Inter-faith dialogue

On believing and confessing the one God, ‘although in different ways’

Gregory VIIBen Myers’s delightful and constructive offering yesterday to the discussion of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God reminded me of Pope Gregory VII’s letter to Anzir, the King of Mauretania. In that letter, penned in 1076 (and so in the period between John of Damascus and Paul of Antioch, Ben’s two subjects), Gregory suggests that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God, ‘although in different ways’. (Implicitly, he is doing what many recent commentators, in their noble efforts to seek intellectual coherence, have failed to do; namely, to indicate, albeit subtly, a distinction between ontological and epistemological claims vis-à-vis God.)

So Gregory:

God, the Creator of all, without whom we cannot do or even think anything that is good, has inspired to your heart this act of kindness. He who enlightens all people coming in to the world [Jn 1.9] has enlightened your mind for this purpose. Almighty God, who desires all people to be saved [1 Tim 2.4] and none to perish, is well pleased to approve in us most of all that besides loving God people love others, and do not do to others anything they do not want to be done unto themselves [Mt 7.12]. We and you must show in a special way to the other nations an example of this charity, for we believe and confess one God, although in different ways, and praise and worship him daily as the creator of all ages and the ruler of this world. For the apostle says: ‘He is our peace who has made us but one’ [Eph 2.14]. Many among the Roman nobility, informed by us of this grace granted to you by God, greatly admire and praise your goodness and virtue … God knows that we love you purely for his honor and that we desire your salvation and glory, both in the present and in the future life. And we pray in our hearts and with our lips that God may lead you to the abode of happiness, to the bosom of the holy patriarch Abraham, after long years of life here on earth. (Cited in J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, eds., The Christian Faith in the Documents of the Catholic Church. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1982, 276–77. Slightly modified for gender inclusivity and correction of one of the biblical references.)

The backstory to this letter – and there’s always a backstory! – is that Anzir had sent Gregory a gift which included the freeing of some Christian (?) prisoners. Gregory’s response was this letter sent with a delegation as a sign of friendship, and the remarkable invitation to live together in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.

Bruce McCormack too has weighed into the recent conversation with a very helpful piece.

(And for those who may be interested, I touched briefly on the subject a few years ago in this post.)

An open letter to the Rev Daniel Bullock, Director of Mission & Ministries for the Baptist Union of Victoria

Cairo 2011

Christians protect Muslims in prayer during the 2011 uprisings in Cairo, Egypt. Source: @NevineZaki

A few week’s ago, on the eve of what was anticipated to be a time of conflict and hostility in Melton, one of Melbourne’s western suburbs, the Director of Mission and Ministries for the Baptist Union of Victoria, the Rev Daniel Bullock, sent out a letter to Baptist church leaders inviting them to pray for fellow Baptists in the Melton area. Such a letter was both timely and appropriate.

However, my colleague Terry Falla and I felt that more could have – and ought to have – been said in that letter, and so we sent a brief response to Daniel and to the BUV’s communications department to that effect, hoping that they might be able to find a place to make it public. Unfortunately, Victorian Baptists – Baptists of all people! – have effectively abolished any such avenue for public discourse and discernment. Neither our denominational blog, nor our assemblies (or ‘Gatherings’ as they are now called), nor any other places of which I am aware, offer such opportunities to occur in any meaningful ways. The reasons for this are complex, and do not, as far as I have been able to discern, reflect the desires of either Daniel himself or of the BUV’s communications department. Given this current reality, I have decided to share our letter here instead in the hope that it might encourage further reflection and discussion among my colleagues in ministry:

Dear Daniel,

Your call for prayer for the churches of Melton (20/11/2015) was timely, for there is no doubt that, as incredible as it seems, religious liberty for some minorities in Australia is now under threat. Your invitation has caused us a great deal of soul searching and has given rise to the conviction that, should another town or city be the object of anti-Muslim protests, we as Baptists include those under attack in our call for prayer and find ways of standing in solidarity with them in extremely distressing and stressful days. After all, it is not mostly us Christian churches at this time in our history that are the objects of fear, anger, resentment, and prejudice, but our Muslim sisters and brothers.

Our recommendation is twofold: (i) a call for prayer for those who are the target of discrimination, and (ii) that in our own local contexts some of us meet with Muslim leaders and other Muslims to express our concern for and solidarity with them; to gratefully and graciously receive whatever hospitality might be offered; to share with them how our own faith tradition was itself born of adversity and persecution, and values profoundly the principles of liberty of conscience and freedom of worship for all; and to commit to embark on the journey of learning to celebrate together what Jonathan Sacks calls ‘the dignity of difference’. 

