Islam and Christianity Sibling Rivalries and Sibling Possibilities

By Knitter, Paul F. | Cross Currents, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Islam and Christianity Sibling Rivalries and Sibling Possibilities


Knitter, Paul F., Cross Currents


Hans Kung's oft-quoted statement describes the urgency of interreligious dialogue in general, and of our Muslim-Christian conversation in particular: "There will be no peace among nations unless there is peace among religions. And there will be no peace among religions unless there is authentic dialogue among religions." (1)

While that declaration of Kung is true for all religions in general, it is blatantly, urgently, and painfully true in particular for the relations between Islam and Christianity (Judaism might also be added to this mix, but that is not my topic for today). I do not have to give evidence for such a claim. In large part, it is the motivation for this conference.

What is in general true for much of the history of our two great religious traditions is even more dangerously true of our present historical situation, especially since the event of September 11, 2001 and, just as much, since the events that have followed 9/11. To state it simply: Many members of our two religious families, Christians and Muslims, are at odds with each other. They are fighting with each other, fearful and hateful toward each other, resorting to violence in order either to defend themselves or to establish and extend their influence and power.

Or, as my President, Barack Obama, put it in his speech here in Cairo on June 4, 2009: "We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation but also conflict and religious wars." (2)

Certainly not all, or even most, Christians and Muslims are antagonistic toward each other. But many of them are. And they are the ones commanding the attention and stirring the fears of the world. Many of our brothers and sisters are being enlisted by political or ideological leaders to join armies--either national armies organized by places like the Pentagon or local armies organized through diversified grassroots efforts around the globe.

I believe that one of the main purposes of this conference, and certainly of my presentation, is to try to understand this antagonism, this fighting, between our religious families--and to help resolve it. Again, as Barack Hussein Obama declared here in Cairo: "... this cycle of suspicion and discord must end." We must face honestly and accurately the reality of hatred or suspicion; only then can we creatively and effectively turn it into trust and collaboration.

That is not an easy task. It is not easy primarily because of the complex political and economic policies and inequities that exist between many Muslim and Christian countries. But it is also not easy because of theological reasons that often form the basis of, or the justification for, hostile, hateful attitudes that Muslims and Christians have toward each other.

My focus today is on the theological reasons for our problems with each other, for I believe that it is theology that exacerbates the political/ economic realities and makes it so easy for our religions to be exploited for purposes of aggression or terrorism.

But I also want to explore how theology, while often the cause of tensions between our religions, can be an even greater cause and resource for the reconciliation of our religions. That will be the main emphasis of these reflections. By facing honestly how theology and beliefs can be problems, we are enabled to reassert how they can be solutions.

My approach to these theological issues will be to view our two religions for what I believe they really are--siblings. Historically and theologically, both of our religions are offspring of a common parent: Judaism. We are brothers, or sisters, to each other. We have inherited the "theological genes" of Abraham and his prophetic descendents. And although we are both very different from our parent, although we are very different from each other--we still are genetically, as well as historically, related to each other.

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