And now, some Good News

From Teresa Watanabe of The Los Angeles Times, we learn that the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.:

… has launched a federally funded project for making peace with Muslims, featuring a proposed code of ethics that rejects offensive statements about each other's faiths, affirms a mutual belief in one God and pledges not to proselytize. …

The Fuller project, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, is intended to develop practical peacemaking practices for Christians and Muslims, publish a book about them and train local communities in their use. It is the latest of several efforts that Fuller has launched since Sept. 11 to build bridges with Muslims.

"We hope to lead a large portion of evangelical Christians into a better understanding of Islam," said Sherwood Lingenfelter, Fuller's provost and senior vice president. …

The project will build on work led by Fuller professor Glen Stassen and other Christian scholars to develop a peacemaking theory that features practical ways to reduce conflict in the United States and abroad.

The project proposes, among other things, to convene two national conferences of Christian and Muslim scholars to develop parallel peacemaking practices based on the Koran and other Islamic sources. It aims to expand the work into an eventual book. And participants will train Christian and Muslim leaders throughout the country on such techniques and encourage interfaith exchanges.

Glen Stassen is a Southern Baptist ethicist who was purged from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Ky., when Al Mohler led the conservative takeover of that institution. Stassen has worked for decades promoting conflict resolution and activist peacemaking (see, for instance, his book Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace and much more on Stassen's page at Fuller's Web site).

The kill-all-the-Bad-People approach that seems to dominate America's "war on terrorism" does not seem to me to provide any long-term hope for real security or a just peace. I'm encouraged to learn that our government is interested in funding the work of people like Stassen, whose efforts seem particularly well suited to helping to resolve this new kind of conflict.

I don't agree with the idealists who think that Stassen's nonviolent approach to conflict resolution might someday eliminate the need for military force, but I do think this approach can and ought to complement military efforts as a vital component of our national security. This point encounters little argument from those in the military — if a just peace can be secured without them having to shoot or be shot at, all the better.

The Fuller initiative is meeting with resistance, however, but not from the hawks and not from the Muslim community. The most vocal critics are conservative evangelicals:

Some conservative Christians decried parts of the proposed ethics code and predicted that it would bring an uproar from their ranks.

"For Fuller to declare that Christians and Muslims worship the same God would be a radical departure, not only from the evangelical tradition but also the tenets of orthodox Christianity," said John Revell, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists' executive committee. He also questioned whether evangelical Christians who signed the proposed code against offensive statements and proselytizing would compromise their religious obligation to "speak truth in love" and "spread the good news of Jesus Christ."

The controversy over whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God recently flared anew when President Bush affirmed a shared belief with Muslims at a London news conference last month — a view that was immediately disavowed by conservative evangelicals.

Fuller's similar assertion is tragic and lamentable, said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He said the Koran explicitly rejects Christianity's central beliefs in the divinity of Jesus and a triune Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

"The more we know about Christianity and Islam, the more we see there is a basic incompatibility," he said. "The essential ground of conflict and controversy cannot be removed."

For people like Mohler, disagreement must always mean "conflict." No one at Fuller is suggesting that Christianity and Islam are indistinguishable or equivalent — such a suggestion would be deeply offensive to the Muslim believers with whom the seminary is seeking to establish a deeper mutual respect. But Mohler cannot seem to imagine that two distinct and very different religions might co-exist peaceably without feeling compelled either to kill one another or to abandon their respective beliefs for some Baha'ist melange.

The code will not compromise Christian beliefs, according to Lingenfelter and other scholars at Fuller. … They reiterated their belief that Christians, Muslims and Jews worshiped the same Creator and God of Abraham but had different understandings of the divine nature.

I've tagged this post as part of the "Left Behind" category because, as Lingenfelter notes, some of the fiercest opposition to this kind of interfaith peacemaking comes from adherents of the premillennial dispensationalist lunacy that LaHaye and Jenkins' Left Behind novels are making more popular:

[Lingenfelter] said the wary view of Islam by many evangelical Christians was rooted in part in their commitment to Israel. Many believe that the physical presence of the state of Israel is required for Christ's return and therefore vigorously defend Israel from perceived Islamic enemies, he said.

  • walden

    This sounds like an interesting project — but “federally funded?” What’s the background to Justice Dept grants to seminaries on interfaith issues?

  • Jeff

    I think it is a misrepresentation to say that the resistance to this is because conservative evangelicals are against living peaceably with Muslims. Rather, it is a reaction against the pluralism inherent in heretical statements such as,
    “They reiterated their belief that Christians, Muslims and Jews worshiped the same Creator and God of Abraham but had different understandings of the divine nature.”
    To suggest that the god of Jews and Muslims is the same as the trinitarian God of Christianity is to strip Christianity of an essential truth inherent to the Gospel itself.
    Naturally, one would therefore, also find it unbiblical to suggest that Christians should not make efforts to present the gospel to Muslims or Jews with a desire for them to convert. I am glad that Paul did not take that advice.

