By Joe Thomas
This week I hope to raise a few questions about A Common Word between Us and You that will help us dig deeper into our dialogue with our Muslim friends. So far I have praised the writers of A Common Word for their moderating voice for peace, for their attempts to find common ground between Christians, Jews and Muslims, and for their call for freedom of religion and justice among religious believers. But I think it is important at this point in my evaluation to seek some clarification on a few points and examine some real differences between Muslims and Christians.
A Common Word states that common ground between Christians and Muslims can be found in our shared belief in the unity of God, love of God and love of neighbor. I share this sentiment. It is important though, if we are to make progress in our dialogue together, that we explore our different understandings of these foundational beliefs.
Christians believe that God is triune, that three eternal and equal persons (or essences) – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – exist in one Godhead. The triune God is also referred to as the Trinity. More than a mere doctrinal statement, for Christians the Trinitarian God is the fount of our understanding and practice of love. The relationship that is shared between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the very model that Christians are called to emulate. The core of the relationship within the triune God is one of love, a love that is sacrificial.
The sacrificial love of God is also poured out towards His creation. This is no better demonstrated than in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. The willingness of the Son to leave heaven, take on human flesh (not through sexual regeneration I must add), announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God in His person and preaching, suffer on the cross to take our penalty of sin and overcome death three days later, speak to the central sacrificial nature of God’s love. The Gospel story then, as Christians call it, sets our understanding of God’s unity, love of God and love of neighbor, right in the middle of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. So it is important in our conversations with our Muslim friends that they understand that the common ground A Common Word is calling us to is deeply formed and shaped for us by the Incarnation of God in His Son, Jesus Christ. This seems to conflict with the authors’ intention that the Prophet of Islam simply restated what is best of what came before. This will take much discussion.
Aal ‘Imran 3:64 is the central Qur’anic passage around which A Common Word is written.
Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).
This passage has been used historically, and also today, to renounce the Christian view that God is triune and to charge Christians with believing in three gods. So it is remarkable that this passage is used in A Common Word to call Christians and Muslims together on the common ground of religion to find a way to live together in peace. On one level, the authors of A Common Word show Christians great respect by accepting us as monotheists, and not tri-theists. Still questions must be raised about the interpretation of a passage that is counter to the traditional Muslim view. Is this interpretation a new trend in Islamic scholarship? Is it a minority or majority view today? Or does it have precedent in traditional Islamic interpretation?
Finally, the call for justice and freedom of religion raises all sorts of questions for Christians, those living in the predominantly Muslim countries, and those living in the west. It would be helpful for the authors of A Common Word to clarify what they mean by these terms. Christians living in the west have a specific social and political context in which to understand these terms. Does the term “justice” refer to a western political understanding, to Sharia law, or to something else different from these two legal traditions? Does it include a full acceptance of human rights as developed in the western tradition? Finally, does the concept of “freedom of religion” mean something more than freedom to practice your religious faith without harassment? Or does it include the freedom to evangelize others and change religions if your conscience so leads you?
Now as a Christian historian I ask these questions with humility. Christianity in the west existed for many generations before the concept of freedom of religion and religious tolerance finally became a part of the dominant cultural and governmental view. There were many steps taken forward and backwards in the process. Nevertheless, it is important that we have a clear understanding of what the authors of A Common Word mean when they call for “justice” and “freedom of religion.” The part of the Islamic world that is Arab is in the midst of great upheaval as I write. It is entirely possible that a new Islamic, Arab world is being born right before our eyes. So the theoretical notions of justice and freedom of religion, if they are similar to western notions, need to be explicated in the clearest terms so that they have a chance to take root in this “new world.”