Jews, Christians and Muslims: The Way of Dialogue

Extract from the Report of the Dogmatic and Pastoral Section Lambeth Conference 1988



Jews, Christians and Muslims: The Way of Dialogue


Extract from the Report of the Dogmatic and Pastoral Section
  Lambeth Conference 1988


Jews, Christians and Muslims: The Way of Dialogue

  1. Whilst dialogue with all faiths is highly desirable we recognize a special relationship between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All three of these religions see themselves in a common relationship to Abraham, the father of the faithful, the friend of God. Moreover these faiths, which at times have been fiercely antagonistic to one another, have a particular responsibility for bringing about a fresh, constructive relationship which can contribute to the well-being of the human family, and the peace of the world, particularly in the Middle East. Dialogue is the work of patient love and an expression of the ministry of reconciliation. It involves understanding, affirmation and sharing.

The way of understanding

  1. The essential condition of any true dialogue is a willingness to listen to the partner; to try to see with their eyes and feel with their heart. For understanding is more than intellectual apprehension. It involves the imagination and results in a sensitivity to the fears and hopes of the other. Understanding another means allowing them to define themselves in their terms rather than ours, and certainly not in terms of our inherited stereotypes. This means that in dialogue we may have to face some very different understandings of religion.
  2. In relation to Judaism this means, first of all recognizing that Judaism is still a living religion, to be respected in its own right. The Judaism of today is not that of any one of the sects of first century Palestine, and certainly not that of the plain text of the Hebrew scriptures. Its definitive works, such as the Mishnah and the Talmud, as well as its current liturgy, were produced by the post-Pharisee rabbis in the same period, the first to fifth centuries, within which the Fathers of the Church were defining the meaning of Christianity. Great care should be taken not to misrepresent Judaism by imputing to it, e.g. the literal implementation of "an eye for an eye", which was repudiated by the rabbis, or the denial of life after death. This is also true of the long-standing stereotype of Judaism as a religion of works, completely ignoring the deep Jewish sense of the grace of God. Judaism is a living and still developing religion, which has shown spiritual and intellectual vitality throughout the medieval and modern periods despite its history of being maligned and persecuted. The Middle Ages saw great Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides, Bible commentators such as Rashi and the ibn Ezras, poets and mystics, as well as scientists and interpreters of the law. Our modern world is inconceivable without the contribution of Jewish thinkers from Spinoza to Buber, scientists such as Freud and Einstein, as well as musicians, artists and others who have helped shape our cultural life; we are, to our loss, less knowledgeable of the creative vitality of such Jewish spiritual movements of recent times as Hasidism and Musar.
  3. Secondly, Judaism is not only a religion, as many Christians understand the word but a people and a civilization. Jews know and define themselves as Jews even when they do not fully share the religious beliefs of Judaism. It is against this background, at once secular and religious, that the importance of the land of Israel to the majority of Jews throughout the world needs to be understood.
  4. Thirdly, it is necessary for Christians, as well as Jews, to understand the profound changes and potential for good in modern scholarly understanding of the Bible. Modern biblical scholarship is increasingly becoming a joint enterprise between Jews and Christians. Recent Jewish research has shed much light on the complex and varied religious and social situation in Palestine during the first century of the Common Era (i.e. the era common to Jews and Christians). Some Jews have become very aware of Jesus as part of their own history, and their writings have brought home to Christians his Jewishness. Renewed study of Jewish sources by Christian scholars has led them to see first century Judaism in a new and more positive light, and to recognize that the predominantly negative assessment of Judaism in the early Church is far from being the whole story. There were many different groups within Judaism at the time of Jesus and "the scribes and Pharisees" reported in the New Testament should be seen as part of a wider discussion within Judaism. The New Testament picture of Judaism needs to be supplemented by expressions of faith by Jews of the time if first century Judaism is to be properly understood.
  5. We now have a far better appreciation than ever before of first century Judaism, and not least of political factors which led events to take the course they did. The trial and execution of Jesus are now recognized by many scholars to have been brought about to serve the political interests of the Roman occupation forces and those Jews who collaborated with them. It was Rome, too, by its destruction of Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish War in 70CE which forced a reconstruction of Judaism along much narrower and more rigorous lines than had prevailed earlier.
