and control, under the direct rule of God.
These (and other) differences imply that Christians and Muslims do not worship or believe in the same God; in consequence, across the two faiths, love of God and love of the neighbor invariably differ.
By ignoring these fundamental divergences, the authors of the open letter perpetuate myths about Christians and Muslims praying differently to the same God. Worse, they exhibit a simplistic theology of absolute, unmediated monotheism.
In this way, they unwittingly play into the hands of religious extremists on both sides who claim to have immediate, total and conclusive knowledge of divine will by faith alone.
The problem with all textual interpretations is that they are, by definition, particular and partly subjective. Without universal concepts and objective standards such as rationality, scholars differ from extremists merely in terms of their honorable intentions.
So the political danger of focusing Christian-Muslim dialogue on textual reading is that it neglects each faith’s theological specificities and the social implications; as such, this approach undermines the mutual understanding which it purports to offer but fails to deliver.
Christian and Muslims can no longer eschew the fundamental differences that distinguish their religions. The best hope for genuine peace and tolerance between Christianity and Islam is to have a proper theological engagement about the essence of God and the nature of peace and justice.
Otherwise, interfaith dialogue will amount to little more than the polite platitudes of politicians and diplomats. In the name of the shared commitment to truth and wisdom, Christians and Muslims should have robust debates that are theologically informed and politically frank.
Of course, this does not preclude pragmatic cooperation between the faiths on issues of common concern such as aggressive secularism, militant atheism and, most importantly, violence in religion.
But the fundamentalists on both sides will only be intellectually defeated and politically marginalized by reasoned belief and rational argument – not by subjective textual interpretation.
Adrian Pabst teaches religion and politics at the University of Nottingham and is a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies.