Christology in Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Christology in Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Robert Afayori

Format: 13.5 x 21.5 cm
Number of Pages: 410
ISBN: 978-3-99107-293-5
Release Date: 09.12.2020
Focussing on Christian-Muslim dialogue on Christology, this book negotiates the christological standoffs between both faiths to achieve the tripartite goals of authentic knowledge of the other, profound knowledge of oneself, and mutuality of interrelationship.

Christology is one of the most contentious subjects in Christian-Muslim relations. While Jesus of Nazareth is construed as Christ, the “Son of God” and the “Saviour of the World” in Christianity, Islam conceives him as a “Prophet” or as the “Messenger” of Allah without divine connotations. Thus, Islam categorically rejects the Christian position on the identity and mission of Jesus and invites Christians to rethink their faith and jettison their claims on the incarnation, the divine sonship, and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whereas these Muslim claims and rebuttals undercut the essential content of the Christian faith, the Christian church from the onset viewed the Islamic image of Jesus as a “new form of heresy” which needed to be sanitized by force, if need be. For the Muslim world too, the Christology of the Christian Church was born out of pure distortions and falsifications. This context of claim and counterclaim gave rise to polemical relationships between the much older Christian church (first century) and the newcomer, the much younger Islamic or Muslim world (seventh century).
Through the centuries, while the Christian Church initially reacted to the Islamic claims by adopting an aggressive and defiant policy of propagating the faith regardless of the views and confutations of Islam, Muslims too continued to accentuate their perceived concerns about the Christian stance, by underlining the Qur’anic position on the identity and the mission of Jesus, and the Qur’anic Jesus’ own rejection of the Christian claims to his divine sonship. Realising over the years that its policy of defiant faith propagation was not that successful, the Christian church resorted to another policy of protective withdrawal from real contacts and communication with Muslims on the subject of Christology. When this calculative avoidance tactic was not very successful in shirking off what was then considered as the “new heresy”, the church decided to take Muslims seriously by listening to them and making sense to Muslims the Christian position on the mission and the identity of Jesus. This gave birth to the most cherish twentieth century concept of dialogue between Christians and Muslims and interreligious dialogue in general. Yet, still unresolved, is the question on the identity and the mission of Jesus Christ – a historical person common to both religions, nevertheless divided between them.
While some scholars think that Christian-Muslim dialogue on Christology is altogether impossible because of the stark differences in their Christological understandings, this book shows that dialogue is possible depending on its nature and goal. The persistent lack of success in Christian-Muslim dialogues on Christology is because much of these dialogues have often centred on various versions of the tripartite traditional models of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. While exclusivism categorically rejects the belief-systems of the other as inauthentic, inclusivism patronises other’s belief-systems as less or partial versions of what is realized in only one, however, pluralism and its associate versions end up caricaturing the religions by its declaration of a limitless playfield of openness for all religions. In this way, not only do these traditional paradigms fail to adequately preserve the integrity and the identity of the other, they also fail to maintain the commitment of the self to its religious beliefs and practices. Throughout the history of Christian-Muslim relations, applications of these traditional models of dialogue have failed to meet the tripartite goals of interreligious dialogue: that is, (1) the profound knowledge of oneself; (2) the authentic knowledge of the other; and (3) living more accordingly as oneself as another.
It is in response to this difficult lack that this current study proposes a new turn to Christian-Muslim dialogue as “an exercise in learning”. This model of dialogue traverses the weaknesses of the three traditional paradigms and creates the appropriate context for constructive engagements between Christian and Muslims on Christology. By its emphasis on “learning from and about the other”, dialogue as “an exercise in learning” effectively negotiates the contentions that characterized the “claim and counterclaim” polemics in Christian-Muslim relations over centuries. What is significant in this form of dialogue is the interest to learn from and about the other’s beliefs on the identity and the mission of Jesus Christ within their tradition-specific contexts, and how this learning contributes to enriching the relationship between the self and the other in contexts where they are considered estranged. The self and the other here can either be the Muslim and the Islamic understanding of Christology, or the Christian and the Christian understanding of the identity and the mission of Jesus Christ.
The relationship between the self and the other is a complex one, which is today, described as a hermeneutic relationship. This is because it encompasses the difficult and complex nature of the relationships that were established between the self and other in the past, and the perceptions, the attitudes and the concerns that they each bring into this relationship today. It is often said that for dialogue to be successful, it is essential that the dialogical partners perceive each as equal-partners-in-dialogue and unite their attitude of faith commitment to their beliefs and openness to the beliefs of the other. Here, Christians and Muslims are expected to open themselves to each other without losing their religious identities. This dialectic of openness and commitment raises hermeneutic questions such as: (1) What is openness and commitment in interreligious dialogue? (2) Are there limits to openness, and if so, how is this determined? (3) How is the dialogical call to openness related to commitment? (4) What is religious identity? (5) Is dialogue with the religious other (be they Muslim or Christian) a threat to one’s identity or an enrichment? (6) If the latter pertains, what is the nature of this enrichment? (7) Is religious identity the same in respect of one’s religious tradition, or is it a matter of becoming, growing, change and transformation? (8) If the latter pertains, how does change and transformation occur without the self-losing itself?
A response to the above hermeneutic questions within the context of dialogue as an exercise in learning, recourse is made to Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of the self which provides the framework within which the questions on religious identity, and the attitudes on commitment and openness are addressed. Ricoeur is a philosopher of mediation who never gives up on the space-between the self and the other. In terms of establishing the relationship between the self and the other in contexts where they are considered estranged, Ricoeur’s asserts that selfhood and otherness are so interconnected such that selfhood and otherness cannot be separated. Through his concept of attestation, Ricoeur demonstrates that in narrating the story of our lives, we find that others contribute to our narratives and we theirs. These narrative intertwinements provide the hermeneutic fingerprints for the fruitful engagements between the self and the other, and the enrichment it manifests. Following the Ricoeurean hermeneutics of the self, the study demonstrates on the one hand, how Islam and Christianity possess symmetrical and dissymmetrical narrative discourses on Christology, and on the other, how these discourses serve as contexts for learning and enrichment.
Christianity and Islam hold similar Christological themes and titles such as: the Virginal Conception, the miracles Jesus performed, the ascension and the Second Coming, Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus as the Word of God, and as the Spirit of God, among others. Islam however denies the truthfulness of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Death and the Resurrection. Whereas learning from the other helps to unravel the deeper meanings of the similitudes and the dissimilarities between their Christological understandings, dialogue as an exercise in learning also leads to the profound knowledge of oneself (Christian or Muslim), the authentic knowledge of the other (Christian or Muslim), and the mutual enrichment this evinces. A significant aspect of the enrichments that is inaugurated by dialogue as an exercise in learning is on how it leads Christians and Muslims to the discovery and to the promotion of common values that are inspired by Jesus the Messiah. Some of these values which we shall discuss include prayer and submission to God, peace and peaceful co-existence and solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. These values are considered common to Christians and Muslims because they are inspired by the message, the life and the mission of Jesus Christ the “Prophet” and the “Messenger” of Allah and the “Son of God”.