We encourage Victorian Baptists to embrace these challenging invitations with the fear-negating love, faith, hope, and courage that characterises followers of the crucified and risen Jesus. 

We look forward to hearing from you. 

In grace and peace,

Terry Falla & Jason Goroncy

Daniel’s response (published here with his permission) was both gracious and encouraging:

Dear Jason and Terry 

Thanks for your correspondence to the Comms Team with proposed posting for our BUV Blog, expressing your concerns and recommendations around our recent call to prayer regarding the events expected in Melton.

We don’t actually have a forum for this type of posting on the website – neither BUV Blog, nor Baptists on Mission provide a forum for ‘letter to the editor’ type pieces. I do take on board your point though, that although we did ask people to pray for the churches, for safety and peace on the streets, and for those charged with maintaining law and order, we didn’t also include prayer for those who are the objects of fear, anger, resentment, and prejudice. This was an oversight, which we will be sure to address on any future occasion. I agree with the points you are making, it’s a helpful and instructive communication, so again, thank you.

God bless


John V. Taylor on the universal Spirit and the meeting of faiths

John V. Taylor’s The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission is a profoundly insightful book. Throughout the chapter on religious pluralism, titled ‘Meeting: the Universal Spirit and the Meeting of Faiths’, Taylor reminds us that religion is not the fabrication of theologians with their dogmas but a particular ‘tradition of response to the reality the Holy Spirit has set before their eyes’ (p. 182). Those engaged in inter-faith discourse, even the kind of which John Milbank (in his essay, ‘The End of Dialogue’) rightly refuses to pretend mean ‘anything other than continuing the work of conversion’, will make no headway, Taylor insists, unless they first understand that such traditions of response are both deeply ingrained and dynamic cultural ideas, as well as being attempts at fundamental meaning-making. The first challenge of inter-faith conversation, therefore, is to ‘pay attention to the real conviction that underlies the precise point at which disagreement appears and then try to turn mere confrontation of opposites into a real and possible choice’ (p. 187). In other words, it is to identify the crisis – or, more properly, the crucis – which must be entered into.

Taylor draws upon the work of Kenneth Craig who argues that the contradictions between Muslim and Christian fidelity can be seen to arise from the different ways that Mohammed and Jesus responded to the same situation; namely, being under threat of death. Jesus ‘bowed his head to what was coming’; Mohammed ‘raised his army and marched on Mecca’ (p. 188). (BTW: my colleague Graham Redding drew attention recently to this same fundamental difference, a difference which at bottom reflects two different ideas of God’s nature, on TVNZ’s Q&A program). So Taylor:

But what a strong case Mohammed has! He takes the theology of power seriously. And more often than not, when confronted by the same choice, the Church has taken the Prophet’s way rather than the Messiah’s. Looked at in this way the basic difference between Islam and Christianity becomes an open option, for the Christian no less than for the Muslim – a choice on which we are still making up our minds. The gulf between us is seen, as it were, in cross section. Both I and the Muslim may go forward either on the one side or the other. I said ‘cross section’; for it is nothing less than the cross which is now demanding our decision. (p. 188)

The ‘evangelism of the Holy Spirit’, Taylor insists, ‘consists in creating the occasions for choice’ (pp. 188–9). Enthusiasts of the Gospel ought to be the first to welcome the lesson of the Epiphany story of the magi, not primarily their great learning or the store of their religious experience, but rather the question which they carried, or, rather, which carried them; namely, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’ (Matt 2.2).

Taylor continues:

I believe that the search for Christ’s relevance is a truer and less static way of describing the aim of dialogue than is the older talk about the one word and light which has inspired other religious systems. For it is not in the propositions, regulations, rituals or traditions of a religious system that his universal presence is to be found, but always independent of these phenomena in the uncontainable unattained to which they point, in the questions [people] ask about them, and the protests [people] make against them. It is as judge and saviour of the religious tradition itself that Christ’s relevance to each religion will be found. It is not so much that he is the culmination or crown of every religion … but that in him each religion will be brought to fulfilment in terms true to itself, through crisis and conversion. (p. 190)

Taylor proceeds to say that the eternal and universally-present Spirit, who is uniquely present in Christ but ‘present through the whole fabric of the world’, has been at work ‘in all ages and all cultures making [people] aware and evoking their response, and always the one to whom he was pointing and bearing witness was the Logos, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Every religion has been a tradition of response to him, however darkly it groped towards him, however anxiously it shied away from him’ (pp. 180, 191). While salvation can only ever come ‘as an interruption, a revolution, a new creation’ (p. 192) of God, Taylor has no doubt that ‘as the Holy Spirit turns Muslim or Hindu or Marxist eyes towards the living Christ, the half-truths in their traditions of response will be completed, error will be shown up, disobedience condemned, all evasion of God brought to a halt, and his Son crucified afresh. And out of all that a new Jesus-centred Hinduism, a new Messiah-centred Islam, a new Christ-directed Communism, will be raised up’ (p. 192).

