THE historic visit of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates last month triggered various reactions and assessments with regard to its significance in a region that has many clouds hovering over it (News, 8 February).
It should, however, be an occasion when we in the West rethink and question the importance and purpose of interfaith dialogue. There has been a fashionable assumption among certain liberal thinkers of the 20th century, as well as today, that all religious traditions speak the same language with different accents. This assumption claims to be tolerant of a pluralism in which different traditions may drift in or out of co-operation, but always on the basis that all were, more or less, about the same thing.
Those who support this claim tend to argue that it is necessary to have this view if we are to maintain the peace between competing religious ideologies in the public sphere who have exclusivist claims to theoretical finality. Neither of those claims has the chance of supporting the coherence of society, which is pluralist and in which various communities have multi-dimensional identities. It is tempting in our corporate political life to try to erode differences, as if the common life were the life of a “theory”, not any specific tradition or persons in particular.
It is often hard to face differences. This can lead to the imposition of “sameness”, secular or religious, on everyone, denying the particularities of each tradition and the history of its practice.
THE recent publication of the book The Future of Interfaith Dialogue: Muslim-Christian encounters through a common word provided a different approach to both of the above assumptions. The book focuses mainly on the initiative “A Common Word” as a case study for interfaith dialogue.
The initiative was launched on 13 October 2007, and refers to an open letter, “A Common Word between Us and You” (taking its title from the Qur’an 3.64) (News, 4 April 2008). The letter came from Muslim religious leaders to the Christian Churches, and has become a leading initiative in interfaith dialogue. It was signed by 138 prominent Muslim scholars representing all significant schools of thought in Islam. It called on Christians to work with Muslims for the common good and world peace: the core principles of “loving God and loving neighbour” were taken to be common principles between the two faiths.
The initiative did not intend to trigger theological dialogue between Muslims and Christians, but it has given rise to several conferences and debates among Muslim and Christian scholars, especially in the West, which have focused on the significance of theological differences and debates for the common good.
One of the key questions that it has prompted has been whether Christians and Muslims can depend solely on a common denominator such as “loving God and loving neighbour” for social and political coherence, and assume that this common denominator is a neutral territory.
Rowan Williams’s and Daniel Madigan’s contributions both warn against a reductionist understanding of common speech in Islam and Christianity. Even when Christians and Muslims acknowledge that they agree about loving God and loving neighbour, this did not mean that “love of God and neighbour” was a neutral foundation on which we have added unnecessary doctrinal complications. Instead, our understanding, even our discovery, of the need to love God, and the type of life that that relationship produces, are rooted in our doctrines. There is no escape from relating to the importance of our various creeds.
The internal theological differences in both traditions affect the way in which Christians and Muslims understand their behaviour in the world. In Islam, the practical conclusions of theology are fully articulated in legal terms and differences. In Christianity, the law is not denied, but is now interpreted as the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, while Muslims debated on law, Christians debated the implication of the event of Christ.
Thus, Jesus puts together Deuteronomy 6.4-5 on the love of God, and Leviticus 19. 18 on the love of neighbour. These two verses, located apart and never verbally merged into a single message in the Hebrew Bible, remained part of a highly complex legal system in Judaism. They represented its underlying spirit, summing up what it was all about but in no way displacing the legal codes. The system of law develops even more with the Talmud and the Mishnah after Jesus.
THE goal of The Future of Interfaith Dialogue was to find a way of working together towards a mode of human co-operation, mutual challenge, and nurture which does not involve the triumph of one “theory”, but, at the same time, is still reflective of the form of human liberty and maturity that is faithful to the doctrines of both Christianity and Islam.
Christians and Muslims are called to love God and neighbour, and to work for the common good. But this must not come at the expense of theological integrity on either side. Interfaith dialogue matters, perhaps more than it ever has. But fruitful encounter between two of the great world religions does not have to paper over doctrinal differences, or compromise the theological integrity of either side. How Christians and Muslims can speak different languages, while co-operating for the common good, is one of the great challenges of our age.
The Revd Dr Yazid Said is Lecturer in Islam at Liverpool Hope University. He is the co-editor, with Lejla Demiri, of The Future of Interfaith Dialogue: Muslim-Christian encounters through A Common Word, published by Cambridge University Press.