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Common Word Conference: Conclusions and Consequences

Evangelical speakers underscore Christian message.

On the final morning of the Muslim-Christian conversation held last week at Yale, Christian participants eagerly anticipated what Christian speakers would have to say. Several Christian speakers had grounded their messages in explicitly Christian teachings, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. But there was a general sense that Muslim speakers had more pointedly articulated their beliefs during the nearly three days of meetings. (See earlier reports here and here.)

Early in the conference, reports circulated that when Regent College theologian John Stackhouse had used the parable of the Good Samaritan to present a clearly Christian viewpoint during the closed-door pre-conference workshop, some Muslim leaders had complained that Stackhouse was trying to evangelize them. Perhaps other Christian speakers were instinctively treading more softly.

During coffee breaks, several Christian participants told me they felt the Muslim speakers had been more carefully chosen to represent Islamic views. A Wednesday morning session which featured two famous preachers intensified this feeling.

The Muslim preacher was Yemenite Al-Habib Ali Al-Jifri, known popularly as Habib Ali. He ranks as one of the ten most popular preachers in the Muslim world (not just the Arab world). He exuded youth and charisma as he winningly invited Christians and Muslims to make religion once again a solution to the world's problems rather than a part of its problems. Al-Jifri called us to form an alliance of virtuous persons.

Winsome though he was, Al-Jifri did not hesitate to stress the absolute transcendence of God and the absolute unity of God, in contrast to the way paradoxical way that Christians affirm these things. (For Christians God is both transcendent and immanent; God is both one and three.)

The Christian preacher was the 81-year-old Dr. Robert Schuller. He is without doubt one of Christianity's most widely heard preachers, and he has possessed popularity and influence for a very long time. Schuller matched Al-Jifri in winsomeness and charisma. There seems to be no limit to Schuller's generosity of spirit. But his presentation fell short of making any distinctions between Islam and Christianity. Instead, he spoke of the need for Christians to "reframe the gospel." He stressed his "profound respect for people who are sincere in their faith" and talked about how at age 81 he knows he doesn't know all the answers and, indeed, wants to know "which of his answers are wrong."

Epistemic humility can be a virtue in some contexts, but when devout moderate Muslims are trying to get to know their Christian counterparts, explicitly Christian affirmations are called for. Instead, Dr. Schuller repeated his long-standing message about the importance of self-esteem.

By Thursday morning, Christian conferees were placing their trust in two symbolic evangelical figures to represent them well: Geoff Tunnicliffe, International Director and CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance, and Leith Anderson, pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

In his brief panel presentation,Tunnicliffe talked about the importance of rebuilding the metaphorical bridges that recent social and political storms have destroyed. In that context, he asked Muslims to stop stereotyping Christians–especially evangelicals.

During this conference we have heard how Muslims feel they have been stereotyped and stigmatized in the media. As evangelical Christians we feel the same stereotyping.

I ... [serve] a global family of over 420 million evangelical Christians. We are a diverse community of Christians, yet we are often portrayed through the media as being tied to one political agenda, one view of eschatology, and intolerant of all others. That is simply not the case. While we have a shared commitment to some core biblical truths, we also have a diversity of views on many issues. The ... vast majority of evangelical Christians live in the Global South and ... that will become even more pronounced in the years to come.

Just as we promise to seek to move beyond the stereotyping of Muslims found in the media, can I ask you, my Muslim friends, to get to know us beyond what is reported in the newspapers and television programs?

If we are ... to build this new bridge, this must be a part of the architecture.

Tunnicliffe also touched on issues of religious freedom, human rights, and "mutual respect for the sharing of our faith."

Leith Anderson gave a plenary address, and thus had a bit more time than Tunifcliffe to develop his evangelical Christian response to the conference. Nevertheless, with so much that he and others felt had been unsaid or underemphasized, Anderson had to pack his message tightly.

Anderson talked about evangelicals as good news people who share classic Christian beliefs, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. In addition, we are characterized by a deep commitment to the authority of the Bible. We stress that we are all sinners in need of reconciliation with God and with each other. Most of all, he said, evangelical Christians are identified as those who experience a personal relationship with God through repentance and turning to God in faith. We are followers of Jesus by personal choice. We are not about politics or money or power. Evangelism, he said, is one of our "pillars" (as important to us as the five pillars of Islam are to Muslim believers). Love of God, he said, begins with God and not us, he said, and God's love is unconditional and unilateral.

* * ** * *

Several speakers stressed the commonalities of commitment and parallels in belief that could allow Muslims and Christians to engage in common action.

Curiously, one topic that went almost unmentioned was the family. Dr. Mohamed Bechari, president of the Federal Society for Muslims in France, mentioned it in passing when he listed areas of common ground: The family is the core of society and the happiness of mankind, he said. He expressed surprise at some Christian clergy who accept "homosexual marriage," but he stopped short of calling for any kind of coordinated Christian and Muslim efforts on family issues.

The general silence on the family and the complete silence on potential common activity to strengthen the family puzzles me. While our traditional family systems and our understandings of gender relations differ (even as they differ within our respective communities), we do believe together that faithful, stable, two-sex marriage is essential to the well-being of society. Are there not ways to work together on family issues?

What was achieved in New Haven from July 28 to 31?

Christian and Muslim leaders have a better sense of each other as persons. We know whom to call when differences arise. We understand the pain and struggle of Christians in Muslim-dominant societies and of Muslims in Christian-dominant cultures–and if we don't understand, we no longer have any excuse for insensitivity.

Theological gaps which many of us knew only from books were underscored in new ways. The difference between Muslim and Christian understandings of love was significant. Christian love imitates divine love and is unconditional: We love not only our families and our neighbors but our enemies. Muslim love is more discriminating, taking the form of compassion on worthy persons in need (widows and orphans were used as an example). But they are not called to love unworthy persons (someone cited "the arrogant").

In practice, Christians often love only the worthy and fail to love their enemies. But the call to imitate God's love for us "while we were yet sinners" constantly tugs us toward loving more broadly.

I am grateful for the opportunity to meet, eat with, and listen to moderate Muslim leaders from near and far. I look forward to calling some them in order to work for the common good. And the next time I see a negative stereotype of Muslims, I plan to test its validity against some of the individuals I now know.

Posted:August 3, 2008 at 6:48PM
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Common Word Conference: Conclusions and Consequences