While there are claims made in Taylor’s chapter that I think warrant some challenge or at least some further teasing out, Taylor’s ‘Spirit-centred theology of missions’ (p. 196) has much to commend it, and I found myself needing to sit again with this chapter and wrestle with some of the very questions that I believe Taylor is inviting the church to wrestle further with. Would that more theological books demanded as much of the reader!

It is what Taylor coins the ‘second dimension’ of the Spirit’s work that I find most stimulating to muse about (to borrow a phrase from Jean-Jacques Rousseau). While the first dimension of the Spirit’s work concerns ‘the level of individual response to the magnetism of Jesus Christ’, and which includes ‘individual conversions from one culture to another’ (p. 192), conversions which are often, as Taylor concedes, extremely costly, the second dimension bears witness to the way that the Spirit works in ways entirely unplanned and unforeseen by the Church, an ‘incidental by-product’ largely out of sight ‘like the submerged mass of the iceberg’ (p. 194; PT Forsyth’s readers will recall the use of that same image in his theology). This dimension of the ‘strategy of God’ refers to ‘something that is beginning to happen within the very life of … other faiths themselves, a ferment, a subtle change, brought about by the influence of Jesus Christ upon them, far beyond any conscious impact that Christians are making’ (p. 194. Italics mine). Might these not be counted among the ‘little lights’ of which Barth spoke, the ‘little lights of creation … that … are not passed over or ignored, let alone destroyed or extinguished, but integrated in the great light’ of the Creator (CD IV.3.1, 156)? To be sure, God is not the God of individuals only, but also of nations, movements, histories. And those who would discern the movements of God would do well to not be fixated with the micro or with the personal (one of pietism’s traps), but to also think in centuries, as Forsyth encouraged, and with a large map of a borderless world before them.

I’ll give Taylor the last word, a word that bespeaks the freedom of grace, the determination of love, and the indispensible gift of the disciples’ costly witness:

For Christ is not the property of us Christians and if we rejoice when the Holy Spirit opens [people’s] eyes to his glory, we must at that moment remember how often the church has blinded them, and pray that we be not once more a stumbling block.

But of one thing we can be certain: there would be no such ferment, no response at all, within the body and fabric of these other great faiths, if those who, one by one, through the past century and a half, have been touched by the magnetism of Christ, had not paid the costly price of public confession and baptism with all that that entailed. For this peculiar faith to which we are committed has no power and no appeal whatever except the power and the appeal of the cross. In the confrontation of many faiths, all our dialogue, all our witness, all our loving service of [people’s] need must point to that. But in order to point another effectually, we may often have to be on the cross ourselves. Whatever else the strategy of the Spirit may include, that part of it has not been taken from us. (pp. 196–7)

Moberly, Jews, Christians, John 14:6 and Grace

I heard a stimulating paper this morning by Walter Moberly on Scripture and the Relationship between Christians and Jews. Apart from the paper itself, it was just great to witness a rare miracle – an OT specialist break out into exegesis on an area not of their ‘specialty’ (in this case the NT and John 14:6 in particular). In the name of ‘epistemological humility’, he suggested that in place of questionable language about worshipping ‘the same God’ it is better to speak of Jews and Christians, and Muslims, as respectively worshipping ‘the one God’. He then suggested that there is a difference between experiencing grace and experiencing grace as grace. Somehow, somewhere, in the discussion, I was reminded of Barth … as you do:

‘Grace is the presence, event, and revelation of what the human cannot think or do or reach or attain or grasp, but of what is, in virtue of its coming from God, the most simple, true and real of all things for those to whom it is addressed and who recognise it. Grace is the factual overcoming of the distinction between God and humanity, creator and creature, heaven and earth – something that cannot be grasped in any theory or brought about by any technique or human practice…. Grace is God’s sovereign intervention on the human’s behalf. The work and gift of this grace of his is the freedom of the children of God – their freedom to call upon him as Father.’ Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4 Lecture Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 72.