A Common Word and Future Christian-Muslim Engagement
Sunday 12th October 2008The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has today given the opening address, in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, of a conference he has convened entitled 'A Common Word and Future Christian-Muslim Engagement'.
The conference, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the release of the open letter A Common Word Between Us And You from 138 Islamic scholars, clerics and intellectuals, aims to continue the dialogue between the two Faiths, by reflecting on this letter and the Archbishop's letter A Common Word for the Common Good.
The Archbishop's address follows:
In his magisterial recent work, A Secular Age, the Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor describes the typical assumption of modern European and North American secularists as a story of 'subtraction': take away the unnecessary and dangerous additions that religion has made to ordinary human common sense or rationality, and you will recover the essentially human.
I believe that it can also affect our understanding of dialogue between religions. Take away the unnecessary and dangerous extras, some people seem to say, identify the universal and rational element, and you will find the same kind of peace that the secularist imagines will arrive once religion itself has been ushered off the stage. Even drawing the parallel suggests some of the dangers here. If we take as a starting point the idea that what matters in any human activity is a primitive, 'natural' set of attitudes or beliefs and that the developments of human history just complicate things, we end up with a very eccentric view of history itself – as though the only growth and change that mattered were the process of unlearning what history had led us to think or feel. And for religions which emphasize the central and normative importance of certain events in history for their identity and distinctiveness, this is particularly odd.
So one of the challenges that faces the continuing process of reflecting and digesting the exchanges around the Common Word declaration have to do with distinguishing these from a strategy of 'subtraction'. To say that it is possible for Christians and Muslims and perhaps others to converge around the imperative of love of God and love of neighbour is not to say that these things are the 'neutral' basis on which other doctrines are subsequently built. Saying that would not represent what Christians or Muslims actually believe. What then is the meaning and the direction of this unfolding conversation between us?
Let me state first what I believe to be the most significant feature of the exchanges so far. If we say that love of God and neighbour represents an area in which we can talk to each other in a way that points to at least some common goals, what we are saying by implication is that we are able to recognize some common marks of holy or reconciled human lives in each other. To put this a little differently: what we think a human life looks like when lived in relationship with God looks similar enough to warrant taking each other seriously. Such a life will be marked by love – by tangible and costly devotion to God in prayer, fasting, the grateful acknowledgement of dependence, silent adoration, and by tangible and costly devotion to the needs and welfare of the human other, in respect, active compassion and work for the security and welfare of the poor. The implication of such a degree of recognition is twofold. First, it suggests that, if the shape of devotion to the neighbour in the two faiths looks similar, there is a real convergence about at least some human goals: both groups want to see human beings flourish in similar ways. Muslims and Christians do not disagree about the imperative to alleviate poverty and suffering; and they value and celebrate lives that are marked by generosity in this regard. The good life for human beings is, on the one hand, a life free from avoidable suffering and insecurity, and, on the other, one characterized by a commitment to those who suffer. Second, it suggests that, while what we say about God is markedly different, irreducibly different in many respects, we recognize in each other's language and practice a similarity in the way we understand the impact of God on human lives, and thus a certain similarity in what we take for granted about the nature or character of God.
Now I am aware that this kind of vocabulary – 'nature or character' – is not quite what traditional Muslim thought may habitually use; but I intend the terms in a broad sense, meaning simply the kind of things we can say about God among our fellow-believers without fear of contradiction: this is the sort of being we are talking about, this is what we may expect to grasp or sense of God. Thus, if the kind of thing we naturally say about God without fear of contradiction finds echoes as well as conflicts across the divide of belief, it is not surprising that we have a degree of convergence about what a human life looks like when lived in relationship with God. If God is like this, then we should expect what I've called the impact of God on human lives to find similar expression. The God we speak about is a God whose presence and action generate care for the poor, mercy, fidelity, and the willingness to make and preserve peace among human beings; which in turn implies that the life of God is itself in such that its 'natural' or predictable effect on us is as we have described it – and that it is worthy itself of love, not merely adoration, reverence, obedience or fear. We can say, then, that the human qualities we have identified are rooted in God; that can be ascribed to God in the sense that he is the cause and source of them.
What I am seeking to spell out is that a convergence of some kind about the significance of love of God and neighbour signals a mutual recognisability between our families of faith. As I have argued elsewhere, our language about God has some of the same grammar, the same structure and presuppositions, habits of argument and styles of metaphor. But when we have said that the 'impact' of God in our two faiths has this mutually recognizable character, we also have to acknowledge that it is this very similarity that ensures the degree of marked difference between us. The argument runs like this: if we speak of a God who is active, generative of loving relationship between human beings and worthy of loving reverence himself, we are committing ourselves to a language about God as personal to the extent that he takes initiatives, engages freely with us and so on. But if we know God in and through the initiatives he takes – and not, for example, simply through our contemplation of the structures of the universe – we are bound to associate him with historical events, and, of course, with the texts that communicate those events. And that is where difference is most apparent. The different histories we tell when we identify the origins of our faiths inevitably create different theologies. We cannot (as noted earlier) dismiss these histories and texts without surrendering just those aspects of our religious language and practice that bind us most closely together in the family of 'Abrahamic' faiths.
