A Common Word For Christians, Muslims

A dark and dangerous storm of Christian-Muslim tensions is menacing the world in which we live. Not since the days of the Crusades have the relations between these two faiths, which comprise more than half of humanity, been worse. Tensions, deep conflicts, and often murderous violence between our two communities are leaving a trail of blood and tears as well as a mounting deposit of painful memories. They also undermine the hopes and efforts of many to live in peace, flourishing as individuals and as communities.

But a new wind of hope is beginning to blow and rays of sunlight are penetrating the stormy darkness around us. “A Common Word Between Us and You” –likely the most important interfaith document to appear in the past 40 years or so–is one such ray, shining through the barely parting clouds. The thesis of this Muslim letter, endorsed by some of the most prominent Muslim leaders worldwide and addressed to Christian leaders across the globe, is as simple as it is profound: What binds Muslims and Christians together is their common belief in the Oneness of God and the commandments to love God and love neighbor. And this same belief and the same commitment, of course, bind Christians and Muslims to their older sibling, the original Abrahamic faith, Judaism.

But can one bring about a shift from what feels like a clash of civilizations to conviviality of faith traditions by promoting what some people may deem as an esoteric feeling of human devotion to God and the soft and nebulous emotion of love? Should we not be grappling with the hard realities of life? If religion has anything to do with conflicts between Christians and Muslims, a critic may suggest, it is as their source and not as a means to overcome them. Less religion is what we need, not more.

Consider, however, the undiminished vibrancy of religion in the contemporary world. To the surprise of many, notably those who believe that religion will gradually retreat before the light of reason and the wonders of technological development, the world today is becoming more religious rather than less so. The data clearly shows that the world is not progressively secularizing; to the contrary, it is de-secularizing, and the trend is likely to continue in foreseeable future.

Religious faiths, notably Christianity and Islam, are reasserting themselves in two important senses. First, the number of their adherents in the world is growing in absolute and relative terms as compared to non-religious world-views. Second, religious people increasingly don’t consider their faith to be simply a private affair but rather a significant shaper of their public engagements. What are the consequences? Negatively, if religion matters, no peace between religious people will be achieved by pretending that it is merely a veil hiding the real economic or political interests; positively, if religion matters, we have to find resources for conviviality of religious people within each faith tradition itself.

This is where the significance of the Common Word comes in. First, it points both Muslims and Christians to what is undeniably essential in each faith and common to both–love of God and love of neighbor. Second, it shows how that which is essential in each faith and common to both has the power to bind the two together because it demands that they seek the good of others, and not just their own. If this is true then we no longer have to say, “The deeper your faith is, the more at odds with others you will be!” (provided, of course, that “deep faith” means not just “strong faith,” but “intelligent and informed faith”). To the contrary, we must say: “The deeper your faith is, the more in harmony with others you will live!” A deep faith no longer leads to clashes; a deep faith fosters peace.

On the basis of a Common Word, we can both embrace deep faith and respect the rights of those who do not share it. Deep faith expresses itself in love, and love, understood as benevolence and beneficence, leads to respect for and struggle for others’ rights. Put differently and maybe surprisingly to some, the commitment to properly understood love of God and of neighbor makes deeply religious persons, because they are deeply religious, dedicated social pluralists. When Christians and Muslims commit themselves to practice the dual command of love, they are not satisfying some private religious fancy; instead, they are actively fostering peace in our ineradicably pluralistic world that is now plagued by deep divisions. They are making possible constructive collaboration of people of different faiths in the common public space for the common good.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. He participated this week in the Yale Common Word Dialogue.

Posted by Miroslav Volf on July 30, 2008 3:02 PM