A Common Word Between Us and You is an interfaith dialogue initiative commenced in 2007 by scholars, clerics and intellectuals from across the Islamic world in a spirit of intellectual interchange with their Christian counterparts. It finds resonance in the senior levels of the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox branches of Christianity. It brings to the fore, in the interest of developing a meaningful peace, how the Muslim and Christian communities representing well over half of the world’s population might agree on love of God and love of neighbor as common beliefs. We expand the inquiry addressing religious commonalities (love of God), but also governance and legal development (love of neighbor) in the practical context of international challenges such as development, the environment and human rights. We refer to these two areas of focus as the theory and application of A Common Word, given an intention to look beyond conventional approaches to religion and ethics per se to better engage the practical level of shared international challenges.
We focus the theoretical side of our Common Word inquiry on comparative theology, metaphysics, and mysticism. The theology panel addresses how to engage in theological inquiry in the presence of the Other. The mysticism panel addresses the need for and role of esoterism in interfaith dialogue, alongside its place in different traditions. The metaphysics panel examines the role of philosophy and metaphysics in understanding theological differences at a more profound level, possibly creating space for reconciliation.
The key question in all three areas is how Muslims and Christians can engage in interfaith dialogue without compromising their religious integrity on the one hand, and simply reducing dialogue to polite diplomacy on the other. A Common Word rightly emphasizes the remarkable theological similarities between Islam and Christianity. But can all theological differences be reconciled from a strictly theological point of view? Or do metaphysical and mystical perspectives increase the possibilities for finding common ground? This has major implications for the role of the Academy in furthering the Common Word initiative.
We focus the application or “love of neighbor” side of our Common Word inquiry on the practical issues of the environment, development and human rights. Human potential and the natural environment as its framework set the boundaries, but in practical terms we invariably face questions about distributive justice and human dignity. The practical issue is the extent to which thinkers and doers working within majority Christian and Moslem societies as their frame of reference understand the issues similarly, or in a different light.
Thus, concerning the environment, we examine the values and ethical understanding of the natural environment within the context of a modern world grappling with global climate change. There have been attempts to capture on a comparative basis different religions’ views of the environment, sharing at their base a suspicion, if not outright rejection, of purely utilitarian or economically based analyses of environmental challenges. On the other hand, a close examination of states’ approach to global climate change in the on-going context of treaty negotiations reveals an almost purely utilitarian approach. What are these differences in approach, and can they be reconciled?
Concerning development, we examine the differences and similarities of views in differing historical context. Views at the level of bilateral development assistance and the international financial institutions focused first on concepts of modernization, then more recently governance and human development as the core of development. Meanwhile, the challenge of development and a perceived relative underperformance in the Islamic world for the past two hundred years are sometimes cited as the source of internal disputes concerning the correct path to development (e.g., strict secularism linked with borrowings of Western technology versus ideas that only through purer forms of Islam and distinctly Islamic sciences will development advance). And what is development in an increasingly globalized world, merely the gathering of economic riches or increased human capacity and sophistication?
Concerning human rights, we examine the problems of human rights as legal, ethical and religious concept in the international sphere. There are practical difficulties of understanding and actualizing human rights. Meanwhile, there are distinct differences in understanding them at the levels of civil and political rights, as well as economic and social rights, not to mention third generation concepts such as rights to development or collective rights generically. Beyond this, there are differences focusing on universalism versus cultural relativism, and whose views will predominate in the international community. But are such differences really based in religious ideas or something else, and if so what? What are the shared views given perceptions of differences in areas such as freedom of religion or women’s rights, and how does one separate religious views from secular law in this sphere? Where is the line to be drawn between emphasis on individual versus collective interests in this context, and who makes that call?