So our fuller understanding of what is involved in love of God and neighbour depends on the foundational stories we tell. It is, for example, impossible to understand why Christians so value what is often called the 'kenotic' or self-emptying dimension of love without the basic pattern of the narrative of Jesus as spelled out not only in the gospels but also in the primitive Christian hymns and devotional speculations about the 'descent' of God into the limitation and risk of the world in the birth of Jesus, an acceptance of weakness and even (in the world's terms) failure which prepares us theologically for the rejection of Jesus by the authorities of the religious and political worlds and his death on the cross. In the light of this, both Christian martyrdom and Christian asceticism, including the experience of 'abandonment' by God in certain sorts of Christian prayer, make sense; and the available models of love of neighbour are likely to emphasize the relativising or near-cancellation of self-interest or self-protection.
Islam, in contrast, seems to have a fundamental narrative of trial and triumph, a rejection followed by sharp struggle and ultimate historical victory; and even in its narratives of Jesus, it questions or sidelines the story of the death of Jesus as Christians tell it – an issue that is still a live one as between our faiths. Islam has indeed conceptions of martyrdom, especially in Shi'ite tradition, but these are not understood as validating 'failure' but as exposing the dominance of evil in certain circumstances and the need for struggle. And how far an Islamic ethic would see love of neighbour as essentially involving the kind of self-abnegation privileged by Christianity is a point worth exploring. While Islam can speak powerfully of the silence and helplessness evoked by the apprehension of God's infinity and inscrutability, it does not have anything easily corresponding to the Christian 'night of the spirit', the sense of divine absence as maturity in prayer progresses.
These are crude typologies, but not useless in grasping how the generative narratives of the two faiths shape the ways in which love for God and other human beings, and indeed the love exercised by God himself, are spoken about. And this in its way poses a problem for dialogue. How exactly can we have 'dialogue' between stories? We tell them, we cannot exactly arguethem. Yet, since we know that the forms of human life and human holiness that come from our two allegiances are not completely alien, it is clear that those stories cannot be read or heard or understood as if they belonged in different universes. Each party needs therefore to find a way of making sense of the other. The Muslim narrative of course already in some sense takes account of the Christian story; and Christians increasingly seek to articulate a theological understanding of the Muslim story (seeing it, for example, as a decisive moment of breakthrough against idolatry and primitive polytheism, the breakthrough which is characteristic of the decisive moments in the story of Hebrew as well as Christian scripture). But for both there remains much work to do: neither the Muslim nor the Christian will fully recognize their own story in the way that the other faith tells it, and this sets a difficult and important agenda for dialogue: do we recognize ourselves in the other's account of us? How far are any perceived distortions in those accounts bound up with central and inescapable aspects of the other group's narrative, and how far do they depend on historical misrepresentation or habits of misreading one another's texts?
'Dialogue between stories' is therefore a matter of careful listening to each other's narratives, reading each other's texts, with the hope of teasing out the way in which the basic story of a community of faith generates various ways of defining the moral and spiritual priorities for human beings. But that in turn suggests that such an encounter between us might move on to the sharing of our narratives of holy lives in general, so as to spell out why this particular life might be seen as a good example of life lived in harmony with God: a sort of comparative hagiography, if you like. Because we know enough about each other to know that our ideas of holiness and human worth belong in the same territory, it actually becomes possible to define more clearly those areas where convergence is limited. But that needs quite a sustained engagement with each others' history; theological dialogue (as different Christian bodies have so often found) is not something isolated from historical study and the development of historical sensitivity.
If we speak (rightly) of the love of God and neighbour as a matter of profound convergence, we are bound to undertake this task of tracing the specifics of how and where we identify such love in action back to their origin in our founding history. The approach to dialogue here proposed assumes that it is in historical events and historical transactions between persons that we receive the revelation of the God who is free and active; thus there is no constructive way in which dialogue can bypass history. This at once brings us up against those 'scandals of particularity' which were once regarded as so serious an objection to religions of revelation; but to avoid these would be to empty out what is specific about our commitments. It is precisely in historical encounters, however, that we discover that what we mean by holy living is not a matter of living in different universes, as I put it earlier: as a matter of bare historical fact, we discover that we can recognize something in each other within the actualities of shared life, and even in the middle of conflict. It is not that we begin from a conviction that all religious languages can be reduced to one general set of principles: we work out, by trial and error, how much we can say together and what sort of lives make mutual communication possible. And from this point we go on to reflect on the story that the other is telling, so as to see where it leads in the same way and where it foregrounds or privileges different things.
