A common word for a common future

A common word for a common future


Most people today see a heavy and dangerous storm of tensions between Christians and Muslims as menacing the world. Since the Crusades, relations between these two faith communities – currently comprised of just slightly under half the human race have rarely been at a lower point than they are today. Tensions, deep conflicts, and often murderous violence between them are leaving a trail of blood and tears as well as a mounting deposit of deeply painful and potently dangerous memories. These clashes undermine the hopes and efforts of many to live in peace, to flourish as individuals and communities. Worse still, this stunted living enveloped in hopelessness often sucks people even deeper down the whirlpool of violence.

But many Muslims and Christians sense a new wind of hope beginning to blow – they feel the warm sun’s rays penetrating the stormy gloom around us. A Common Word Between Us and You-likely the most important interfaith document to appear in the past four decades – is one such ray shining through the barely parting clouds. The central message of this Muslim letter, endorsed by some of the most prominent Muslim leaders worldwide and addressed to Christian leaders across the planet, is as simple as it is profound: What binds Muslims and Christians together is common belief in the Oneness of God and the commitment to love God and neighbor. This same belief and the same commitment, of course, bind Christians and Muslims to their elder sibling Judaism, the original Abrahamic faith that has transmitted to the world these two divine commandments in the first place.


As a reminder, A Common Word was issued not just in an atmosphere of stormy relations between Muslims and Christians but as a response to what many Muslims have experienced as a Christian provocation. Its occasion was the famous Regensburg address of Pope Benedict XVI delivered in September 2006. In it Pope Benedict quoted the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleolo- gos, who in a debate with a learned Persian Muslim said: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Many devout Muslims worldwide felt insulted.

Yet despite the perceived provocation, uttered in a context of deteriorating relations between Muslims and Christians – perhaps in part because of the provocation – key Muslim leaders gathered around A Common Word did not respond in kind. Notwithstanding the present conflicts, they chose to speak of benevolence and beneficence, not to express hatred or to seek revenge. They turned their felt provocation into an occasion to send into the wider world what seemed to many an utterly novel idea: For Muslims, the commitment to love God and neighbor is central, and they share it with Christians (as well as Jews – religiously, their common elder siblings). It has been said that God knows how to write straight even on crooked lines. The signatories of A Common Word also wrote “straight” on the crooked line of deep tensions. The whole Christian community, indeed the whole world, should be grateful to them.

I trust it will not be taken as self-serving if I mention another, much smaller ray that penetrated the stormy clouds of ChristianMuslim relations. It was the Yale response to A Common Word, titled Loving God and Neighbor Together. What’s significant about the Yale response, of course, is not so much that it was written – rather, that it was endorsed by over five hundred Christian leaders, many of whom are heads of large, worldwide con- stituencies comprised of literally hundreds of millions of believers. Why did they endorse it? Because their holy book tells them to live in peace with all people and because they sensed a danger of global proportions if a just peace between Muslims and Christians does not tri- umph over tensions and injustice. The Yale response, though early and widely endorsed, was not the only response to A Common Word. Many Christians from all corners of the world have responded favorably as well, most recently and with great theological depth and ecumenical sensitivity Archbishop of Canter- bury Rowan Williams. The broad support of A Common Word in the Muslim community and the favorable response to it in the Christian community suggest that we may be poised for a sea of change in Muslim- Christian relations. A day of transition from deep conflicts to mutually beneficial coexistence may be dawning.


Lest someone suppose that this assessment is a. too-quick and somewhat cheap triumph of religion over conflict, let me make plain what I am not saying about the significance of finding commonality between Christianity and Islam in the dual command of love. First, to have the dual command of love in common does not equate with amalgamation into one and the same religion. Even if there is significant agreement on love of God and neighbor, many differences remain – differences that are not accidental to each faith but which define them. Some of these differences concern their basic understandings of God, love and neighbor.

For instance, Christians believe that the One and Unique God, who is utterly exalted above all creation, is the Holy Trinity, and that God has shown unconditional love for humanity in that Jesus Christ as God’s Lamb bore the sin of the world. Muslims generally do not share these beliefs. Other differences concern the sources of revelation. Muslims revere the Prophet Muhammad as the “seal of the prophets” and the Holy Qur’an as sacred Scripture. Christians do not. Significant agreement on love of God and neighbor does not erase significant differences. What agreement does is this: It enables those of deep faith to respect and protect others despite these differences, leads them to get to know each other in their differences, and helps them live together harmoniously notwithstanding their differences.

Second, to agree on the dual command of love is not to say that all the practical problems causing tensions between these two communities have now been resolved. Many thorny issues remain – large and small wars in which Christians and Muslims are involved, persecution and lack of full religious freedom, problems concerning evangelism and da’wa, and many others. The common commitment to love of God and neighbor does not eliminate all conflicts. What common commitment does is this: It provides a basis on which Muslims and Christians can productively discuss and overcome these conflicts.

