On Common Ground: Muslim And Christian Leaders Meet To Talk God, Love And Peace

Do not ask, ‘Is he or she one of us,’” says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the world’s most respected Muslim scholars, “but, ‘Is he or she one of his?’”

Nasr meant one of God’s, not one of man’s. He was the final speaker at last week’s Islam and Christianity conference at Yale, part of an effort to find common ground between the two religions. The meeting had roots in a letter, “A Common Word between Us and You,” sent by Muslim to Christian leaders two years ago to point out how the two religions overlap.

So where do they overlap? In both religions, the two most important commandments are the same: Love God and love your neighbor.

Hence the theme of the conference, “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed.” More events will be held at the Vatican and in Jordan, as well as at other universities, over the next year. Who’s to say if they’ll do anything to close the growing hate and ignorance-filled chasm between the two sets of believers?

To their credit, the conferences are a pretty big deal. Yale’s was co-organized by a Jordanian prince; participants included a sultan, grand muftis (the highest officials of Islamic law), Sen. John Kerry and the heads of evangelical alliances. At the Vatican conference, participants will be received by the pope.

The hope is these leaders will better understand and respect the other religion, and bring that home to their followers. Of course, the Yale Law auditorium was often filled with hot air and lip service. But there were also some gems—and some tense moments, like when politics were brought up (I’m looking at you, chief justice of Palestine); or when a Muslim speaker declared, “If Christianity recognized Islam, all the Christians would become Muslims,” and when an evangelist said, “It’s never easy to love our enemies,” seemingly about Muslims.

On to the good stuff. In a panel on “Love and World Poverty” that was disappointingly filled with abstractions, Amina Zalmia Rasul-Bernardo, leader of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy, spoke about the war in the multi-faith region of Mindanao.

She explained that extreme poverty has led to a spike in Muslim extremism as recruiters tell folks, “We are poor and oppressed because we are Muslims.” At the same time, the paranoid, militarized government is pursuing all Muslims as a threat. But, Rasul-Bernardo says, interfaith talks are helping strengthen a fragile peace.

Other speakers who didn’t get bogged down in rhetoric offered some points about loving god and how loving one’s neighbor—through charity or tolerance, say—is an act of loving God.

“The world needs faith” with “radical questioning, cries of protest, refusing to accept traditional answers (and) lively theological speculation,” says David Ford, a Cambridge divinity professor. It’s the only way to know God—which is the same as loving God, according to two of Ford’s fellow panelists, Ayatollah Seyyed Damad of the Academy of Sciences in Iran and Peter Kuzmic, an expert on Christianity in post-Communist countries.

This connection between intellect and religious love was drawn again by John DeGioia, the president of Georgetown and a Catholic. “A generation ago, religion would not be seen as a basis for intellectual dialogue,” he says. He sees the potential for peacemaking in the next generation, citing the “urgent necessity” to teach about other religions.

“Can we prepare our young people to know each other?” DeGioia asks, citing stats that many Americans distrust Islam while few claim to know much about it.

Criticism of U.S. Christians came mostly from Americans. Too many link wealth to godliness and poverty to sin, says Heidi Hadsell, Hartford Seminary’s president. Individualism has been so radicalized that Americans despise the idea of community, and so forget the poor, claims Emilie Townes, a Yale professor of African-American theology.

And America’s conservative Christians, typically anti-immigration, apparently have religious brethren in those same immigrants, many of whom are evangelists escaping developing countries.

“The immigrants are evangelizing America,” says Leith Anderson, head of the National Assoc. of Evangelicals. Ironic, no?

The speech by Nasr, the famed Muslim scholar, was a high point of the conference. He urged Christians and Muslims not to accuse each other of believing in different Gods, or to claim to love God more than the other. He asked Islamic scholars not to call Christians heretics and he encouraged both sides to look beyond each other’s fringe believers, which has lead to stereotypes of Muslims as women-hating terrorists and Christians as blasphemous Islamophobes.

“Let us use the common word to bring us closer together,” Nasr said, “not because differences don’t exist, but in spite of the fact that they exist.”