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Saturday, July 20, 2013

"A Common Word between Us and You": A Response from Just above the Roots

To the Islamic scholars and clerics who signed "A Common Word between Us and You," and to all those whom you represent:

Mercy and peace be yours.


First, forgive me for being late to the party. I only recently became aware of this thoughtful and gracious overture from global Islam to global Christianity composed five years ago.

At one level, my response to your letter means next to nothing. I do not have the kind of position of prominence and responsibility that the original recipients of your letter have. In fact, even in the position of responsibility that I do have as the pastor of a small American church, I do not write representing the group of believers that I lead but only representing myself.

Nevertheless, there may be some value in my response. As some Christian respondents indicated and as surely at least some of you agree, in order for there to be peace between Muslims and Christians in our world as a down-payment of peace for the rest of the world the sort of message of peace in "A Common Word" must echo not merely at the peaks of religious eminence but also among the rocks where the feet of the mountains meet. Or to change the picture, peace cannot come merely from the flowers but from the roots of the grass. As an ordinary pastor, I am part of the blade of grass just out of the ground, connected on the one side to the roots—the laity, who must make peace work—and on the other to further up the stalk eventually terminating in global Christian leaders. So I hope my vantage point lends a peculiar value to the conversation.

I also wish to indicate that of the responses you have already received, some of them represent me, either formally (organizationally) or by affinity. The one that I particularly would like to point out whose content best represents my views is the response from the Baptist World Alliance.

I want to begin by affirming your perceptive insight that the two Great Commandments to love the Lord our God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one's neighbor as oneself are at the center of the Christian faith. In fact, I affirm that those two commandments are the Christian faith entirely—as Jesus simply said, "Do this, and you will live" (Luke 10:25-28)—but only as these commandments are unpacked Christianly. If Christians and Muslims can all together affirm these two Great Commandments, then they truly do form "a common word"—so "common," in fact, that we may genuinely be able to call each other fellow worshipers with no boundary between us. But if the content, definitions, and relationships between these two commandments are not agreed upon, then the "common word" is actually not common between you and us after all.

Loving the One God

The heart of both of our faiths is the Godhood of God. For us, this includes his oneness, his onlyness; for you God's oneness dominates the entire doctrinal edifice, and that is where your letter to us begins. On the surface, it would appear that this is the ideal starting place for commonality between our faiths, but it obscures a difficult question.

As Christians discuss Islam among ourselves, one of our most controverted questions is whether we and you worship the same God. On the one hand, this would appear to be easily answered. Both you and we affirm that there is only one God. If there is only one, then by definition there are no alternatives. So if we claim that there is only one God and we worship that God, and you do the same, it would seem that there is no logical room for the idea that we worship different gods. In addition, when we talk about God's attributes and character and when you do the same, we use the same words to describe him, words like infinite, all-powerful, just, merciful. This also would indicate that we endeavor to love the same God with our whole being.

But on the other hand, when we say that there is one God, we do not mean exactly the same thing as when you say that there is one God. We mean that there is one Divine Nature or Divine Essence, one "Godness" that comprises all that it means for God to be God, his infinity, his power, his justice, his mercy. We also mean that three Persons revealed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each entirely possess that one Divine Nature so that they are exactly the same; that these three have total access to, knowledge of, and love for each other; that their loves and hates, choices and actions are all perfectly aligned; and that the only distinction that can be made between them is who comes from whom and how. All of this is what we mean when we say "one God."

I also note by way of explanation something that could easily make our faith especially confusing to you. In the Christian Scriptures, the word rendered in English "God" sometimes refers to all three Divine Persons as One and other times refers specifically to the Father. Similarly, the word rendered in English "Lord" sometimes refers to all three Divine Persons as One, sometimes to the Father, and sometimes to the Son. In the First Great Commandment, we believe that "God" means all three Divine Persons as One; therefore the command is to love the One God Who Is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

This is important, because it would seem that the very least we can do to love this God, especially with "all our mind," is to believe what God says about God's self. No one can love anyone without believing that the beloved's self-description is trustworthy. That trust is something of a base level of love. We believe that God has described God's self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We trust God's self-description, and this trust is essential, our bare minimum of what it means to love God.

We realize that at this time you cannot agree with this and do not accept this revelation, and therefore it is not certain that we and you agree in a meaningful sense on the Great Commandment to love God with all our being. It also suggests that if we worship the God Who Is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while you do not that we actually do not worship the same God. But whether or not that is the case, it still raises serious doubt that we and you are actually pursuing the same goal when we each speak of loving God.

Why We Love Our Neighbor

I could not help noticing that the section of "A Common Word" on "Love of the Neighbour" is strikingly brief compared to the rest of the document. I wonder why this is, and I hope that you have produced or will produce resources that explain this and more generally explain love of neighbor in Islam. I also noticed that in that section you do not describe the connection or relationship between love of God and love of neighbor. In other words, why are these two particular commandments the greatest, and what do they have to do with one another?

In Christianity, the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor is grounded in the relationality within God. As one of our apostles (John) wrote, "God is love," not just that God does love (1 John 4:8, 16). The love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is part of the very being of God.

Because relational love is inherent in God, relational love is a necessary part of human nature, since, as you and we agree, God created humanity in God's image and likeness. Among other appropriate inferences from this idea, it means that the relationality among humans is a reflection of God's inherent relationality, and love among humans is our God-intended imitation of God. Therefore, loving one's neighbor as fully as one loves oneself is love of God with one's entire being, because it is by loving one another that we obey God by displaying his image as he created us to do.

