“Comfortable Candor” At Yale Christian-Muslim Meeting

NAE President Leith Anderson (l) listens to Shi’ite philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr speaks, 31 July 2008/Tom Heneghan“Comfortable candor” is the way Leith Anderson described the atmosphere at the Common Word conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue that ended at Yale University on Thursday. The term is as interesting for its image as for the person who used it. Anderson is president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals and one of several evangelicals attending the meeting. Among the mostly Protestant leaders who responded to the Common Word dialogue appeal in a letter launched by Yale Divinity School, evangelicals tended to be more cautious and more concerned about pointing out the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam. Even with those reservations , these participants faced some criticism in their own ranks for attending and came to the conference not knowing how open it would be.

Anderson told me on the first day that he appreciated how forthright the discussion was, with each side standing up for its beliefs while seeking common ground where they could. In his keynote address in the final session, he put his stamp of approval on the process: “Our differences are deep and real. Sometimes those differences are cultural or ethnic or racial. But I have been especially impressed this week with the comfortable candor with which Muslims and Christians have clearly stated their own doctrines to one another.”

Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, made the same point in his address. “We can affirm the appropriateness of simply engaging in dialogue and conversation with each other at this critical time in history. It is right that we’re together. We can affirm the development of new and strengthened relationships. It has been good to sit together and build new friendships. We can affirm the genuine spirit of being willing to listen to each other and seeking to gain understanding into each others’ perspectives.”

Leith Anderson at Yale Common Word conference, 31 July 2008/Tom Heneghan - Some Christians in dialogue sessions like this seem ready to blur theological distinctions for the sake of harmony with Muslims. By contrast, evangelicals are steadfast in proclaiming their belief in Jesus and the Bible (as Anderson did repeatedly in his keynote address). As steadfast, in fact, as the Muslims are in proclaiming their faith in the Koran and the prophethood of Mohammad. So if they can approve a dialogue project like this, it must be doing something right.

Another theme in the two speeches was the diversity of the evangelical movement. Anderson stressed that the NAE covered 61 denominations and hundreds of evangelical organisations. The majority of evangelicals live in the Global South, he stressed, and much of the recent growth of evangelical Christianity in the United States came from immigrants. “We are not about politics or power or money or culture,” he said. As he said that, I wondered whether the Arabic interpreters were tempted to translate that as “they are not all George Bush’s allies.” Tunnicliffe even said one thing evangelicals certainly had in common with Muslims was the experience of being “stereotyped and stigmatized in the media” and invited them to look beyond cliches about evangelicals.

Anderson also noted that he was no stranger to contacts with Muslims even if this kind of theological dialogue was “not part of our normal repertoire,” as David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today (and fellow conference blogger) put it when we spoke. The NAE held a meeting on creation care and climate change with North African Muslim leaders, the World Bank and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Washington in June and Anderson addressed an interfaith dialogue meeting in Qatar in May. “And that’s just the last 60 days…” he remarked.

Steeple of Yale Divinity School chapel, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanIngrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, made a similar point about explaining the diversity of American Christianity to foreign Muslims when we spoke just before the Yale conference started. “When we U.S. Muslims hear Muslims in other parts of the world talk about the crusading spirit of contemporary America, the problem of the conflation of religion and politics in America and how that effects Muslim life and aspirations, we try to explain to them that the American political process is complicated, American Christianity is diverse and there are many different political opinions even among very devoted Christians. This is something that it’s important to have them understand … I think it’s important (for them) to have this opportunity to hear a more nuanced perspective on how American Christians look at the importance of their faith for motivating their sense of social justice and the involvement they have in certain issues.”

That the evangelical movement is not simply the Republican Party at prayer has made its way into the newspapers in recent years, especially on environmental issues. Do you think this message of dialogue and cooperation with Muslims has been heard?