Such a dialogue will do what the authors of the Common Word declaration envisage: it will, without compromising our convictions, allow us to give God thanks for each other to the degree that we see in one another's communities lives that reflect the impact of God; it will allow us to act together on the basis that the human welfare we long to see established is understood in substantial measure both coherently and convergently by both of our communities; it will challenge us to tell the truth about each other as best we may, always seeking to speak of the other in a way that the other can recognize. Ahead of us lies a very extensive and demanding agenda, both intellectual and practical – not to say political – but we have good reason to think that it can be addressed with hope.
© Rowan Williams 2008
Participants List – Muslims
H.E. Shaykh Prof. Dr Ali Gomaa Mohamed Abdel Wahab
- Grand Mufti - Republic of Egypt
Prof. Dr. Allamah Shaykh 'Mohammad Said' Ramadan Malla Al-Buti
- Dean, Department of Religion - University of Damascus
H.E. Prof. Dr Allamah Shaykh Abdallahi Ould Cheikh El Mahfoudh Ould Boye
- Professor, King Abdul Aziz University, Saudi Arabia
- Vice President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars
- Founder and President, Global Center for Renewal and Guidance
Shaykh Al-Habib Omar bin Mohammed bin Salem Ban Hafedh
- Dean, Dar Al-Mustafa, Tarim
H.E. Shaykh Prof. Dr Mustafa Cerić
- Grand Mufti
- Head of Ulema of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Prof. Dr H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal
- Personal Envoy and Special Advisor of H.M. King Abdullah II
- Chairman of the Board, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought
Prof. Dr Ingrid Mattson
- Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations
- Director, Islamic Chaplaincy Program, Hartford Seminary
- President, Islamic Society of North America
Shaykh Al-Habib Ali Zain Al-Abidin Al-Jifri
- Founder and Director, Taba Institute, United Arab Emirates
Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad Winter
- Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge
- Director of the Muslim Academic Trust, UK
Prof. Dr. Aref Ali Nayed
- Former Professor, Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Rome
- Former Professor, International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilization, Malaysia
- Senior Advisor, Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme
Shaykh Amr Mohamed Helmy Khaled
- Islamic Missionary, Preacher and Broadcaster
- Founder and Chairman, Right Start Foundation International
Ayatollah Prof. Dr Seyyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmad Abadi Damad
- Dean of Department of Islamic Studies, The Academy of Science of Iran
- Professor of Law and Islamic Philosophy, Tehran University
- Fellow, The Iranian Academy of Sciences
H.E. Dr. Abdulaziz Otham Al-Twaijri
- Director-General, Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Prof. Dr Abderrahmane Taha
- President, Wisdom Circle for Thinkers and Researchers
- Director, Al-Umma Al-Wasat Magazine
- International Union of Muslim Scholars
Dr Muhammad Suheyl Umar
- Director, Iqbal Academy, Lahore
Mr Sohail Nakhooda
- Editor-in-Chief, Islamica Magazine
Mr Fuad Nahdi
- President, Radical Middle Way
- Specialist member, Christian-Muslim Forum, UK
Participants List – Christians
The Most Revd & Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams
- Archbishop of Canterbury
His Beatitude Gregorios III Laham
- Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch & All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim
- Metropolitan, Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo
The Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali
- Bishop of Rochester, Church of England
- Co-President of the Anglican Communion's Network for Inter Faith Concerns
The Rt Revd David Hamid
- Bishop in Europe, Church of England
The Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon
- Bishop of Kaduna, Nigeria
- Co-President of the Anglican Communion's Network for Inter Faith Concerns
- President of the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa
Professor Iain Torrance
- President, Princeton Theological Seminary
Professor Frances Young
- Professor Emeritus, Formerly Pro-Vice-Chancellor University of Birmingham
Professor David Ford
- Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge
- Director, Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme
Professor Miroslav Volf
- Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology, Yale Divinity School
- Director, Yale Center for Faith and Culture
Prof Oddbjørn Leirvik
- Professor of Interreligious Studies, University of Oslo
Prof. Fr Emmanuel Clapsis
- Professor Ordinarius, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, USA
- Ecumenical Patriarch
Abbot Timothy Wright OSB
- Advisor on Inter Religious Affairs to the Abbot Primate of the Order of St Benedict
The Revd Prof. Christian W. Troll SJ
- Honorary Professor, Kolleg St Georgen, Germany
The Revd Dr Daniel Madigan SJ
- Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University
Dr Nicholas Adams
- Academic Director, Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme
Revd Dr Mindawati Perangin-angin
- Head of the Ecumenical Bureau of the Karo Batah Protestant Church of Indonesia
Pfrin. Susanna Faust
- Representative for Interreligious Dialogue, Ecumenical Center,
- Evangelical Church of Germany
Revd Canon Anthony Ball
- Archbishop of Canterbury's Secretary for International and Inter-Religious Relations