Thirdly, and equally significantly, agreement on the dual command of love encourages each community to hold the other accountable to its best insights and commitments. A Muslim as the target of Christian verbal attacks can now say to a Christian, “How can you claim that you love me when you only speak ill of my God, when you malign my Prophet, and when you despise my way of life?” A Christian convert from Islam can now say to a hostile Muslim, “How can you say that you love me if you want to kill me because I have followed my conscience and embraced the Christian faith?” The common commitment to love of neighbor has real consequences on the ground. If practiced, it has the potential to defuse many serious conflicts of a global reach (such as that of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad).


But can one bring about a shift from what feels like a clash of civilizations to conviviality of faith traditions by promoting what some people may deem as an esoteric feeling of human devotion to God and a soft and nebulous sentiment of love? Should we not be grappling with the harder realities of life? Should we not be discussing poverty and economic development, freedom of expression, education, stewardship of the environment, pluralism and democracy, the balance of power, resistance to extremists of all stripes, or modes of countering violence with effective force? If religion has anything to do with conflicts between Christians and Muslims, the critics may continue, religious passions stemming from single-minded devotion to God as the champion of one’s cause are the source of these conflicts, not a means to overcome them. Less religion is what we need, not more. Take God out of it all, critics conclude, and let people keep religious devotion locked in the privacy of their hearts, and restrict the virtues and delights of love to friendship and family. Let instead individual and national interests, as well as the balance of power tempered by the claims of hard-nosed justice, regulate worldly affairs.

So what worldly good can come of promoting love of God and love of neighbor? Why do we see a sign of hope in A Common Word? Partly because, properly understood, love is not a soft and a nebulous emotion but a tough, practical virtue of benevolence and beneficence toward all, a virtue of which justice is an absolutely integral part. And religious faith is not impractical at all! For people of faith, Christians and Muslims alike, God is a motivating and sustaining power, the Holy One who gives meaning, weight, and direction to their life. In the current jargon, faith is what “makes them tick”.


It’s not just love’s toughness and the orienting character of faith, however, that makes these two loves – love of God and love of neighbor – socially important. Consider the undiminished vibrancy of faith in the contemporary world. To the surprise of many – notably those who believe that religion will gradually retreat before the light of reason and the wonders of technological development – the world today is becoming a more religious rather than a less religious place. The world is not progressively secularizing; to the contrary, it is desecularizing. The trend is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Religious faiths, notably Christianity and Islam, are reasserting themselves in two important senses. First, the number of their adherents in the world is growing in absolute and relative terms as compared to non-religious worldviews. Second, religious people increasingly consider their faith not as simply a private affair but a significant shaper of their pub- lic engagements. Religion matters profoundly, and matters in the public as well as the private sphere. I hope this claim will not be heard as a statement of religious triumphalism. I am aware that religion is often employed to wrap appallingly base causes in the aura of the sacred and to legitimize, even pro- mote, violence. My point is not to deny this obvi- ous fact. Neither is it to suggest that disbelief will be pushed out of existence or that non-believers’ freedoms ought to be restricted. My aim is rather to remind that religion matters and to point to a significant and unavoidable consequence of this fact.

What is this consequence? Negatively, if religion matters, no peace between religious people will be achieved by pretending that it is merely a veil hiding some undeniable economic, political, or other interests. Positively, if religion matters, we have to find resources for the conviviality of religious people within in each faith tradition itself.


It is because faith matters that the Common Word initiative is so significant. First, A Common Word points both Muslims and Christians to what is undeniably essential in each faith and common to both-love of God and love of neighbor. Second, it shows how that which is essential in each faith and common to both has the power to bind them together because it encourages – indeed, demands – that their adherents seek the good of others, not just their own good. If it is true that the dual command of love binds the faiths together, the consequences are revolutionary in the best sense of the word. We no longer have to say, “The deeper your faith is, the more at odds with others you will be!” (provided, of course, that “deep faith” means not just “emotionally strong faith” but “intelligent and informed faith”). To the contrary, we must say: “The deeper your faith is, the more in harmony with others you will live!” A deep faith no longer leads to clashes – it fosters conviviality.

