Reflections upon ‘Loving God and Neighbor Together’
The Yale Response to A Common Word Between Us and You.
By Mark Durie
The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
A group of four scholars have offered a response to the Letter from 138 Muslim scholars, entitled A Common Word Between Us and You. This response, entitled ‘Loving God and Neighbor Together’ has been endorsed by over 300 Christian leaders from around the world. The primary authors of the response were Miroslav Volf, and Joseph Cumming, both from the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture, with input also from Harold W. Attridge of Yale Divinity School, and Emilie M. Townes, another Yale Professor.
A detailed analysis of A Common Word has been prepared separately – see ‘Notes for Christians on A Common Word – and readers are referred to this for a critical overview of the Muslims’ letter. We are specifically focussed here on the Yale Response.
The strategy of the Yale Response is to welcome A Common Word warmly, to endorse the ‘common ground’ it offers, and to encourage Christian and Muslim leaders to meet for continued dialogue on this basis.
The Yale Response does not appear to completely accept the theological positions proposed in A Common Word, for it offers some important Christian theological reflections in response, which go beyond the positions offered by the Muslims.
God himself is identified in the scriptures as ‘being Love’. This reflects God’s infinite goodness, and means that loving God cannot be separated from God’s love for us. The Christian view is that ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). In contrast A Common Word put forward the Islamic view that God loves us because we love him.
The Yale Response emphasizes that love of one’s neighbour requires one to recognize the right of others to freedom of worship. This is an important message to send to Muslim leaders, since Christians’ freedom of worship is so often curtailed in Islamic contexts.
In contrast to A Common Word, the Yale Response states that the ‘neighbour’ who is to be loved includes our enemies. This was not part of what A Common Word had offered to Christians.
The Yale Response explains that in loving their enemies, people are imitating God. In contrast, the idea that humanity could imitate God is rejected in Islam and is inconsistent with the Common Word’s repeated calls not to associate anything with Allah.
It is striking that these challenging views are not highlighted as being in contrast to Islam’s teachings. The impression given by the Yale Response is that they are common ground shared with Islam.
Although many distinguished Christian leaders have signed the Yale Response, there are good reasons why Christians might not wish to sign it:
The Yale theologians appear to accept the Muslims’ contention that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, although this is a complex and controversial claim which deserves to be allowed to be an issue for discussion between Muslims and Christians, rather than simply accepted as a condition of dialogue.
A Common Word employs a ‘bait and switch’ tactic, whereby loving God and one’s neighbour is offered to Christians as the ground of cooperation, but then there is a switch and tawhid (Islamic monotheism) is be put forward as the real basis for Christian-Muslim dialogue. In reply, the Yale Response appears to endorse the Muslims’ positions, stating that their letter ‘identifies some core common ground’, and referring to the ‘deep insight and courage with which they have identified the common ground between the Muslim and Christian religious communities.’ Thus the Yale Response appears to accept A Common Word’s very clear offer of Islamic tawhid – together with its rejection of ‘association’ – as the common ground we share. It is not helpful to have given the impression that Christians wish to endorse tawhid.
Having accepted the offer of tawhid, the Yale Response then does a switch back to a Biblical understanding of the love of God, as if that was all that the Muslims were offering. This Christian indirectness in response to Muslim indirectness is confusing.
It is misleading for the Yale theologians to state: ‘We find it equally heartening that the God whom we should love above all things is described as being Love’. Many of those who have endorsed the Yale Response will have assumed that this refers to a position held by the Muslims. However A Common Word nowhere affirms that God is Love.
The Yale Response overlooks the anti-Christian polemic associated with many of the Quranic verses cited in A Common Word (see the Notes for Christians). There should instead have been an acknowledgement in the Yale Response that some of the verses cited from the Qur’an are problematic for interfaith harmony.
It is a mistake for the Yale Response to style Muhammad as ‘The Prophet’, unless the Yale theologians do genuinely wish to communicate to Muslims that this is what they believe about Muhammad.
It is concerning that the Yale Response appears to endorse the construct of ‘Abrahamic Faith’. The term ‘religion of Abraham’ is a Qur’anic expression which stands for the doctrine that Abraham and all the prophets were true Muslims, and not Christians or Jews. Despite its use in many recent interfaith discussions, this term stands in opposition to Christianity, not in harmony or cooperation with it:
They say: ‘Become Jews or Christians if ye would be guided (To salvation).’ Say thou: ‘Nay! (I would rather) the Religion of Abraham the True [i.e. Islam], and he joined not gods with Allah.’ (Sura 2:135)
Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was a Muslim, and bowed his will to Allah's (Which is Islam), and he joined not gods with Allah. (Sura 3:67)
The Yale Response adopts a self-humbling, grateful tone. This is disturbing in the light of the history of Christian-Muslim relations. The classical Islamic understanding of the role of Christians as dhimmis in the Islamic state was that they should show gratitude for the generosity of having had their lives spared, and humility because their condition deserved contempt. Many Muslim jurists and commentators bear testimony to these expectations. In this light, it is regrettable that the Yale theologians have shown themselves so ready to adopt a tone of grateful self-humiliation, using expressions such as ‘we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world’; A Common Word is ‘extraordinary’; it is written in ‘generosity’; and ‘It is with humility and hope that we receive your generous letter’. Nothing comparable was offered by the Muslims.
