The American Church in Paris is a resplendent building, keeping good company with the local architecture on the quai d’Orsay. Run by Presbyterians, apparently, with an impressive array of pastoral scholarship, they host the so-called “Thurber lectures” where a luminary with particular expertise addresses a gathering after a light supper. I went, with some degree of trepidation, to hear Dudley Woodberry, a world authority on intercultural studies, Dean Emeritus of School at Fuller, having vast expertise on how to engage with a sometimes hostile Muslim majority, on ‘the surprising convergence of Islam and Christianity’. His overarching theme was a willingness to learn and admire with a little deference resulted in an overwhelming willingness on the part of the Muslim community to engage. George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury once remarked “they have the same fears about us as we have of them.” He developed convergence of various Qu’ranic verses with the Old and New Testaments and spent some time considering uncontroversial themes. It is easy enough to find moral injunctions in the Qu’ran having exact parallels in the Old Testament and the Talmud – suggesting common source material, perhaps. Further, all three religions share a common prophetic tradition. Each of them claims the same historical legacy although each may interpret specific historical and prophetic events differently. In fact, using the analogy of a tree, each of the three claims to be the one, true, vertical extension of a trunk of primary revelation, with the other two being seen as lateral branches that deviate from the true verticality of the original trunk.
Well, so far, so good. It became clear however that as much as we might admire the principled and rigorous behaviour of the Muslim community, and the convergences of spiritual and ethical instruction which are quite evident, Christianity stands or falls by the Resurrection which they deny. The consequence is therefore that a fear of judgement and retribution pervades much Islamic thinking, which fear in turn leads to right action, there being almost no understanding of the idea that God really loves them (1 Jn 4:19). In Sura 3:31 of the Qu’ran, the believer seeks by a fundamentally self-motivated love to turn aside God’s wrath and hopefully gain both his approval and forgiveness – a contrast between Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle. There are thirty references to Jesus in the Qu’ran culminating in a bodily return to earth and the destruction of the Antichrist but I was left with the feeling that there was a political rectitude about Mohammed that was not congruent with their interpretation of Jesus. It was as if someone who wished to overturn an established (mostly Jewish) tradition had introduced a stalking horse for political ends.
However comforting the notion of shared tradition is – and for some, I suspect, exceedingly so – I remained unconvinced until he suggested one interfaith strategy which works is to capitalize on our shared humanity. Bringing together a group of Christian believers with a group of Muslims over perhaps some food, asking each “which is your favourite Bible/Qu’ran verse and why” has met with interesting results. Belief systems are not tarnished by convergence, as long as they are firmly held and Augustine’s (misattributed) principle ‘in necessariis unitas, in dubiis, libertas, in omnibus, caritas’ is followed.