  6. This new understanding of events is leading both Jews and Christians also to look at the way in which Judaism and Christianity came to part company and go their separate ways. Since many of the factors in this split were contingent on specific historical developments, and events need not necessarily have turned out the way they did, there would seem to be no reason why a new understanding should not develop, based on a reconsideration of what originally drove Christianity and Judaism apart.
  7. Islam, like Christianity, is a living, world religion. Dialogue with Muslims needs to take into account the fact that it has taken root in and shaped a wide range of countries and cultures. Contrary to popular opinion, for example, the largest Muslim country in the world is not in the Middle East. It is Indonesia in Southeast Asia. Over the last 14 centuries, Muslims have developed a rich and varied mosaic of cultural patterns, theological schools, mystics and philosophers. Its impact on the development of both Jewish and Christian thought and civilization has been profound. Medieval Jewish thinkers like Maimonides and Saadia wrote many of their most influential works in Arabic. The philosophy of Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists came to western Europe largely in translations from Arabic, the translators being in many cases Christians living in the Muslim world. If geometry is a Greek word, algebra, alchemy and chemistry are Arabic. We call our number system Arabic because the Arabs brought it to us from India. The astrolabe and the architectural arch both came from Muslim scientists. We are sadly unaware of much of Islamic history and thought. So rich and varied is it, that many Muslims are not familiar themselves with some of the thinkers and movements which are historically, geographically or theologically remote from their own experience: just as many Western Christians are unaware of Byzantine Orthodox thought or of the life of the Oriental Churches and vice versa. One of the values of an informed dialogue is that it can help both partners become more aware of some of the riches of their own respective traditions.
  8. In understanding Islam it is necessary for Christians to grasp the central place of Islamic law in Muslim life. Islamic Law, shari"ah, is based on the belief that God has, as a gracious act of mercy, revealed to humanity basic guidelines to live both individually and in society. Whereas Christians today tend to think of Christian faith as a personal commitment which can be expressed quite happily in a secular society, many Muslims believe that God has revealed his will on how the whole of society is to be ordered, from details of banking to matters of public health. Although based on the Careen, the sources of Islamic law are much wider. The picture becomes even more complex if one attempts to include the Shiite who are the majority in Iran. A long development independent from the majority Muslim community (Sunni) has resulted in a very different ethos and theology, making blanket statements about Islam almost impossible when Iranian and other Shiite thinkers are taken into account. Some non-Muslim communities living under Islamic rule experience the application of Shari"ah law as oppressive and inhumane. Another aspect of Shari"ah law which causes some distress is the treatment of women. We note that in many respects Islamic law has pioneered the rights of women. For example, under Islamic law married women had the right to own property and conduct business in their own names thirteen centuries before these rights were granted in many Western countries. It is hoped that Christians and Muslims may search together for ways in which the position of women may continue to be improved for the benefit of society as a whole. We also need to remember that classical Islamic law provides safeguards for the rights of religious minorities which are not actually being enforced today. Further, in judging, we must always be careful to compare like with like. We must compare the highest and most humane ideals of Islam with the highest and most humane ideals of Christianity and the misuse of power at the hands of Muslims with the misuse of power at the hands of those who call themselves Christians.
  9. Islam, no less than Judaism, has suffered from Christian stereotyping. This is especially true of the notion that Islam is a religion committed to spreading its faith by the sword. History shows a much more complex pattern. It is true that the communities of the Middle East, North Africa and the northern half of the Indian subcontinent were originally brought under Islamic rule by military expansion. On the other hand even in these areas the facts of history are complex and we must remember, for example, that it was the Muslims who were the first to invite Jews to live again in the holy city of Jerusalem after Christians had forbidden it for centuries. On the other hand, much of the part of the world which is now predominantly Muslim did not receive its Islam through military conquest. In fact, the majority of the territory won by Islam in its early advance was taken from it by the Mongols, who already numbered Christians among them. Yet Islam converted its Mongol conquerors and central Asia remains Islamic to this day.
  10. In fact, ji"had, usually mistranslated "holy war", is a complex notion that needs to be seriously explored by Christians in dialogue with Muslims. The word actually means struggle and encompasses everything from spiritual struggle to armed struggle as sanctioned by Islamic law. Although Muslims have, in the course of history, sanctioned aggressive wars in this way, it is important to realize that there are many Muslim views of what kind of warfare is legal under Islamic law. The existence of such divergent views might be a constructive point of dialogue.

