A Common Word 1

6 January 2008 at :00 am

On October 13 last year there was published an open letter from 138 senior Muslim scholars and religious leaders addressed to the Pope, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Christian leaders. It was called ‘A Common Word between Us and You’. There is an internet site devoted to it (http://www.acommonword.com), so you can easily read A Common Word in a shortened form and see the discussion it has raised. Still more Muslim scholars and leaders have now signed up to it, and Christian leaders such as the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with a number of leading Christian theologians, have all welcomed it. It is probably the most important bridge-building initiative from Muslim leaders to Christians there has ever been. This is why I shall be devoting the sermons at Matins this month to this letter.

This is how the summary of the letter begins:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

A Common Word between Us and You

Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.

The sacred texts of Christianity include, of course, the sacred texts of Judaism. I wish myself that A Common Word had been directly addressed to Jews as well. Though the letter is sent to Christians, the approach could include Jews as well. I hope Jewish scholars also will give careful consideration to what is being said.

But before coming to the content of the letter I want to say a word about the approach: that of spelling out what we have in common before we begin to look at our differences - and looking at what divides us only in the light of what we have in common. This is an approach which has proved immensely fruitful in Christian-to-Christian, ecumenical dialogue. My own experience of it has been as a member of the Anglican-Roman International Commission, which has been working in this way for thirty years. When our dialogue started, well before my time, Roman Catholic Christians and Anglican Christians tended to look at each other in the light of all the things that divide us – our divisions on the eucharist, on priesthood, on the papacy, on doctrine (especially doctrine about Mary and the saints), and on ethical issues, such as our views of contraception, abortion and divorce. It was a pretty formidable list. However, once the early members of ARCIC began concentrating on what we had in common they began to produce a series of reports, always beginning from what we could say together before they came to what still divided us. Our common Christian faith was seen as a koinonia, a sharing with God and with each other. Through the work of ARCIC and other similar dialogues amongst Christians we now have a great deal of experience of working in this way. Relations between Christians of different traditions have been transformed. A Common Word breaks new ground by challenging us to approach our differences with those of another faith in exactly the same way. Can we say with integrity that there are ‘foundational principles’ which are common to both faiths, as this open letter suggests? This is what I shall be discussing over the next three weeks.

For me, it feels like very early days to be confident in answering such a question. I know very little about Islam. By contrast, I recently worked out that I have spent well over a hundred days – about four months – in residential meetings, living with my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers as we have engaged on ARCIC work. When you live and work and pray with people it changes you. In a dialogue of intense listening and intense sharing everybody is changed – or it is not a real dialogue at all. We need to spend time with our Muslim sisters and brothers to understand what we can say together about our common faith in God.

New ways of doing this are emerging all the time. The most exciting that I have discovered is called Scriptural Reasoning. Scriptural Reasoning is a way of reading the Scriptures in the company of Jews and Muslims as we search for deeper understanding and love. In a small group, Jewish, Christian and Muslim participants meet to study their Scriptures on a common theme. The Jews choose a passage or passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanakh) – they introduce the texts and explain how these texts are interpreted within their tradition. The Christians introduce the texts they have selected from the New Testament and the Muslims the texts they have selected from the Qur’an. Gradually, the discussion moves towards an intense sharing around the common theme. The excitement of these groups is that through the questions and insights which come from those of other faiths one can come to understand one’s own Scriptures in a new way. And very often what one discovers is that there is much more in common between the Scriptures, and the traditions, of the different faiths than one first thought. Of course, differences also become plain – but only in the context of what is shared, in the context of a shared dialogue. There is a website which can tell you more:
http://www.scripturalreasoning.org.uk. I mention it here because this is a key example of the way in which Jews and Christians and Muslims are already exploring together to see if we can find ‘A Common Word’.

The open letter explains that the phrase ‘A Common Word’ comes from the Qur’an:

Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). (Aal ‘Imran 3:64).

The letter explains:
that none of us shall take others for lords beside God, means ‘that none of us should obey in disobedience to what God has commanded, nor glorify them [other lords – ed.] by prostrating to them in the same way as they prostrate to God’. In other words, that Muslims, Christians and Jews should be free to each follow what God commanded them, and not have ‘to prostrate before kings and the like’; for God says elsewhere in the Holy Qur’an: Let there be no compulsion in religion…. (Al-Baqarah, 2:256).

Here we have an authoritative Muslim document saying, ‘Muslims, Christians and Jews should be free to follow what God commanded them’ and ‘let there be no compulsion in religion’. This sounds to me remarkably like a plea for freedom of religious belief – at least for Muslims, Christians and Jews. I want to know whether I have understood this correctly, and I want to know whether it is a plea for freedom of religion for Christians in Islamic states just as much as for Muslims in Christian, Jewish or secular states. If so, I thank God for the most encouraging and the clearest statement against religious exclusivism I have ever read from a Muslim source. And it makes me want to read on.

The spirit in which we can read on is, I hope, the spirit of the beginning of John’s Gospel. The Gospel opens by saying that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. This Word is indeed ‘A common word’ because this Word is for all. The writer tells us that ‘what has come into being in [God’s Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.’ The author brings us to the point where he finally tells us that ‘the Word became flesh’ (Jn1:14). This is the truth which is at the very heart of the Gospel. But if ‘the Word’ which is for all ‘became flesh’, what is this Word which is for all, and can A Common Word help us better understand both the Word and one another? I believe this important letter, offered in peace and friendship by so many Muslim scholars and leaders, can help us grow in love and understanding for one another. It can help us hear and obey the one Word of God which is indeed ‘a common Word’ for all.

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