He, Pope Benedict XVI, spoke a critical word regarding Islamic faith shortly after being elevated to the papacy. After an initial outcry, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics issued, on October 13, 2007, A Common Word Between Us and You (see p. 10). The pope then expressed regrets for some of what he had said and invited Muslim leaders to meet.
A year later, scholar-leaders of both religions dialogued for three days at the Vatican as Americans’ attention focused on presidential elections (see p. 9). The event on the European side of the Atlantic may prove to be as historic as the one on the American side.
The unprecedented meeting between leaders of the world’s two largest religions followed efforts of many smaller groups to articulate their understanding of commonalities and differences between the faiths. One of those efforts veered through the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this past June in San Jose, Calif.
As in recent past GA’s, parliamentary process provided a clumsy mechanism for formulating profound and complicated theological matters. Our legislative process works swimmingly when assessing carefully developed theological papers. Indeed, this GA commissioned the Interfaith Relations and Theology and Worship Offices of the General Assembly Council to prepare a document on this subject for consideration by a future GA. If experience holds true, that document will excel above anything anybody has written on the subject. But the commissioners wanted to issue some preliminary thoughts, and their formulation via motions and amendments stumbled awkwardly.
The reasons for weighing in were obvious: the need to halt religion’s complicity in fueling conflagration worldwide, the desire to end religious persecutions especially against those converting from one faith to another, the desire to affirm the peaceful religious devotion expressed by most Muslims, and the hope to cultivate neighborly friendships between our peoples.
Huge impediments stood in the way: language and cultural differences, sectarianism within religious traditions, core theological incompatibilities, and the bitterness that past violence — including religion-sponsored terrorism — has created.
The commissioners affirmed some commonalities: “ … as children of this loving God, we share the commandments of love for God and neighbor, the requirement to care for the poor … ” But they also outlined some differences. “ … we hold differing understandings of how God has been revealed to humankind … ”
That difference is a humdinger. We Christians believe that Jesus is the only fully human person to also be fully divine. We believe that he alone died for the sins of the world, rose victorious from the dead, ascended to heaven, and thereby granted the grace that reconciles people to God. Not only did he say, “I am the way, the truth and the life; nobody comes to the Father but by me;” nobody else has offered a way of atonement for sins or resurrection from the dead.
He stands alone.
Yet, his grace is given not just to those believing in him. The book of Hebrews acclaims as exemplary the faith of saints who had never heard his name (ch. 11), and it assures that through him they have received the promise (11:39,40). A millennium earlier, King David declared such confidence in the afterlife that, upon the death of his newborn son, he said, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). That son, we might add, died one day too soon even to be marked with the covenantal sign of circumcision.
If the grace and mercy of Christ saved some in biblical days who did not know his name, perhaps he can and will save some in our day who don’t know his name either. Or, as another PC(USA) document (Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ), adopted almost unanimously at the 2002 GA, stated: Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called
to place their faith, hope, and love in him. … No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.
We who affirm the Good News of Christ’s uniqueness can engage in substantial dialogue with adherents to the Muslim faith. We can break bread together on each other’s holidays. We can honor their devotion. We can learn from them. We can welcome converts. Such efforts, supplementing those of Benedict XVI, could promote peace. That would be historic.