The way of affirmation

  1. If Christians wish their own faith to be affirmed by others they themselves must be open to the full force of the attraction of the partner in the dialogue and be willing to affirm all they can affirm". especially when it resonates to the Gospel.
  2. For Christians, Judaismcan never be one religion among others. It has a special bond and affinity with Christianity. Jesus, our Lord and the Christ, was a Jew and the scriptures which informed and guided his life were the books of the Hebrew Bible. These still form part of the Christian scriptures. The God in whom Jesus believed, to whom he totally gave himself, and in whom we believe is "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". A right understanding of the relationship with Judaism is, therefore, fundamental to Christianity"s own self-understanding.
  3. Christians and Jews share one hope, which is for the realisation of God"s Kingdom on earth. Together they wait for it, pray for it and prepare for it. This Kingdom is nothing less than human life and society transformed, transfigured and transparent to the glory of God. Christians believe that this glory has already shone in the face of Jesus Christ. In His life, death and resurrection the Kingdom of God, God"s just rule, has already broken into the affairs of this world. Judaism is not able to accept this. However, both Jews and Christians share a common frame of reference, in which Christian belief in Jesus Christ is set. For it is as a result of incorporation into Jesus Christ that Christians share the Jewish hope for the coming of God"s Kingdom.
  4. Christian faith focuses quite naturally on Jesus the Christ and his Church. However, both these realities can and should be seen within the hope for, and the horizon of, the Kingdom of God. The presence and the hope for the Kingdom of God were central to the preaching and mission of Jesus. Moreover, Christians continue to pray daily "thy Kingdom come". Christians and Jews share a common hope for the consummation of God"s Kingdom which, for Christians, was inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Thus, it is through incorporation into Christ, through membership of the Christian Church that Christians come to share in the hope for the Kingdom. We believe that if this hope for God"s Kingdom was given its central place by both Jews and Christiansthis would transform their relationship with one another.
  5. Christians and Jews share a passionate belief in a God of loving kindness who has called us into relationship with himself. God is faithful and he does not abandon those he calls. We firmly reject any view of Judaism which sees it as a living fossil, simply superseded by Christianity. When Paul reflects on the mystery of the continued existence of the Jewish people (Romans 9-11) a full half of his message is the unequivocal proclamation of God"s abiding love for those whom he first called. Thus he wrote: "God"s choice stands and they are his friends for the sake of the patriarchs. For the gracious gifts of God and his calling are irrevocable" (Romans 11:28-29).
  6. However, with some honourable exceptions their relationship has too often been marked by antagonism. Discrimination and persecution of the Jews led to the "teaching of contempt", the systematic dissemination of anti-Jewish propaganda by Church leaders, teachers and preachers. Through catechism, teaching of school children, and Christian preaching, the Jewish people have been misrepresented and caricatured. Even the Gospels have, at times, been used to malign and denigrate the Jewish people. Anti-Jewish prejudice promulgated by leaders of Church and State has led to persecution, pogrom and finally, provided the soil in which the evil weed of Nazism was able to take root and spread its poison. The Nazis were driven by a pagan philosophy, which had as its ultimate aim the destruction of Christianity itself. But how did it take hold? The systematic extermination of six million Jews and the wiping out of a whole culture must bring about in Christianity a profound and painful re-examination of its relationship with Judaism. In order to combat centuries of anti-Jewish teaching and practice, Christians must develop programmes of teaching, preaching, and common social action which eradicate prejudice and promote dialogue.
  7. Many Christians would also affirm Islamic monotheism and speak approvingly of Islamic devotion to Jesus and to Mary, his virgin mother. Islam stands in a particular relationship to Christianity because of its acceptance of Jesus as the promised Messiah of Hebrew scripture. At the same time, however, we note that Muslims do not understand this affirmation to imply a doctrine of the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah which would be acceptable to most Christians. Nonetheless this affirmation of Jesus as the fulfilment of the Messianic promise is unique to Christians and Muslims. The same is true of the Islamic affirmation of Jesus as the "Word of God", although Islamic Christology does not accept this as implying the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Many Muslims, though not all, would confine its significance to reference to the miraculous events surrounding Jesus" conception and birth. At the same time, Islam affirms the Hebrew Scriptures and the special relationship which God had established with the Jewish people "to whom he had shown his special favour." While it is currently the majority view among Muslims that the whole Bible has been textually corrupted and is therefore no longer valid, this is not the only view found in either classical or contemporary Islamic thought. Some of Islam"s greatest scholars have argued that the "corruption" of Jewish and Christian scriptures referred to in the Careen is a corruption, not of text, but of interpretation only. Christians in dialogue ought to know the classical Islamic sources which have argued strongly for this view of the Bible.
