Following a call from both Muslims and Christians for increased contact and dialogue between the religions, Yale will host an unprecedented conference in July — designed to bring together up to 300 Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in hopes of fostering peace and bettering relationships among them.
The conference, “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Muslims and Christians,” will be held ten months after 138 Muslim leaders jointly called for greater understanding between Muslims and Christians in their October letter, “A Common Word between Us and You.” In November, Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge and three Divinity School professors and administrators printed a letter representing the Christian community in the New York Times, supporting the ideals of the Muslim leaders and writing that “our next step” is to gather together to move the dialogue forward.
Their letter, “Loving God and Neighbor Together” — which was signed by over 300 prominent religious scholars and figures — catapulted Yale to the center of the issue, especially because it was received favorably by the original signatories of “Common Word.” Now, those organizing the Yale conference are trying to capitalize on the “traction” generated by the positive exchange.
“We’re scrambling to keep up with the momentum at the moment,” said Andrew Saperstein, a co-writer of the Yale response and a conference organizer. “It’s a good kind of scrambling.”
Saperstein, who is associate director of the Reconciliation Program within the Divinity School, said that the conference will promote frank dialogue meant to effect change, allowing leaders in attendance to return to their respective communities and pass on their new understanding.
Attridge echoed these goals. He said the program will foster new ties between leaders from differing faiths.
“We hope to establish new lines of communication with religious and academic leaders in the Muslim world,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We also hope that these contacts will lay the foundation for ongoing exchange relationships.”
The authors of the Muslim letter seem to agree.
“ ‘A Common Word’ and the response that appeared in the New York Times could go down in history as one of the most important exchanges between Christians and Muslims in history,” Joseph Lumbard, a classical Islam professor at Brandeis who signed the Muslim statement, wrote in an e-mail to the News.
Lumbard called the upcoming conference an “excellent idea,” but added that leaders selected to participate should be prominent within their constituencies.
“If this exchange is to have an enduring impact, it must also influence what is said from the pulpit and the minbar,” he wrote.
The conference will be organized through the Reconciliation Program within the Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, which works to promote reconciliation between Muslims and Christians. Discussions will take place in private forums, Saperstein said, to allow religious leaders to avoid polite platitudes and instead confront issues head on.
“We are not interested in sweeping differences under the rug and holding hands and singing kum-ba-ya,” he said.
But in spite of what has been an overwhelmingly positive back-and-forth the Muslim and Christian leaders, the conference has met some opposition.
Conservative Christian religious leaders, for example, have criticized Yale for attempting to over-simplify the similarities between Christianity and Islam.
On Jan. 23, Reverend John Piper, a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, posted a video on YouTube accusing Yale of being “not honest” in its attempt to smooth over the differences between Christians and Muslims — which he said are stark.
Rather than use vague language and “quote scripture selectively so that it sounds just like the Quran,” Piper proposed meeting with Muslim groups to “commend Christ to them.”
Muslims and Christians “don’t stand together on a common love of God or on a common understanding of God,” he said in the video. “They don’t worship the true God, according to Jesus.”
Although Attridge emphasized that a wide range of Christians that had signed the letter, variegations among Christian denominations make a consensus about the content of Yale’s letter — and the upcoming conference — impossible, said African-American religion and theology professor Emilie Townes, one of the authors of the response letter and the president of the American Academy of Religion.
“Because Christianity has a variety of ways to be Christian, not all peoples across it will be able to stand behind the ideas put forth in the letter or any other statement,” she said in an e-mail to the News.
Still, Saperstein added, “there is room within even orthodox traditions for members of those communities to move much more closely together.”
Townes and Attridge agreed that there are barriers to understanding between Christians and Muslims, but stressed the need to change one’s perspectives to begin a productive dialogue.
“Lack of knowledge of the ‘other’ and the suspicion that such a lack generates is a major impediment to better relations,” Attridge wrote. “The conference can be part of a process to overcome that ignorance.”
Ignorance, Townes said, derived from a common human failing.
“We are tempted to think too narrowly, be too territorial, and believe that we have cornered the market on righteousness,” she wrote.
By recognizing this weakness and overcoming old wounds, a more inclusive religiosity can emerge, she said.
Prior to the conference, Yale Divinity School will host a smaller gathering of roughly 40 Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars to prepare for the program.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will be teaching a class on faith and globalization at Yale next year, was one of the first global leaders to declare his support of the ideals expressed in the “Common Word” letter.