  • Laura

    To suggest that the god of Jews and Muslims is the same as the trinitarian God of Christianity is to strip Christianity of an essential truth inherent to the Gospel itself.
    Trinitarian Evangelicals have a lot of work to do, then, and perhaps should start in Christianity’s own backyard. On second thought, maybe they should realize that pluralistic or not, not every one is going to convert to Christianity, trinitarian, unitarian, or otherwise. For some of us, that’s a good thing.

  • pablo

    I suppose building bridges between religious communities is a laudable goal, still I can’t help thinking that mediating between two groups who insist that their invisible friend in the sky is real and the other’s is a ridiculous figment of their collective imaginations to be pointless, and kind of funny.

  • Anthony Smith

    God do I hate when my faith makes me feel like I have to side with conservatives!
    I wish Christians scholars were considering the trinitarian doctrine more closely when attempting to make peace with other faiths. It almost seems that by becoming Arianists we could easily live in peace with other faiths, but our belief in Christ divides us from them.
    I can’t say that I love muslims, mainly becasue I don’t know any, but I do tend to stand up for this people I don’t know whenever the debate arises. We are different though and that difference is important (maybe beautiful) and we need to find a creative way to make peace without destroying it.
    What do you think?

  • Jesurgislac

    I recently said on Tacitus’s blog what seemed to me to be a basic truism – that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God, albeit in different ways. Historically, this is just plain fact: these three religions are inextricably linked at their core, and, in fact, two out of the three acknowledge as part of their faith that the earlier religion/s follow the same God:
    Muslims acknowledge that Jews and Christians are fellow “Children of the Book”: Christians acknowledge that the God of the Jews is the God of the Christians. Only Jews need not, as part of their faith, accept that both Christians and Muslims also worship their God.
    But then, I’m neither Muslim, Christian, nor Jew: I have no emotional stake invested in claiming one God for my very own and denying that anyone else has a right to it. Plainly Tacitus and other conservative Christians do have such a stake – but I have to say, I was startled to find such a strong reaction against such an obvious point.

  • Jeff

    Rejecting Christ, as the Son of God, is to reject God, the Father, who sent him. 70 AD is a testament to this.

  • Elizabeth Margaret

    As a Mennonite, I probably have as much in common (theologically) with Muslims as I do with Southern Baptists. Not to say I have much in common with Muslims. The thing about family is that they’re embarrasing, and sometimes wrongheaded and annoying, but denying the connection is futile.

  • Chris Tessone

    I wish Christians scholars were considering the trinitarian doctrine more closely when attempting to make peace with other faiths. It almost seems that by becoming Arianists we could easily live in peace with other faiths, but our belief in Christ divides us from them.
    I can’t say that I love muslims, mainly becasue I don’t know any, but I do tend to stand up for this people I don’t know whenever the debate arises. We are different though and that difference is important (maybe beautiful) and we need to find a creative way to make peace without destroying it.
    I totally agree. Arguing about the proximity of various Christian denominations to one another is beside the point; the idea that the Christian God is not triune or is equivalent to a god that is not triune is a heresy that has been rejected throughout the history of the Church. Christians and Muslims do not worship the same god. (Incidentally, not all Muslims recognize Christians and Jews and people of the Book.)
    However, as you say, the fact that we do not agree about the nature of God does not imply what says, and he needs to realize that throwing up his hands and accepting death and hatred is sinful. We can work together, we can find a common ground as human beings and eliminate hatred between our religions, and we do not have to embrace an incorrect understanding of the nature of God to do so. I just don’t get why everyone searching for peace feels the need to ignore the Trinity and give up their Christian witness, and those on the right feel inclined to throw up their hands and say murder and hatred are somehow inherent in Islam. Both assertions weaken Christianity and Islam.

  • Chris Tessone

    Whoops, I meant “does not imply what Mohler says” in the second paragraph of my comment above.

  • zenjohn

    “The Fuller project, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice…”
    There you go. That fact that it was funded by the guvmint is all that conservatives need to dismiss the Fuller project.

  • Fred

    Some commenters here are making a leap that eludes me.
    To some it seems any talk of a common “Judeo-Christian heritage” or of the “children of Abraham” is equivalent to a denial of all the particulars of those respective — and very different — traditions.
    I don’t see that this follows.
    Let’s try another syllogism based on this reasoning:
    1. Christians believe that the triune God called Abram out of Ur.
    2. Jews do not believe in the Trinity.
    3. Therefore, Jews do not believe in the God of Abraham.
    That therefore is uncalled for. As are the accusations that Lingenfelter is denying the Trinity.