  8. On the other hand, it has been the almost unanimous Islamic tradition to reject the crucifixion of Jesus as either historical fact or as theologically significant. The Qur"anic material relating to the crucifixion is highly ambiguous and there is the possibility of theological dialogue with Muslims on the interpretation and significance of the Qur"anic material on Jesus. We need not, however, totally reject the Islamic affirmation of Jesus, even as we challenge it in its rejection of his atoning work upon the cross. It is important to note that the Islamic rejection of the crucifixion is not ultimately based on a rejection of the concept of the suffering of God"s righteous prophets. God"s power is not perceived in Islam as a magic charm against unjust suffering and persecution. The Careen often refers, as does the New Testament, to prophets of God who have been killed at various times in history. It accepts not only the possibility but the fact of prophets" death at the hands of the wicked. Nor can we say that Islam automatically rejects the positive value of suffering for others or in the cause of God. This it affirms strongly and in the Shiite tradition the concept of vicarious suffering is of fundamental importance.
  9. Many Christians can also affirm the Islamic struggle to be faithful to the example of Abraham. Islamic tradition traces the descent of the Arabs, and so of Muhammad, to Abraham through Ishmael. Many Christians, among them John of Damascus and the Arab apologist Ishaq ‘abd al-Masih al-Kindi, accept this genealogy. This is important for Muslims in their understanding of the prophetic mission of Muhammad and of their relationship with Judaism and Christianity as religions which also have a special connection with the faith of Abraham. Even though most Muslims today are not Arabs, they feel, like Christians, that they are Children of Abraham by faith because of the message of Muhammad, descendant of Ishmael, son of Abraham.
  10. Although Luther had already spoken positively about the faith of Ishmael, few Christians have given much thought to this child of Abraham, about whom the Bible says "God was with the lad and he grew up" (Genesis 21:20). Although rejected from the line of the covenant, there is no biblical evidence that this child, miraculously saved by God in the wilderness, ever abandoned his faith in the God of his father Abraham. The figure of Ishmael is theologically challenging for, although rejected from the covenant, he and his mother were the object of particular and miraculous attention on the part of God. Perhaps we need to challenge the negative assumptions that surround our reaction to this biblical character.
  11. Many Christians also often feel challenged to affirm the religious devotion which Muslims display in their prayers. This is clear not only in their ritual prayers but in their own personal prayers such as have been gathered together with Christian prayers by Kenneth Cragg, former Anglican Bishop in Cairo in his book Alive to God.
  12. Christians would also affirm the sense of fellowship which Muslims often show to each other, regardless of language, race or national origin. They can also affirm early Islamic ideals of religious tolerance. At the same time they would want to challenge Muslims to develop those aspects of their tradition which imply a broader understanding of the unity of all people.
  13. Christians would also want to affirm the deep Islamic reliance on the grace and mercy of God. Although often misunderstood and misrepresented by Christian theologians as teaching salvation by works, all schools of Islamic thought are marked by a deep sense of the gratuitous Mercy of God. This mercy cannot be earned by anyone because, in Islamic thought, no one can have any claims against God. All that God gives he gives not because we deserve it but gratuitously. This emphasis on the gratuitousness of God"s gift has led Islamic theology to abandon the doctrine of the atonement as understood in Christianity, although both the word (kaffarah) and the concept are known and used in more restricted senses. Islamic theology argues that God needs no sacrifice or atonement in order to freely forgive human sin and alienation. This he may do simply because he is God almighty. And yet, Islamic thought does not reject the importance of human cooperation with God in working his revealed will here on earth. In this respect the Qur"an speaks of humanity as God"s viceregent (khalifah) on earth, and this line of thought is developed by many Islamic thinkers. Although some forms of popular Islam may seem to have degenerated into legalism and fatalism, the normative Islamic emphasis on grace and human co-operation should always be born in mind.