For many Christians who live under Islamic conditions, the tone adopted in the Yale Response will come across as capitulation, and it will signal abandonment of the cause of their persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jesus’ parable about taking the log out of one’s eye (Matthew 7:5) is cited by the Yale theologians. This is regrettable on several counts.
It sends the signal to Muslims that whatever the problems with Islam, and whatever the sins of Muslims, they are but a ‘speck’ compared to the collective crimes of Christians.
This response is a betrayal of Christians who live under Islamic domination, and suffer – for no fault of their own – the effects of the sharia’s provisions.
It is confusing and unhelpful for American theologians to apologize for the crusades, which are far-distant in time, and took place even before the USA existed. The logical implication of such a move is that all Christians throughout the world carry some kind of collective guilt for fighting Muslims in the past. This inculpates Christians in vulnerable situations where they are already suffering from accusations of collective guilt. It also treats Muslims and Christians as monolithic collectives, which they are not.
It is a mistake to treat the ‘war on terror’ as a Christian campaign by apologizing for it in this context. Governments who are pursuing the ‘war on terror’ do not claim to be pursuing a Christian war, and they are secular, not Christian, in character.
A Common Word did not offer awareness of, or any apology for, Muslims’ crimes, past and present, against non-Muslims. For Christians to launch into self-inculpation in this way undermines the potential for genuine reciprocity in the dialogue.
The discussion of Muhammad’s treatment at Ta’if seems forced and is not convincing:
The hadith cited which begins ‘The most virtuous behavior is to engage those who sever relations…’ (no source is given: it is apparently from at-Tabarani) is not found in the six canonical hadith collections recognized by Sunnis, and cannot be considered to carry any weight.
The message of this hadith is undermined by the fact that the people of Ta’if, who did indeed reject Muhammad and his message, were later forced to convert to Islam under the swords of Muhammad’s followers (see the Notes for Christians).1
The Christian slave ‘Addas did not go out to meet Muhammad because he was a Christian, but because he was commanded to do so by his pagan masters, so it is misleading to cite his kindness as a sign of Christian-Muslim friendship. Also, Islamic tradition considers that ‘Addas was the first convert from Ta’if to Islam, so he is hardly an example of interfaith harmony and cooperation.
In the face of clear and repeated statements of Islamic monotheism in A Common Word, it is concerning that the Yale Response does not make an equally clear affirmation of Christian belief in the incarnation and Christ’s divine sonship.
Although the Muslims’ letter can be faulted for selective citations from Qur’anic passages, which do not allow clearly anti-Trinitarian positions to be heard by their Christian readers, the Yale theologians do the same thing when they cite 1 John 4:8 ‘God is love’, but omit the immediately following verses:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. … we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God and they abide in God.
It is essential for Christians who respond to A Common Word not to downplay their core Christian beliefs in the mission of the Son, including his incarnation and crucifixion. Yes, Christian faith is founded on the love of God, but our testimony to Muslims should not divorce the discussion of love from Trinitarian faith.
Interfaith dialogue can be of value. However it must be grounded in honest acknowledgement of the other. It is the willingness to listen attentively, and be open and honest about one’s own beliefs, which offers the true common ground for effective dialogue. It is unwise and misleading for the Yale Theologians on the one hand to enthusiastically embrace Muslims’ scholars’ attempts to Islamicize the Christian-Muslim dialogue, and on the other to attempt to Christianize the dialogue, proposing that Christian distinctives – such as God’s love for the whole of humanity – as the common ground between our two faiths.
We urge Christians who are seeking positive relationships between Christians and Muslims to be careful and thoughtful, and to make the considerable efforts required to understand the nature of this dialogue. Because of its many weaknesses, the Yale Response runs the risk of dividing Christians, causing confusion. To the extent that it has done this, the Yale Response has done the cause of interfaith harmony no good,
and it has made A Common Word to be a source of division and disharmony among Christians.
1 Guillaume, A. 1967. The life of Muhammad: a translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah. Karachi: Oxford University Press, pp.587-8.