The National Council of Churches is boasting of its participation in Christian-Muslim dialogue at Yale Divinity School running July 28-31. Hosting the lovefest is Yale Professor Miroslav Volf and his Reconciliation Program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, who together organized last year’s Christian response to a manifesto by Muslim clerics addressed to Christians called “A Common Word Between Us and You.” Volf and his Yale seminary colleagues persuaded several hundred clerics and academics to sign their responsive “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to ‘A Common Word Between Us and You.’”
The July Christian-Muslim dialogue at Yale is the first of several follow-ups to the supposedly profound exchange between ostensible representatives of the two faiths. Other events in the coming months will convene in Britain, the Vatican, Washington, D.C., and Jordan. While the original Muslim appeal in October 2007 came from mostly moderate clerics, it affirmed Islamic teachings, while appealing for conversation. In typical fashion for accommodating Western clerics and academics, the Christian response opened with words of apology about Christians “sinning against our Muslim neighbors” in the Crusades of 1000 years ago, and then again today through “excesses” in the “war on terror.” The Christians implored: “We ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and the Muslim community around the world.”
Very likely the Yale jamboree and other dialogue events will repeat this predictable formula of Muslim smiles followed by Christian apologies. Muslims will articulate their doctrines, while Christians will downplay theirs in a typical bid for approval and good will. For the sake of good manners and to ensure future dialogue, the Christians will largely avoid mentioning Muslim persecution of Christians and others. Meanwhile, the Muslims will be vague about religious liberty issues, while pointing instead to ostensible Western and Christian injustices towards Islam, to which the Christians will respond with more apologies and hearty “amens.”
“Christians and Muslims have gone through periods of good relations and bad relations over the centuries,” explained National Council of Churches (NCC) ecumenical officer Antonios Kireopoulos in a news release, “Recent history has reinforced ill will between the two communities, so this interfaith initiative can make progress toward mutual understanding.” Interestingly, the NCC is not mentioned at all in Yale’s promotional materials, even though the NCC is clearly excited and publicizing its role.
According to the NCC, other participants at the Yale event will be Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan; former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi of Sudan; Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals, “prominent Ayatollahs from Iran; Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi of Palestine, Grand Muftis of several Middle Eastern countries; and John Esposito of Georgetown University. Senator John Kerry as well as other senior U.S. government officials also is expected to attend.” Former British Premier Tony Blair is reported as having endorsed the event though will not attend.
According to the event’s brochure, “we have set as our goal the exploration of ways in which the common commitments can help rectify distorted perspectives Muslims and Christians have of each other and repair relations between the Middle East and the West. If Muslims and Christians, who together comprise more than half the world’s population, can acknowledge mutual commitment to loving God and loving neighbor the boost to a dynamic and peaceful interdependence in our globalized world would be immense.”
There will be 60 Muslim participants who are “mostly from the Middle East,” and an equal number of Christians, plus “nine Jewish guests.” A press conference will conclude the dialogue on July 31. Other participants at Yale will include the American television preacher Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral and Geoffrey Tunnicliffe and of the World Evangelical Alliance.
A further taste of what to expect at Yale can be glimpsed through Volf’s January 2008 letter to all Christian signers of his “Loving God and Neighbor” response of last year. “What I have consistently heard from Muslims is how deeply they appreciated the generous spirit with which our text was written as it both embraced the hand of friendship offered by them and unmistakably affirmed the substance of the Christian faith (including where it differs profoundly from Islam!),” enthused Volf. In fact, his letter, in contrast to the Muslim letter’s affirmation of Islamic doctrine, was rather light on Christian belief beyond “love of neighbor.”
“They were deeply touched by our apology,” Volf wrote about the grateful Muslims has met. “And they appreciated it even more when I explained that the apology flows from one of the pillars of the Christian faith, highlighted in our response, namely that the God we worship is the one who justifies the ungodly so that we apologize as those who have been both forgiven and called to love even our enemies.” Volf breathlessly continued: “One very influential Muslim leader looked at me with tears in his eyes and thanked me for what we have written! Many Muslims were very pleasantly surprised, even amazed that such prominent Christian leaders as all of you are have taken a stance that is so both so generous and so deeply rooted the very foundations of your faith. They felt honored, even loved.”
If Christian apologies are indeed so moving to the Muslim dialoguers, no doubt many more tears will flow in the corridors of Yale. Volf, in his January 2008 letter, admitted that some Christians were not so enthusiastic about his manifesto. “Have we not betrayed Christians discriminated against and even persecuted in some Muslims countries,” they asked, according to Volf. “Have we not given up on convictions that define classical Christianity, such as that the Word became flesh or that the One God is the most Holy Trinity. Is not love of God and neighbor a marginal rather than central theme in Islam, and does not “love” mean different things in Islam and Christianity in any case?” Volf quoted without answering these questions, but he promised that answers will appear on the Yale.edu/faith website. He and his colleagues are “committed to interpreting the objections of Christian critics,” he solemnly announced.
It is doubtful these questions will get answered in the presence of the Muslim dialoguers at Yale, where the eager enthusiasm of the Christian dialoguers probably will preclude any substantive exchange over the real issues between Christianity and Islam.