In an era when the relationship between Christianity and Islam “is at the lowest point it has been since the Crusades,” a Yale Divinity School scholar called for humility and charity in an attempt to find common ground between the two global religions.
Miroslav Volf, professor of systematic theology at Yale, addressed the topic of Christian-Muslim relations in the annual Warren W. Willis Lecture in Religion at Florida Southern College on Friday. Before an audience of about 200 people, Volf talked about possible areas of common ground and differences between the two faiths and how dialogue should proceed.
There should be a middle ground, Volf said, between hard-line antipathy and “cheap compromises” in beliefs for the sake of agreement.
“Clearly what we don’t want is the condescension of tolerance,” he said.
Taking his cue from a Muslim initiative, Volf said love inspired by God is the key to peace between Muslims and Christians.
“There is no other love with which to be loving than divine love,” he said.
Volf’s own efforts in interfaith dialogue have centered on an exchange of documents between Muslim and Christian leaders.
The Muslim document, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” was signed by 138 scholars and clerics and circulated worldwide in October.
It identified two principles – love of God and love of neighbor – as common to both Christianity and Islam and invited a response from Christian leaders.
The document is believed to have been prompted by a lecture given in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI in which he quoted a medieval emperor’s criticism of Islam.
Volf said “A Common Word Between Us and You” was revolutionary and “the most significant interfaith document of the last 40 or 50 years, since Vatican II.”
It caught many Christian leaders by surprise, including himself, he said.
“Six months ago, it would not have occurred to me to associate Islam with the love of neighbor,” he said.
Volf and three colleagues at Yale drafted a response, which was signed by almost 300 Christian scholars, pastors and denominational leaders and printed in The New York Times in November. Some conservative Christian leaders, including psychologist and radio personality James Dobson, criticized the response partly on the grounds that it minimized the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus Christ.
On that point, Volf posed two questions to the audience Friday: Are Christians and Muslims talking about the same God? And are they talking about the same kind of love?
The most significant difference between the two faiths is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which declares that God, although one in being, consists of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Muslims say this represents three deities and strictly insist on the unity of God. Volf said there have been some misunderstandings about the doctrine and that it is possible to explain Christian belief in ways that Muslims can appreciate.
“Islam is in a struggle for its own soul. ‘A Common Word’ represents one particular stream of thought. It emphasizes less the importance of law, of Shariah, and more nearness to God,” he said.
But there are also differences between Muslim and Christian understandings of the relationship between God and humanity.
“In the Muslim tradition, love is conditional. If you love God, God will love you. In the Christian tradition, it is unconditional. We don’t say God loves human beings, we say God is love in his own being. God’s love is not responsive to anything you do,” Volf said.
Some have proposed that Muslims and Christians understand the same God in different ways, he said.
Still, love and mutual respect are possible between adherents of the two faiths, Volf said. He pointed to a saying of the prophet Muhammad: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” The saying is nearly identical to Jesus’ admonition, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he said.
Volf, a native of Croatia who was raised in the former communist nation of Yugoslavia, has long been engaged in the study and practice of reconciliation between mutually hostile factions.
“If you ask me, what’s my goal, it’s social,” he said. “Instead of religion being the cause of the problem, it should be a resource for solving the problem.”