Theologians Explore Further Possibilities For Interfaith Dialogue With Islam

Lutherans Contribute to Ecumenical Reflections on Christian-Muslim Relations Today

GENEVA, 28 October 2008 (LWI) – A group of 50 theologians from a broad range of Christian traditions and scholars in Christian-Muslim relations met in Chavannes-de-Bogis near Geneva, to deliberate Christian self-understanding in relation to Islam and Christian-Muslim relations today. The 18-20 October consultation was a joint initiative of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions (including the Lutheran World Federation) and the World Evangelical Alliance.

Trinitarian reflections were prominent throughout the consultation, with some of them focusing specifically on the implications of incarnation and the work of the Spirit. Papers on various Christian approaches to Islam were presented—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and Evangelical. Contextual experiences were shared through two panel discussions—Christians living in majority Muslim contexts, and Christian-Muslim relations in plural contexts. This allowed participants to connect theological reflection and lived experiences from their diverse contexts.

In his keynote address, Catholicos Aram I, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church (See of Cilicia), stressed, “I believe that for both Christians and Muslims, living-in-community must become the real objective of their dialogue.” Against the Middle East background, he argued, “These two monotheistic faiths are not monolithic. Therefore, generalizations must be avoided; contextualization is the right way of assessing and organizing Christian-Muslim dialogue and relations.”

Moderating the consultation’s opening session, LWF General Secretary Rev. Dr Ishmael Noko said the “conference is part of the new era of Muslim-Christian relations responding to initiatives like ‘A Common Word’. It is important for us as secretaries of Christian world communions to work together with specialists in interreligious dialogue.” LWF President Bishop Mark S. Hanson was among Christian leaders who responded to the October 2007 letter “A Common Word Between You and Us” written by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders around the world. (See

Relational Dimensions

In her presentation, Rev. Simone Sinn, theological associate in the LWF Department for Theology and Studies, highlighted the relational dimension of Christian faith. Referring to a basic insight of Martin Luther, she pointed out that justification was not a substance or quality that Christians own, but a living relationship between God and the human being. “Christian-Muslim encounters have a rich potential not only for deepening our relations to one another, but also in deepening our understanding of God’s relation to us. Important theological and spiritual formation takes place in these encounters.”

Reflecting on Christian-Muslim dialogue in his context and beyond, Rev. Dr Oddbjørn Leirvik, who teaches interreligious studies at the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, Norway, stressed the importance of the “humanization of theological ethics.” He cited Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on the death penalty and corporal punishments as an example from a prominent European Muslim leader. He cited initiatives of the Contact Group between the Church of Norway and the Islamic Council in Norway, as a forum through which concern for the ‘vulnerable other’ had gradually become a shared religious commitment. The group’s joint engagement includes the formulation of a joint declaration on an individual’s inviolable right to adopt a religion of one’s choice; addressing family violence and gender relations; and starting a dialogue about the highly controversial question of homosexuality.

Participants said they recognized dialogue as an aspect of spirituality, and acknowledged the virtue of patient listening in Christian-Muslim dialogue. They stressed the need for sensitivity when referring to key religious terms such as mission, witness and conversion. Identified as equally important was the diversity and wealth of attitudes among Christians and the need to pay attention to questions raised by people from different places, circumstances and generations, especially the youth. Christian-Muslim collaboration was recommended on issues such as social and economic justice, climate change, peace and healing of memories.

“This consultation demonstrated some of the distinctive possibilities of approaching interfaith questions with the resources of broad ecumenical collaboration,” said Dr Kathryn Johnson, LWF Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Affairs. “The range of Christian positions at the conference was very large—but at every point where there might have been an ‘either/or’ division into camps of opinion, the participants instead sought ways to balance complex realities,” she noted.

Johnson said the intense informal conversations between distinguished scholars of Islam and eminent church leaders at meal times expressed the need for more opportunities where both groups could share their experiences. “I hope that the WCC and the Christian world communions, including Evangelicals and Pentecostals, will find ways to continue this sort of collaboration,” she concluded. (762 words)