  • Jesurgislac

    Chris Tessone wrote: Arguing about the proximity of various Christian denominations to one another is beside the point; the idea that the Christian God is not triune or is equivalent to a god that is not triune is a heresy that has been rejected throughout the history of the Church. Christians and Muslims do not worship the same god.
    And as Jews don’t worship a triune God, that presumably means that you reject the Old Testament? The God of the Old Testament is not a triune God: He is, as any Jew will tell you, a single God.
    It seems to me that if you can accept that Jews worship the same God as Christians (which a belief in the Old Testament must logically lead to) you can equally accept that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians: merely that most Christians worship God as a triunity of Father, Son, and Spirit, but Jews and Muslims worship God as One.
    I can understand the logic of the Trinity rejecting both Jews and Muslims: I cannot understand the logic that rejects Jews but not Muslims, or the other way about.

  • Chris Tessone

    I don’t believe I ever said Jews worship the Christian god and Muslims don’t, Jesurgislac. That’s an inaccurate representation of what I said above.
    Modern Jews, Christians, and Muslims have quite different conceptions of god. I’m not convinced that non-Messianic Jews do worship the same god as Christians, and I know at least one Orthodox Jew who agrees. However, this doesn’t mean I reject the Old Testament. The OT points to the coming of a Moshiach. Christians believe Christ was that Moshiach, that he was a fulfillment of OT prophesy and revealed a new message to God’s people which further developed our understanding of the nature of God. Orthodox Judaism rejects the idea that Christ is the Moshiach, so they believe we embrace a wrong notion of God and salvation, and we see them as having missed a crucial revelation from God. Christians and Muslims are in a similar relationship, I’d say. I don’t see how ignoring these differences helps anything; we can be friendly and cooperative without worshiping the same God, can’t we? Are Christian-Buddhist relations hopelessly doomed simply because of a disagreement over the afterlife?

  • Hard Pressed

    “70 AD is a testament to this.”–Jeff
    So, tell me, Jeff, what is 1939 – 1945 AD a testament to? Unfinished business?

  • Jeff

    Hard pressed,
    We know that 70 AD is due to the Jews’ (as a nation) rejection of Christ as Christ Himself prophesied that such would happen within their own generation.
    I would say that God does indeed judge covenentally and corporately those that reject His Son. 6 million Jews in WWII? 19 million Russians in WWII?, 600,000 Americans in the Civil War? September 11, 2001? Millions as we speak in sub Saharan Africa? I have not the faintest idea. But it is possible. And it is entirely possible that we as Americans, who continue to reject His holy law, who pursue materialism, who worship the creation and not the creator, who proclaim the unnatural as natural, who make unjust war, who ignore the poor and oppressed, and who reject Christ as Lord of all….yes we may be in for judgement ourselves.

  • Wry Sin

    You know, all this talk of whether Muslims, Christians, and Jews worship the same god or not seems pretty odd to me. I see no evidence that Christians worship the same god, so why the fuss about Muslims or Jews?

  • Isaac Freeman

    But Mohler cannot seem to imagine that two distinct and very different religions might co-exist peaceably without feeling compelled either to kill one another or to abandon their respective beliefs for some Baha’ist melange.
    It’s a common misconception that the Baha’i Faith is a syncretic religion, formulated out of an idealistic desire to reconcile other religions by compromising their beliefs.
    But Baha’is consider our faith to be a new and independent revelation from God, not a mix of the “good parts” of previous faiths. We believe that Baha’u’llah is a Manifestation of God, and among his teachings he affirms the divine origin of Christianity and Islam. But acknowledging the truth of other religions is no the totality of Baha’u’llah’s message.
    Jesus Christ acknowledged the Jewish religion, but we do not consider Christianity to be a melange of Jewish belief – it is a revelation from God that supports but is independent from previous revelations. Likewise, whether you accept or reject Islam, it would not be accurate to describe it as a melange of Judaism and Christianity. Baha’is believe the same about our faith.

  • Fred

    Isaac –
    My apologies. In a post calling for greater respect for other religious traditions, I managed to include an uncalled for swipe at another religious tradition.
    Thanks for your gracious response.

  • Isaac Freeman

    I wouldn’t have called it a swipe – just an inaccuracy. But I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your apology.

  • Colle

    Dude. “Vigorously defend Israel from perceived Islamic enemies”? Weren’t we doing that in the Crusades, some eight hundred years ago? History has a disturbing habit of repeating itself, and barely anyone notices.


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