Seminar by Bishop George Sumner at the Centre of Christian-Muslim Understanding and Partnership in Egypt

     I am honored to share this time with the Centre for Christian Muslim Understanding and Partnership, and hope you will take my talk as an expression of my deep appreciation of your shared ministry. Real understanding is the collaboration of empathy, knowledge, and shared action. Speaking at the same time as the prophets, the Greek philosopher Aristotle called it phronesis, which meant practical discernment, or enacted wisdom. In that we have much to learn from you. My talk is heavier at the outset on knowledge, and at the conclusion on practice, but I hope it is clear that my empathy and admiration runs throughout.

    Think of a time when you have read something you wrote two decades earlier. It is like meeting yourself as a younger acquaintance from days gone by!  Not bad, and then who is this guy?  First I want to give you a summary of the point I was making back then. I believe that my argument is supportive of what underlies your work.  Second I want to tarry on the more practical, enacted wisdom conclusions, as they are closest to your interests. Third, I will illustrate my main points with some historical examples, which may be familiar to some and new to others. Forth I bring my argument into conversation with a recent book on Christian friendship, a topic of some contemporary interest in ethics, by a friend named Victor Austin. Fifth and finally, I want to suggest a topic which in friendship will become pressing for both Christianity and Islam, a topic found in the overlap between the two, in the coming generation, though it would take another lecture, by another speaker better equipped, to address this most urgent subject.

      The modern world is a pluralistic world, though that word can mean a number of things The view of the religions most typical of modernity is likewise called ‘pluralism.’ According to this view, the transcendent is behind and beyond all the particulars of different religious traditions. It is beyond the categories of human knowledge. So the symbols, texts, and doctrines of each religion are simply the way each is accustomed to speak of the infinite, differing as they do in history and culture. The claims of religions are therefore de-emphasized, while the religions still have scope to compete in charitable acts.  Pluralism seems to prioritize humility and mutual respect, but it fails to appreciate what each religion actually believes and advocates doing. By contrast we better respect and honor religions by taking their claims seriously,  which means respecting their actual differences. To be sure, this also means acknowledging that religions make truth claims that sometimes conflict, rather than papering these over with an overarching alternative which relativizes the whole landscape.  Now Christianity and Islam are great and ancient traditions, each with different eras and schools of thought of its own. In other words there may be found debate within each tradition. But each also has consistent doctrinal commitments. The graduate school of Christian thought in which I studied liked to compare a religious tradition to the grammar of a language, the single underlying system of rules that allows the speaker to say whatever varied thing he or she wants to say. Both Christianity and Islam have their own grammars.

     If we are thus to honor the distinctiveness and particularity of religions, we must acknowledge their different goals or ends, toward which human beings move, and the different understandings of what helps them to reach their goal.  To be sure, the Christian and Muslim ideas of heaven, paradise, etc. have some shared influences, but how each imagines that the human being arrives there diverges from the other road.  Still, it is much easier to compare the two, than in the case of a comparison with, say, Hinduism.  (Here one might read Father Joseph DiNoia’s The Diversity of Religions).

      Let us summarize where we have gotten so far: respect involves difference, and doctrinal difference implies disagreement, though there can also to be found areas of overlap, to be sure.  Third, each religion has its own doctrinal logic, like a grammar internal to the tradition.

       But there is more to say on the subject. A noted philosopher of religions named William Christian has talked about what he called ‘doctrines about alien claims.’ In other words, religions form doctrines about how to think about the doctrines of their neighbors. Doctrines about doctrines: wheels within wheels!  I am competent to speak only of my own tradition, but we might think about the concept of ‘people of the book’, or the role of Isa in the coming of the kingdom, or more negatively, the idea of Jahiliyyah as ways of making sense of other claims, from within the logic of Islam. From the Christian side, we might turn to Acts 17 where Paul, walking in the Areopagus of Athens, the haunts of the philosophers, refers to the time of  ignorance prior to Jesus Christ in v. 30, which God overlooks, though He would have all come to the truth now. Likewise a few verses earlier we find the famous reference to the ‘altar to the unknown God’ in v. 23)., evidence that humans have an inkling of what the Gospel reveals to them more fully. These can all be seen, if implicitly, as doctrines about the doctrines of others. To repeat, these are conformed to the same internal logic, the doctrinal requirements, of each tradition. But each must make sense of what their neighbor is saying, and evaluate it, whether positively or negatively. 

       In my book, the title The First and The Last names the pattern or grammar which Christian theology over the ages has used to think about its religious neighbors and their doctrinal claims.  Christians have borrowed the pattern of the Old and New Testament, and put other claims ‘before’, not only historically but also theologically, the Christian faith. In the ancient world, the claims of the Greek philosophers about reason, Word, mind, Logos, were partial and scattered truths, mixed in with idolatry. The Gospel was last in time, though it was first in veracity.  ‘Before Abraham was I am,’ said Jesus in the Gospel of John. Later in history, the medievals contrasted nature and grace. Later still the missionaries from the Reformation traditions thought of the claims of tribes and local religions as the equivalent of ‘Law’, at once necessary but limited, leading to, but also in contrast to, the ‘Gospel’ era brought by the Church.  Last and first is the template that Christianity uses, though the before and after of a story can be connected in various kinds of plotlines.  I am not competent to answer how in history Islam has answered this question about the claims of its neighbors according to its own logic.