What some people deride as an impractical and soft commitment to love God and neighbor – but what is really attachment to the Source of all reality and practice of beneficence – has real-life effects in defusing conflicts and fostering con- viviality. It makes possible what would otherwise remain unattainable in a world of personally vibrant and socially assertive faiths. We can embrace deep faith while at the same time respecting the rights and promoting the well- being of those who do not share it. Deep faith expresses itself in love, and love, understood as benevolence and beneficence, leads to respect of and struggle for others’ rights. Put differently, and maybe surprisingly to some, commitment to the properly understood love of God and neighbor makes deeply religious persons, because they are deeply religious, into dedicated social pluralists. When Christians and Muslims commit themselves to practising the dual command of love, they are not satisfying some private religious fancy; instead, they are actively fostering conviviality in our ineradicably pluralistic world that is plagued by deep divisions. They are making possible the constructive collaboration of people of different faiths in the common public space for the common good.


The significance of the Common Word initiative goes beyond relations between Muslims and Christians. The initiative holds the potential for providing a good platform for Christians and Muslims together to engage great and troubling problems facing humanity today, if God’s mercy encompasses all, or, as Christians might say, if God’s love is universal, then so should the love of Muslims and Christians be – love for all humanity that is concerned for all aspects of every person’s life. We live in a thoroughly interconnected and interdependent world that is and knows itself as one world (as we have been made painfully aware by the ongoing deep financial crisis, and as the ecological crisis attests). We’re all in the same rocking boat, so to speak, and the good of one is the good of all; the ill of one is the ill of all. It is also a world caught in a whirlwind of unprecedented change. It seems that nothing is stable and that everything can – and eventually will – be overturned.

In the context of such highly dynamic and thoroughgoing interdependence, a “common word” between Muslims and Christians should not just be about mutual relations between these two faiths. It should be also, and maybe above all, about the common good for the little boat that is our common world. In addition to sitting faceto-face and trying to make peace with one another, we need to start walking shoulder to shoulder in trying to heal the deep wounds and inspire the noble hopes of all people in our common world. Human flourishing and even human survival may depend on it.


But what would it take for Muslims and Christians to have a common word with one another aimed at a better common future? How can we make fruitful the encounters of those committed to God and each other as neighbors?

Someone has said, somewhat surprisingly, that in an encounter between you and me,/our are always involved, not just two. Two of those four are, obviously, you and I. But also present are my image of you and your image of me. If this is so, then an encounter is fruitful when my image of you has become more as you truly are, and your image of me has become more as I truly am. That’s a helpful way to think about encounters between people of different faiths. It isn’t quite complete, however.

In every encounter seven are involved – a perfect number for Christians. There are you and I, and there’s my image of you and your image of me – the obvious two and somewhat surprising four.

But there’s also my image of myself (which may not be true to who I am and may be very much unlike who you think I am). And there’s your image of yourself (which may not be true to who you are and may be very much unlike who J think you are). So that’s six in one encounter. The consequence? I have to learn to see myself as I truly am, not just demand that you see me as I am (which is often a demand that you see me not as I truly am but as I think I am). Similarly, you have to learn to see yourself as you truly are, not just demand that I see you as you are (which is, again, often a demand that I see you not as you truly are but as you think you are).

But I spoke of seven in every encounter? Where does the seventh come from? In every encounter there is also another One present, the categorically unique and utterly incomparable One, the absolutely truthful and infinitely merciful One. God is present in every encounter. As the truthful One, God sees each of us truthfully rather than distorting our identities. And God’s truthful perception of us demands our truthful self-perception as well as the truthful perceiving of others. Further, as the merciful One, God desires us to be merciful in all our dealings with one another and with the world. Indeed, God desires of us to be as truthful and as merciful with ourselves, with one another, and with the world as He himself is truthful and merciful.

If God is always involved in any fruitful encounter, then it is clear that the seventh one is really the First One – not first in a series, but the first one who makes the series possible at all. Fruitful encounter between those who love God and neighbor is possible only because the God of love makes it possible – makes possible the encounter as well as the love of God and of neighbor around which it takes place. Hence both our love of God and our love of neighbor appropriately must start with the recognition that we and our world are loved by the God of infinite love. The dual command of love is rooted in the simple and the most sublime reality of the God who ” is love”, as the Epistle of John states.


It is not too much to say that the Common Word initiative, with its emphasis on the dual command of love, has the potential of becoming a historic watershed defining the relations between the two numerically largest faiths in the world today for the good of all humanity. But will it? Will A Common Word be a seed that has fallen on unfertile ground and dies? Or will it grow into a great tree under whose branches many will be able to find shade? Will it remain just a document that gathers the dust of history? Or will it become a common platform from which to address effectively many areas of tension between Muslims and Christians, as well as many of the burning issues in our interconnected world?

Which of these possibilities will be realized? If Muslims and Christians embrace the initiative and commit themselves to love of God and neighbor, the Common Word initiative will open up a new future for Muslims, Christians and Jews – a future in which many swords will be turned into plowshares and clashes replaced by conviviality.

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