Years ago, perhaps over 40 of them, a young woman sat across from my wife and me talking seriously about returning to Turkey. “I can no longer raise my son in this culture”, she said.
Her husband was a physician, they lived in a very nice upper middle class house, and were well received in the small coal mining town in which they, and we, lived. Other than her husband, she was one of the few Muslims in town. There was no mosque. At least one Muslim gentleman attended the Presbyterian Church on occasion. Or the Methodist one. It made no difference to him.
Her minority status and lack of familiar social, religious and cultural surroundings were painful to her.
She did leave our community with her small son, but maintained a friendship with at least one person, the wife of another physician in the town.
Would this new book “A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor” have been of help to her?
I must say, no. She was not so much interested in philosophy or theology, but with the daily life of a Muslim mother seeking to educate her son in the ways of the Prophet Mohammed.
The book consists of a discussion by Muslim and Christian theologians of issues raised in a 2007 letter from 138 Muslim thinkers, addressed to the Christian community, and most especially to its theological and biblical scholars. This letter, called “A Common Word Between Us and You” generated a response from Christians in various places. Most notably, a conference at Yale University explored a variety of Christian responses to a document that took as its theme “love of God and love of neighbor”.
In his foreword, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, commented that an understanding of this “Common Word” was of crucial importance. Noting that Christians make up 55 percent of the world’s population is a necessary component in making the 21st century work more humanely, and the earth a better place.
This is not an easy work to read. The presence of quotations (some from the New Testament, or Christian Scriptures) in Arabic can be discouraging to someone who does not read that language.
Why this work is important is that it does not seek to address questions of practice, such as the wearing special clothing, dietary issues and the basic differences between Christians and Muslims as they relate to Jesus Christ. The book makes clear that the document “A Common Word Between Us and You” is centered only around the thesis that Muslims and Christians, by way of their prophets and teachers, seek to practice love and unqualified regard in relationship to those with whom they may have religious and spiritual differences.
With this understanding, say many of the respondents, people of widely varying faiths can work together for a better world. This is much like the common response to human need seen in our own community as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others working together to build Habitat houses for those who need shelter. Hunger and cold have no religiously divergent names.
Who might use such a difficult and demanding book? First of all, the academic communities in our area could bring together Christian and Muslim thinkers to consider the “Common Word” document. An agreement would be made not to talk about the Crusades or 9/11. This would be hard to accomplish.
Christians such as me have very little understanding of Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an. As I read this work, I was surprised at the knowledge Christian scripture demonstrated by Muslim thinkers. Some quoted that central text in the Gospel of John (3:16) in which God loves the world to the extent that God gives an only son as a sacrifice so that all who put their trust in Christ will obtain eternal life. In some cases, the Christian theologians who responded seemed rather preachy.
An exception was the Harvard Baptist theologian Harvey Cox, whose words would be acceptable in many places where Muslims and Christians are in conversations.
Another venue for this book might be as adult church school classes approach the daunting topics contained in this volume, with open hearts and minds.
In any case, this is a book of great importance that the uneven style cannot take away.
This review will also appear in the Perspective section of the March 28 Sunday Gazette-Mail.