A large group of senior Islamic clerics and teachers has recently issued "A Common Word Between Us and You," a statement addressed to churches urging greater comity between Muslims and Christians. The clerics unapologetically espouse Muslim teachings, while asserting there is common theological ground between the two faiths. The Vatican and some conservative Protestants have commented that the Muslim outreach merits a thoughtful response.
But the Religious Left, always anxious to burnish its multicultural credentials, has responded to "Common Word" with enthusiasm.
The National Council of Churches' (NCC) top (though outgoing) interfaith official hailed the Islamic outreach, saying it will fuel the "urgency" of the NCC's own Muslim-Christian dialogue. Part of the NCC's own interfaith ministry, as Shanta Premawardhana described it, is standing "in solidarity with Muslims at a time when many Muslims in the United States faced significant levels of discrimination," post 9-11.
Premawardhana thanked the Muslim clerics and scholars for speaking out against Muslim "extremists." Similarly, he boasted, the NCC is trying to "counter the voices of extremist Christians with initiatives aimed at teaching Christians about Islam and helping churches build relationships with mosques in their local communities," Premawardhana added.
Actually, "Common Word" did not criticize Muslim "extremists." Nor did it attempt to modify Islamic teachings that demand that non-Muslims live in subordination to Islamic authority in majority Muslim societies. But it did call for non-violent interaction between Muslims and Christians, and it actually speaks of "freedom of religion." This makes it "moderate."
Perhaps an even more effusive reaction to "Common Word" was a quickly organized but lengthy statement from Ivy League seminary scholars, who were "deeply encouraged and challenged" by the Muslim outreach. They titled their piece "Loving God and Neighbor Together," dedicated it, in typical seminary speak, to the "Infinitely Good God whom we should love with all our being."
"We receive 'A Common Word as a Muslim hand of conviviality and cooperation extended to Christians world-wide," the academics enthused. "In this response we extend our own Christian hand in return, so that together with all other human beings we may live in peace and justice as we seek to love and our neighbors."
The Ivy League seminary professors included with every reference to Jesus Christ a "Peace be Upon Him," in a wan attempt to show the Muslims how attuned they are to Islamic lingo. No doubt the Islamic scholars will be impressed.
And the Ivy Leaguers opened their manifesto with apologies for Christianity's perceived sins against Islam. "We want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g. the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. the war in Iraq) Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors."
Naturally, the Ivy Leaguers want the Muslims' forgiveness for all of Christianity's countless outrages. "Before we 'shake your hand' in responding to your letter, we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world."
The "Common Word," unlike the left-wing Western religious response to it, carefully avoided political statements. There is no mention of Iraq, or the Palestinians, or even of the Crusades. No apologies are offered for any of Islam's historic depredations, nor did the Islamic clerics request any apologies from their Christian audience. But the Religious Left, when conversing with perceived victims of the Christian West, is always anxious to extend remorse.
The Ivy Leaguers also took some other political swipes, warning against serving "idols" such as a "ruler, a nation, [or] economic progress," which leads to "deep and deadly conflicts." The professors commended the Muslim clerics & scholars for their "generosity" and courage.
"It is with humility and hope that we receive your generous letter, and we commit ourselves to labor together in heart, soul, mind and strength for the objectives you so appropriately propose," the Ivy Leaguers concluded portentously, sounding like a sad caricature of the Founding Fathers.
The Ivy League signers of "Loving god and Neighbor Together" included the dean of Yale Divinity School, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, and several seminary professors from those schools.
Unlike the responses from the NCC and the Ivy Leaguers, the Muslim statement definitively asserted Islamic beliefs about Allah, about Muhammad as his only Prophet, about the authority of the Koran, and about divine judgment. Neither the NCC nor the academics appeared to be anywhere near as resolute in presenting Christian doctrines about God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the end times.
If the Muslim scholars behind "Common Word" do not already know it, they will soon learn: left-wing clerics and scholars in the West often will not talk about much less defend Christian theology because they themselves do not believe in its historic doctrines. For them, Christianity is mostly just a vessel through which the goals of the political Left can advance.
In dialogues with Muslims, the Religious Left wants to apologize for Christianity and form common alliances against traditional Christians and Jews, while also denouncing various foreign and military policies of the U.S. No doubt, many "Common Word" Muslim scholars and clerics will be glad to indulge this. But if they are looking for substantive exchanges over theological differences between Christianity and Islam, they will have to look elsewhere.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.