Muslim, Jewish Scholars: More 'Jesus' Talk Needed

WASHINGTON - World renowned scholars representing Islam, Judaism and Christianity emphasized the need for more Jesus talk and Jesus action in conflict resolutions, noting that the world cannot afford a war between Christians and Muslims - who together make up half the world’s population.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, whom BBC considers “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam,” and Rabbi Marc Gopin, a leading Jewish conflict resolution expert, joined Calvin College president Dr. Gaylen Byker to discuss the role of religion in globalization and religious pluralism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities 31st Annual Presidents Conference.

The scholars agreed that most interfaith dialogue is a waste of time because they don’t discuss the deeper issue of turning hate into love.

“Interfaith dialogue that does not take faith seriously … [and] minimizes the differences and sources of conflict hostility is not likely to be very productive,” said Byker on Saturday.

Instead of “watering down” differences, the panel of experts urged deeper dialogue based around the character of Jesus in each religion.

“For me as a Muslim, Jesus is the ultimate symbol in the Koran of compassion, love for humanity, piety, and simplicity,” said Ahmed.

He explained that, to Christians, Jesus represents the son of God; for Muslims, he is a great prophetic figure; and for Jews, he is a rabbi.

“Let’s use him as a symbol of love and compassion then automatically we have one figure that can bring all three of these three civilizations together.”

Ahmed commented that in a sense Jesus was even a more powerful symbol than Abraham because he is more contemporary and inspires the entire Christian and Muslim world.

However, Rabbi Gopin – the only rabbi in history to be welcomed on a regular basis to Syria - pointed out that not everyone in the Jewish community will be comfortable framing religious conversations around Jesus. But he added that people need to know “it is OK for things to get a little unpleasant” in an authentic conversations.

The scholars emphasized the importance of education in facilitating authentic conversations between religions. They noted that current sectarian conflicts are essentially a battle of ideas where many uneducated young adults are being recruited by extremist groups to fight for causes they don’t fully understand.

“A lot of extremist thinking is weak intellectually,” argued Ahmed. “People don’t always like thinking that way but they don’t know what else to do with their enemies and the people they are afraid of.”

As an example, Ahmed shared about his own personal educational experience attending Christian schools and the lasting impact it had on his view of Christians. Ahmed had studied at Pakistan’s prestigious Catholic-run Burn Hall and the American missionary-operated Formen Christian College, where Pakistan President Musharraf also attended. The Islam scholar said that he and his classmates, many of which became diplomats, have the “highest respect” for their Christian teachers and Christians because of their education.

Calvin College president Byker agreed with Ahmed on the importance of education. He called on more Christian colleges to offer courses on Islam so that students can be “translators,” people who understand two religious languages, and can engage in interfaith dialogues.

“I believe Christianity is compatible with and in fact mandates real pluralism,” said Byker. “It involves people of different faith holding strong faith convictions and ethical positions and not having to water their religion down to become publicly secular in order to be accepted by each other and work together for the public good.”