       Respect means difference, and difference means sometimes disagreement, but difference also means doctrines about the neighbors’ doctrines. Fair enough, but traditions have historically had even more to say, and in interesting ways.  For God rules over all the world, and believers often wonder what He is up in allowing, even indirectly, the existence and actions of the religious neighbors with whom they disagree, and who may even oppress them. In peace and even in hardship, what does the neighbor teach us?  This is a different question than that of pluralism which simply blended all together. It is also a different question from that of salvation. One can believe that your neighbor is in important ways in error, but one can still wonder what God is up to with them. Think of the Old Testament in the Christian Scriptures. The Babylonians were in error as idolaters, as both Christians and Muslims would say. But God used them, both to chastise His people, and indirectly to extend the vocation of the people of God to be a ‘light to the nations,’ as the prophet Isaiah said. Job was a pagan, yet he asked hard and faithful questions and was eventually blessed. Similarly Naaman the Syrian general and leper, who sought healing from the God of Israel and was surprisingly accommodated with a gift of earth from Judah to bring back to his home. And then there is of course Cyrus, whose political deliverance of the people earned him the designation of ‘the anointed one’ no less, though he was most assuredly an idolater too.  The question of what the people of God could learn from their neighbor, and the question of what the Lord was up to, mysteriously, by what Luther called His ‘left hand,’ or what Isaiah called God’s ‘strange work,’ remain valid questions, in spite of serious doctrinal critique . 

    Of course this kind of reflection, in both of our traditions, is to be accompanied by misericordia, mercy, rahmah, grace, nehme. This is where the fuller sense of enacted wisdom comes into play.  (As a personal aside, I should mention that I was ordained in Tanzania, where the language in which I taught and prayed was Swahili, so words like rehema, baraka, hekima, ushuhuda, dini, sala, sadaka, and neema are familiar to me). Both traditions have things to say about relationships of mercy to the neighbor, who may be also the outsider. Doctrinal talk cannot be separated from this virtue- as Christians we recall that Thomas Aquinas’, the angelic doctor of the 13th century, defined faith as assent to the truth informed by charity, both in concert, for without the latter even a correct answer is not of God.

      But if respect means difference, distinctness, and traditions have their own grammars or logics then how really can different religions like Christianity and Islam speak to one another? Are they not, in a sense, speaking different languages? For centuries in the Middle Ages Christians in the West had distorted ideas of Islam, and could not read the Koran in translation accurately so as better to understand. We have already seen how we need the neighbor to show us something God would have us see about ourselves, though this vocation of theirs may surprise us.   At the same time we need the neighbor, the interlocutor, to help us see things through their eyes, and so to help us also to see them accurately.  But to do this we need first to find the areas in which our beliefs overlap. Think of mathematics class, where we learned of the Venn diagram, the areas where two shapes overlap, the shared zone in-between. We have such, an area around shared words like judgment, transcendence, grace, prophet, the divine will. I am not saying Christians and Muslims think the same things about these words, only that the terms are shared, and that the overlap invites us to conversations about what we believe about each, so as to apprehend better what the interlocutor believes.

      Forgive one more autobiographical note from two decades ago. When I was writing The First and The Last, our theological college gave Bishop Kenneth Cragg an honorary degree. (As an aside, when an assistant bishop of Jerusalem, he also ministered here in the early 1970’s.)  Every afternoon for a week he and I drank tea while he critiqued chapters of the book in a manner at once friendly and caustic. It was an honor, like an amateur walk onto the football field as goalie and have Pele score time after time!  And if any of you are retired or thinking of such, let me add that the Bishop was up with the dawn writing verse in Latin when he was, by that time, ninety years old!).

    It would be another whole talk to evaluate fairly Bishop Cragg’s contribution, but for our purposes I want simply to point to his idea of ‘cross-reference.’ I have in mind here in particular his book Christ Among the Faiths, whose opening section is about the fruitful mutual interrogation of Christian and Muslim. In that zone of overlap are words and ideas shared, though what they mean to each tradition differs. And as a result we have important and fruitful questions to ask of one another. We as Christians need to be grateful for such questions, for they help us to understand our interlocutor, but also ourselves better. Cragg called this ‘cross reference.’ The divine oneness is squarely in the zone of overlap, but interpreted with two grammars between us, and questions asked of us as Christians sharpen our understanding. Cragg’s point is that as traditions draw close and converge around a theme, there they have telling questions to pose and telling claims to hear and learn and understand ourselves better by. 

      In my own book I suggested that his kind of dialogue takes one another most seriously and best promises to teach us things about ourselves we did not know.  I called it ‘disputation,’ from the rich medieval inheritance of scholarly debate, first between say the Mutalizites and the Asharites, or between the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Of course such mutual challenge depends on the charity and empathy of which we have already spoken, charity which also may be found squarely in the overlap of Christian and Muslim, lest this kind of dialogue be mistaken for something else.