The way of sharing

  1. Dialogue does not require people to relinquish or alter their beliefs before entering into it; on the contrary, genuine dialogue demands that each partner brings to it the fullness of themselves and the tradition in which they stand. As they grow in mutual understanding they will be able to share more and more of what they bring with the other. Inevitably, both partners to the dialogue will be affected and changed by this process, for it is a mutual sharing.
  2. Within this sharing there are a variety of attitudes towards Judaismwithin Christianity today. At one pole, there are those Christians whose prayer is that Jews, without giving up their Jewishness, will find their fulfilment in Jesus the Messiah. Indeed some regard it as their particular vocation and responsibility to share their faith with Jews, whilst at the same time urging them to discover the spiritual riches which God has given them through the Jewish faith. Other Christians, however, believe that in fulfilling the law and the prophets, Jesus validated the Jewish relationship with God, while opening this way up for gentiles through his own person. For others, the holocaust has changed their perception, so that until Christian lives bear a truer witness, they feel a divine obligation to affirm the Jews in their worship and sense of the God and father of Jesus. All these approaches recognize that Christians today are being called into a fresh, more fruitful relationship with Judaism. We urge that further thought and prayer, in the light of scripture and the facts of history, be given to the nature of this relationship.
  3. Both these approaches, however, share a common concern to be sensitive to Judaism, to reject all proselytising, that is, aggressive and manipulative attempts to convert, and of course, any hint of anti-Semitism. Further, Jews, Muslims and Christians have a common mission. They share a mission to the world that God"s name may be honoured: "Hallowed be your name." They share a common obligation to love God with their whole being and their neighbours as themselves. "Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." And in the dialogue there will be mutual witness. Through learning from one another each will enter more deeply into their own inheritance. Each will recall the other to God, to trust him more fully and obey him more profoundly. This will be a mutual witness between equal partners.
  4. Genuine sharing requires of Christians that they correct all distorted images of Judaism and Islam as it requires of Jews and Muslims that they correct distorted images of Christian faith. For Christians this will include careful use and explanation of biblical passages, particularly during Holy Week.
  5. In this process it is important to remember also the damage that has been done to Christian-Muslim relations by a distorted view of Islam and by outright animosity. Both Jews and Muslims often shared a common fate at the hands of Christians in the Middle Ages and the centuries of warfare against the Muslims, although both Jews and Eastern Christians shared in the suffering inflicted by the Western Christian armies as they advanced to and through the Middle East. Christians have upon occasion seen Islam as a Christian heresy and at other times as the mere product of human imagination. Scholars have always stressed the influence of Jewish-Christian monotheism on Islam, for it was born in an area where both Judaism and Christianity were practised. We should always be careful about how we characterize another person"s faith and try to avoid hurtful language. This is especially the case when, as with both Judaism and Islam, the negative characterizations of the past have resulted in much pain and suffering inflicted by Christians in the name of religion or where it has left a legacy of bitterness and division, a legacy which continues to cause much suffering to innocent Christian communities today through an undiscriminating attitude on the part of others which unjustly associates them with events for which they bear no responsibility. Many Christians, for example, justly point out that their histories do not overlap the European experience of holocaust and pogrom at all or that they themselves fought against the Crusader armies of Western Europe.
  6. There is also much in the way of common action that Jews, Christians and Muslims can join in; for example:
    — the struggle against racism, apartheid and anti-Semitism
