Published: 00:00 GMT Daylight Time - Tuesday 12 August 2008
Reflections by Barnabas Fund on the `Final Declaration of the Yale Common Word Conference, July 2008`
Country/Region: UNITED KINGDOM
As a continuation of the “Common Word” process, and following the initial Yale response to it, a conference entitled “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Muslims and Christians” was held at Yale on 28-31 July. It involved more than 60 Muslim delegates, a similar number of Christians (including some prominent evangelical leaders), and nine Jewish guests. The conference ended with the publication of a “Final Declaration of the Yale Common Word Conference, July 2008”. These reflections are a response to this declaration and its attendant documentation.
We refer readers also to our earlier response to the original Yale letter , as well as to other papers published on the Yale and “A Common Word” official websites.
We fully affirm and support all endeavours to work for peace in this torn world and to alleviate its widespread and shameful poverty. We also affirm the need for respect for all people and the primacy of love in our dealings with others. We accept the sincerity and goodwill of all involved in the process.
However, noting that the “Final Declaration” received the unanimous support of delegates, and their professed intention not to compromise on essentials, we offer some reservations about its Biblical and theological basis as well as certain of its underlying assumptions.
- The opening address at the conference raises five points, including concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US foreign policy (and the purported influence of “Christian fundamentalists” upon it), that seem designed to put Christians on the defensive. But these are not issues for which Christians may fairly be held responsible, and our supposed guilt in respect of them should not be assumed in Christian-Muslim discussions and declarations.
- The opening passage of the declaration includes the Qur’anic commandment to speak to Christians and Jews (Q 3:64), which is actually a call to them to convert to Islam. It also includes the “ascribe no partner” phrase, which is a Muslim critique of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus. Muslims consider these to involve the most grievous sin of shirk (i.e. associating a created being with God) and those who hold them to be infidels (kafirun). It seems that the implications of this verse were not realised or discussed.
- The affirmation of the Islamic source texts as “sacred texts” along with the Bible is ambiguous. Many will read it as implying that the Qur’an is a revealed word of God.
- The statement that “no Muslim or Christian ... should tolerate the denigration or desecration of one another’s sacred symbols, founding figures, or places of worship” requires clarification. For orthodox Muslims, it is blasphemy to declare that Muhammad is not a prophet or that the Qur’an is not divinely inspired, or to encourage a Muslim to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity and the only way to God. Yet we want to affirm that these are all Christian imperatives.
- Affirmed in isolation from other divine attributes, the unity and absoluteness of God reduces our understanding of God to its lowest common denominator. This accurately expresses the Muslim view but not the Biblical and Christian one, which is Trinitarian and affirms divine immanence.
- Including Islam in “our common Abrahamic heritage” and in the “Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic heritage” implies the raising of Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an to the same level as Christianity, suggesting that they too are God-sent, God-given, and God-revealed. This is a step towards affirming that Muhammad is a prophet and the Qur’an a word of God. As Christians we affirm that the promises of Abraham are fulfilled in Christ (Galatians 3).
- We affirm the declaration’s assertion of the right to the preservation of life, religion, property, intellect and dignity. We note, however, that it does not similarly assert the right of individual human beings to choose, change and proclaim their religion without fear of sanctions.
- We do not feel that the issue of full reciprocity has been effectively addressed. For instance, Muslims in Western states have freedom to propagate their faith and build mosques. The reciprocal freedoms for Christians freely to propagate Christianity and build churches in Muslim lands are severely limited or, in Saudi Arabia, totally non-existent.
- The declaration mentions that freedom of religion was discussed during the conference. But it is unclear whether these discussions included the Islamic law of apostasy, and the persecution of Christians in Muslim states. Shari‘a law imposes discrimination and disabilities on Christians (and other non-Muslims), including their exclusion from positions of authority over Muslims and limitations on the public expression of their religion.
- The opening address raised mission as one of the five main factors causing tensions in the world. Again, it is unclear whether the imbalance in the Muslim view of Christian mission and Islamic mission (da‘wa) was discussed. The former is seen as an aggressive attack on Muslims, but the latter as fully legitimate in all its forms; indeed, any obstruction of da‘wa is considered a legitimate cause for jihad.
- We suggest that the message of “A Common Word” as elucidated by this conference and the ongoing process, which participants have committed themselves to carry back to their churches and communities, is much less than the message of hope that “our world is longing for”, and not one that will “heal” and “nourish”. It falls far short of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as set forth clearly in the Old and New Testaments as the only hope for this world.
- The conference paper on Love and World Poverty seems to imply a utopian eschatological vision of “a better world” to be brought into being by the cooperation of Muslims and Christians in alleviating poverty. We fully affirm the need to take practical measures to tackle poverty, but the Biblical view is that the Kingdom of God rests ultimately on the preaching of the Gospel of Christ and the building up of His Church.
We raise these issues because of our concern for the Biblical Christian faith and for the implications of the “Common Word” process for Christian minorities in Muslim lands, Christian mission in Muslim lands, and converts from Islam to Christianity around the world.
Although we respect and love Muslims, Christians cannot accept Islam as an equal and valid revelation from God. The denial of the deity of Christ and His redemptive work as well as of the Trinity will always stand in the way of interfaith dialogue and co-operation. Just as Muslims cannot accept the Christian denial of Muhammad’s prophethood and the Qur’an’s status as the word of God, so Christians must take a clear stand on the central doctrines of their faith. To do so might result in a loss of popularity and influence, but loyalty and faithfulness to Christ, to His people and to His mission are much more important in God’s eyes.
We strongly affirm the need to address the many pressing issues faced by our world, including social and economic injustice, environmental concerns, and religious intolerance and violence. To this end we encourage the active co-operation of all people of goodwill, of all religions and none. But the proper basis of such co-operation is our common humanity, not a supposed common theology such as that proposed in the declaration.
Furthermore, the source of some of the world’s problems may lie partly both in the religious source texts and in their interpretations; this needs to be acknowledged.
In sum, inherent in this process is the danger of downplaying the uniqueness and deity of Christ, the Bible as the word of God, and mission as a Christian imperative. It may also promote Christian acceptance of Islam and other religions as valid and salvific ways to God. We pray that in our varied globalised and plural world contexts we as Christians may continue to be faithfully focused on Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and not lose heart in bearing witness to God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2. Corinthians 5:17-21).