     The respect of difference, with the awareness of distinctive grammars, leading now to the practice of disputation in the shared space of theological terms:  that was twenty years ago, and equally so now, what I have to offer to you. But I want to go on, in encouragement, to all of us, to cite the moments in religious history when such fruitful and searching dialogue has taken place, often like islands or oases between misunderstanding and strife.  You are probably already aware of them, but rehearsing them is still an exercise in encouragement. The early history of the Caliphates included John of Damascus, who at once defined Nicene orthodoxy, debated with Muslim colleagues, and worked for the Umayyad caliph. In the generations that followed, thanks to the Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad the sciences were advanced, ancient texts preserved, and Nestorian scholars sheltered. Hospitality, preservation, and theological debate flourished. Four centuries and 7000 kilometers away, at the Mongol capital of Karakorum, pagan, Muslim, Nestorian, and Catholic missionaries could debate by night in the presence of the Khan. Interestingly the Muslim and the Christians would team up in defense of monotheism the first evening, thereupon to debate one another in the evening that followed, the politic Khan determining the debate to have been a drawn and needing to be continued!  At roughly the same time, though on the other side of the globe, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars wrestled over the same questions of divine agency, analogy, and the world’s eternity, as they came to grips with the writings of Aristotle which the Caliph had caused to be preserved centuries before. This enormously fruitful period is insightfully treated by the late Catholic scholar David Burrell in his Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn Sina, Maimonides, and Aquinas.

      My bibliography of these examples of charitable disputation on islands of mutuality, of Convivencia, must include an important description of how medieval Christians understood, and more often misunderstood, Islam, by R.W..Southern called Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages.  Of greatest interest, in my view, is his final chapter, called ‘The Moment of Vision,’ in the fifteenth century, around the time of the fall of Constantinople.  Christian scholars came finally to ask themselves what God was up to in Islam.  They were no less in disagreement over important questions, but they finally wondered how, from a Christian grammar, Islam might have a mysterious providential purpose. In the case of Nicholas of Cusa, the speculation accompanied an effort to bring contending Christian groups together in the (ultimately unsuccessful) conciliar movement. What charitable sense could the faithful Christian make of the devout Muslim? Cusa imagined, finally, religion of the Logos in the mode of each religion. The answers were tentative, speculative, but the effort, there in the overlap, in spite of living in a century of great peril called by one historian a ‘distant mirror’ of our own, is worth remembering.

     Respect- difference- grammar- cross-reference- historical precedents: such was my argument two decades ago, and is so here at the end of 2023. But the way I would make the same point, and the particular way I would apply that point, today, is simpler. I have benefited from a colleague in ministry named Victor Austin, who has written a book about friendship.  My problem two decades ago was how to talk about important disagreement across distinct traditions in a charitable and mutually fruitful way. The idea of the friend, philos in Greek, rafik in Arabic can comprise all of these. Friends can surely disagree, and their relation in a certain way may highlight their difference. Twenty years on I learned from that book on friendship by my friend Victor that it is a yet simpler way to capture much of what I was trying to say. It has difference, mutuality, a willingness to learn something about ourselves, the horizon of God round about, and a larger community in which it can grow, all of these in it. Austin himself refers to a famous treatise called Spiritual Friendship by a Aelred, an English monk of the 12th century who became an abbot, an administrator of a religious community in France. Austin begins with Aristotle once more, then brings the thoughts of Saints Augustine and Aelred, into conversation with contemporary literary accounts of friendship. Here is how I would extract from his book as a definition of friendship: ‘neighbors who come to be equals and speak to one another of shared spiritual goods, with mutual esteem, and whose relation struggles toward that good, even as it is open to others.’  The definition includes intellectual commitments, not enclosed but engaged, virtues, and empathy. So I would summarize what I was after when I wrote it twenty years ago, and so I believe that committed but dialogical relations between religious traditions ought to be, now more urgently, of which this Center is an exemplar.

     Brothers and sisters, my argument is concluded, and one should not open a whole new can of worms at the last, requiring an entire new talk! But that is what I do want to do, very briefly. I want to leave you with one topic in the overlap which Christian and Muslim friends will need to come together to face.  This pressing topic of our time also seems simpler and more basic than I would have imagined twenty years ago. The dignity of the human being, of Adam formed of a clot of blood by the most bounteous Lord.  The human being with a body and a spirit, an individual and yet made for community, who speaks and hears his or her neighbor in person, whose integrity is enhanced by work as well as fellow feeling. Who would have thought something so basic would today be in question? Christian and Muslim may make their defense a bit differently, but here they are together.  Global south or north, rich or poor, in our time technology will challenge human dignity, quicker than we might think, more thoroughly than we can imagine. It is a topic to which we all must turn our attention, yet another threat from which we all pray to the Lord for protection, about which we will be called to speak, together. Amen.


Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.