    — the work for human rights, particularly,
    — the right of people to practice and teach their religion.
    There is a common witness to God and the dignity of human beings in a world always in danger of becoming godless and dehumanized.
  7. Understanding and affirming are already ways of sharing. However, if we are truly to share our faith we must not only affirm what we can but share our own deep convictions, even when these appear irreconcilably opposed to our partner"s faith and practice. ln the case of Islam particularly, Christians must first understand Islam if this witness is to be effective. Islam is a missionary religion, that is fast gaining many adherents in many parts of the world. This missionary zeal is not confined to the Middle East but is fervent in Africa, Southeast Asia and is apparent in the intellectual centres of the West. Muslims are often confidently superior to Christians in much the same way that Christians have often been towards Jews. Many Muslims would simply dismiss views which diverge from Islamic faith and practice with the conviction that if their partner only understood Islam he or she would be a Muslim. Christianity will only get a hearing by informed Muslims when it is clear that the Christian who is speaking understands Islam and yet remains a Christian by choice, not, as it were by default.
  8. Many Muslims feel that Islam has superseded Christianity the way many Christians have traditionally felt that Christianity superseded Judaism (a view which the same Muslims would share). Just as Christian polemicists have often seized upon the writings of Jewish scholars to try to undermine the faith of the Jewish community, some Muslim intellectuals and propagandists rejoice when they feel able to use some pronouncement of a Western theologian to undermine Christianity and underscore the truth of Islam. Such pronouncements, designed to witness to and explain the Christian faith in liberal societies, are pounced upon and used to damage small Christian churches in Islamic societies.
  9. One pressing concern that Christians will want to share with Muslimsis the need for clear, strong safeguards for adherents of minority religions in Muslim societies. Any interpretation of Islamic law that seems to deny basic human rights, including the right of people to practise and teach their own faith, must be challenged. We recognize that here there is positive ground for dialogue because Muslim thinkers of the Middle Ages were among the first to actually incorporate ideas of tolerance and safeguards for minorities within their legal systems, centuries before such ideas were advocated by the European Enlightenment. However, Muslim thinkers of today must be challenged to develop even more positive understandings of the role of minorities in society. In particular, the law of apostasy is undergoing considerable discussion today by Muslim thinkers and jurists and is an area where Christians versed in Islamic law must enter into dialogue with Muslims. In matters such as this the sometimes tiny, struggling churches set in Islamic societies need the support of the wider church.
  10. It is quite clear that there can be no genuine understanding, affirmation or sharing with Islam without quite detailed study by at least some experts. In this respect Jewish-Christian dialogue is better served. Most of the important works of traditional and contemporary Jewish thought are available in English, French, Spanish or German translations (if indeed these are not the language of the original). Most of the basic works of traditional Islamic thought have not been translated into these languages and are accessible only to those with a knowledge of Arabic. Even today, although more Muslims are writing in these languages, most of the contemporary intellectual activity within the world of Islam is being conducted in Arabic, Urdu, Persian and Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia. Valuable work is being done by Christian institutions, in which Anglicans play a part, such as the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges (Birmingham, U.K.), the Henry Martin Institute (Hyderabad, India), the Duncan Black MacDonald Center (Hartford, U.S.A.) and the Christian-Muslim Study Centre (Rawalpindi, Pakistan). There is also the new study centre recently established in the Gulf by the Bishop of Cyprus. Such work needs to be extended and supported by the Churches of the Anglican Communion."top