Beyond Financial Crisis, Christian-Muslim Dialogue Progresses

The financial crisis so dominates the news these days that reports on a meeting of the Christian and Muslim religious leaders and scholars pictured here zero in first on what they said about the economy. These men and women of faith would readily admit they look like anything but a group of portfolio managers, but comments on the crisis now get top billing no matter where they come from. We grabbed the crisis angle too, breaking out the economic statement from the final communique yesterday as our first item on this meeting. With that done, let me go back to look at the rest of the news from the latest Common Word dialogue meeting in Cambridge and London on October 12-15.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this meeting was how both sides — 17 Muslims and 19 Christians — worked to understand the other’s faith and find ways to spread that understanding within their communities. For example, in his opening address, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tackled the problem of how to deal with the the two faiths speak differently about God. “While what we say about God is markedly different, irreducibly different in many respects,” he said, “we recognize in each other’s language and practice a similarity in the way we understand the impact of God on human lives, and thus a certain similarity in what we take for granted about the nature or character of God.”

Meeting in Cambridge, they held sessions in the “scriptural reasoning” practiced at the university’s Inter-Faith Programme. In these sessions, Christians, Muslims and Jews read passages from their scriptures together and then explain them to each other. David David Ford/Cambridge Inter-Faith ProgrammeFord, an Anglican theologian from Northern Ireland who is director of the Inter-Faith Programme, told me he attended one such session with a British Anglican bishop, a German Jesuit priest, a Muslim sheikh from the Emirates, a Libyan Islamic theologian, a British Methodist theologian and an Iranian ayatollah. “We were all studying together and dealing with important issues,” he said. “Some of the Muslim scholars were doing this for the first time with Christians,” said Aref Ali Nayed, a senior advisor to the Inter-Faith Programme.

Nayed told me the theological issues they discussed included the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the way canons of scripture are established, the question of prophesy, the notion of a convenant with God and various aspects of hermeneutics, or how to analyse scripture. At their last meeting at Yale University in July, both sides explained how they understood concepts like love, compassion and mercy. The question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God was also discussed and that dialogue continues, he said.

If those terms seem overly academic, consider what an agreement could mean down at the level of the average church or mosque. If Muslims understand how Christians understand the Trinity, for example, then imams might not stoke tensions by preaching that Christians are polytheists. By the same token, priests and pastors might not condemn Islam as a false religion if they believed Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God and valued love, compassion and mercy in similar ways.

Sheikh Ali Gomaa at Cambridge meeting/CW=Sohail NakhoodaAs Egypt’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa put it: “We want to listen in order to correct misconceptions, to dissolve the ice, to find what is common, and to cooperate for the sake of worshipping God, engaging in positive development and purifying the human soul … we reject this constant provocation that generates hatred and accordingly instability and division.”

But how do you get from here to there? The meeting addressed that in its communique:

“Looking towards the future, mindful of the crucial importance of education and inspired by our presence in a great seat of learning, we have also been keen to identify specific ways in which our encounter might be broadened and deepened. We have, therefore, committed ourselves to the following over the coming year:

· To identify and promote the use of educational materials, for all age-groups and in the widest possible range of languages, that we accept as providing a fair reflection of our faiths

· To build a network of academic institutions, linking scholars, students and academic resources, with various committees and teams which can work on shared values

· To identify funds to facilitate exchanges between those training for roles of leadership within our religious communities.”

Ingrid Mattson at Cambridge meeting/CW-Sohail Nakhooda “I sense in this meeting a feeling of urgency, especially on the Muslim side, that we need to show our communities that dialogue does bear fruit and improve their lives to some extent,” said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. The way to do this is to have leaders of each faith speak out when the other is under attack. The communique denounced the persecution of Iraqi Christians in Mosul: “These threats undermine the centuries-old tradition of local Muslims protecting and nourishing the Christian community, and must stop … We find no justification in Islam or Christianity for those promoting the insecurity or perpetrating the violence evident in parts of Iraq.”

Mattson, a professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in the United States, told me U.S. Muslims want to hear similar statement from Christian leaders condemning “the dehumanisation of Muslims, like these public attacks on Islam that you see with the distribution of the DVD ‘Obsession’.”

The communique also mentioned another aspect of inter-faith dialogue that the Common Word declaration originally did not address but participants feel they must include. It said the scriptural reading sessions had “given us each a greater appreciation for the richness of the other’s heritage as well as an awareness of the potential value in being joined by Jewish believers in a journey of mutual discovery and attentiveness to the texts we hold sacred.” In contrast to the Yale meeting, there were no Jewish participants in Cambridge, but Nayed said one session held a conference call with a Jewish scholar to discuss ways of involving them more in future.

Sheikh Ali Gomaa addresses Cambridge conference/CW-Sohail NakhoodaTo return to the financial theme this post started with — the “trickle-down effect” is under fire these days for not being an efficient way to spread wealth in an economy. In the context of inter-faith dialogue, however, it seems like the best way to proceed. Ford, Mattson and Nayed all stressed to me the importance of having Christian and Muslim scholars get to know each other and discuss issues in person. Nayed said agreement reached at such meetings could trickle down through the communities: “To have top Muslim theologians become personal friends of top Christian theologians has a monumental effect because they all have graduate students who will teach other students who will become preachers in mosques and churches. This is really important.”