We hold that God did not only create humanity to reflect his relational love, but God saved (began redeeming and re-creating) humanity to reflect it also. We hold that by disobeying God and plunging into sin, humanity severed its connection to the love of God in crucial ways. In the same way that an irrigation system's water turns stagnant, stale, foul, and limited by being cut off from its water supply, so humanity's love soured as humans recirculated a finite quantity of tainted, impure, inferior, ignorant, often destructive, mortal love amongst each other. But God, being Love itself, began restoring us by reconnecting us to God and pouring God's infinite love back into us again. We hold that God did this through the incarnation and sacrifice of the Son. As John again put it, "By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God [the Father] sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:9-10).

Based on what you wrote in "A Common Word," it would seem that in Islam the love of neighbor is essentially legal, whereas in Christianity it is essentially relational though sometimes expressed in legal terms. It also appears that in Islam God's love is God's response to those who love (Aal ‘Imran, 3:31), whereas in Christianity God's love is primarily God's enablement of those who love—in other words, "We love because he loved us first" (1 John 4:19).

With, For, and Against

In "A Common Word," you thoughtfully compare two of our own Scriptures, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Matthew 12:30) and, "For whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40; also Luke 9:50 which replaces "us" with "you"). However, both of these sayings need to be looked at more closely in their respective contexts.

You cite Theophylact of Ohrid as interpreting Matthew 12:30 to refer to demons as the ones who were against Jesus. As Jesus is teaching about demons in that part of Matthew, that is assuredly the case. But just because Jesus' principle applies to demons, it does not negate the saying's application to humans as well. Theophylact himself pointed out that Jesus' human critics were the ones "scattering" people away from hearing and being healed by him so that, to Jesus, the critics were like the demons.

As it happens, the saying in Mark (and Luke) also involves demons. When Jesus' disciples were jealous of a stranger who threw demons out of people in Jesus' name, Jesus replied, "Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me" (Mark 9:39). The man in the story who was "not against" Jesus and his followers was a man who worked a miracle through his faith in Jesus as the source of power over supernatural evil.

What both sayings have in common is Jesus portrayed as the peerless Savior of human beings from demonic forces. The sayings also agree, from different angles, that a person is either "for" and "with" Jesus or "against" him. There is no neutrality or third option.

I am grateful for the respect that you have shown us Christians by the respect that you show Jesus Christ in "A Common Word," which is founded on the honor paid to Jesus by the Prophet Muhammad. But a crucial word of clarification is in order. Though the English word "Christ" and the Greek word it roughly transliterates quickly evolved into a name for Jesus as early as the 1st century C.E., it did not begin this way. "Christ" comes from a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for "anointed" (in English roughly transliterated "messiah"). "Christ," then, is a title: he is Jesus "the Anointed."

The background of the title "Anointed" comes from the richness of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we Christians call the Old Testament. Formally anointed men were leaders: prophets (for example, Elisha, 1 Kings 19:16), priests (for example, Aaron, Leviticus 8), and kings (for example, David, 1 Samuel 16:1-13). Each of these three roles was mediatorial—prophets, priests, and kings were go-betweens between God's people and God. When Christians call Jesus "Christ," the Anointed One, we are naming him the "one intermediary between God and humanity" (1 Timothy 2:5-6), the final, complete, superior, living bridge between us and God. Jesus the Christ, God the Son, fulfilled this role not only in what he did by serving as "a ransom for all" through his death but also in his very person as the one who possesses all that is inherent in God's nature and also all that is inherent in human nature.

Therefore, when Christians think about being "with" and "for" Jesus, we think the same as we do about loving God with all our being. The least we can do to be "with" and "for" Jesus is to believe what God has revealed about him, including what he says about himself. Distrust about something that basic is incompatible with being "with" and "for" him. If he truly is the Christ, the sole Anointed Intermediary, with all that that means, then any honor shown to Jesus that falls short of that acknowledgment is in the end mistrust—in the end, it is standing "against" him. Thus, despite the sincere honor that you and all Islam endeavor to pay to Jesus, if it does not affirm what Jesus said about himself as the most minimal honor, it casts serious doubt onto whether our honor of Jesus and yours truly cohere in "a common word between us and you" and if we really are both "for" Jesus.


To conclude, thank you for the concern for our world and indeed for our lives that led you to do the difficult but well-done work of composing "A Common Word" and submitting it to us. It is in the same spirit of grace that I compose this response to you. I write in the belief that whether or not this word truly is common—an assertion about which I have grave doubts, as my response describes—nevertheless sharing a common word is not a requirement for us to love each other as we both believe we ought to do. We can, we should, and I pledge to you that I will. Your affirmation of the basis for religious freedom in Islam—a principle that historically has been especially beloved to us Christians in the Baptist tradition—gives me hope that you truly do and will too.

I notice that you have explored the first three of our four books called Gospels in your search for "a common word between us and you." That is an excellent place to start. However, let me suggest that for further exploration, the best Christian writing you might peruse is the First Epistle of John (commonly abbreviated "1 John"), which I cited in this response. I mention 1 John because the book carefully considers love of the one God, love of neighbor, what it means to be for Jesus, and the relationships between all these ideas, and it does so in a remarkably small space. Some study of this short book would likely reveal the essence of Christianity more efficiently than any other approach.

Once again, thank you for the thoughtful care and careful thought you have given us. I join you in praying for peace in our world. And I pray that you and we both would excel ever further in our pursuit of loving God. Wal-Salaamu ‘Alaykum.

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