Key Words: Christology, Interreligious Dialogue, Learning, Hermeneutics, and Interfaith Action.

It is good to indicate at this stage that this book entitled “Christology in Christian-Muslim Dialogue: The Hermeneutics of Dialogue for the Promotion of Common Values” is composed from the work undertaken as part of the fulfilment for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh (2010–2015). The work presented here is substantially the same as contained in the thesis, although more research has been done to establish the clarity and the robustness that is required to strengthen some of the identified weak joints of the chain of arguments present in the thesis. In this way, what the readers find is the novelty that this study brings to the whole arena of Christian-Muslim dialogue on Christology. It is academically insightful and very engaging by its rich rigorous content and coherency in arguments and presentation. It provides the reader with something to hold unto, which in turn, grips the reader’s insatiable curiosity in desiring to know what lies in the next pages, in the way it constantly provides fresh impetus on what is possible, and how this can be achieved through dialogue in general and Christian-Muslim dialogue on Christology in particular.

1 The Background

In the world today most of the religious clashes, confusions and conflicts according to Douglas Pratt, are born from unexamined conflicting religious ideologies and unresolved mutual misunderstandings and thinking. If an ideology can simply be understood as a set of beliefs, values and opinions which shape the way a person or a group of persons act, behave, interpret and understand the world, then unexamined conflicting ideologies that precipitate religious conflicts need to be critically examined and clarified. Conflicts between religions as a consequence of ideological differences are a well-known phenomenon in our world today. For instance, the 1994 tribal conflict in Ghana between the Konkombas and the Chumburus (largely Christian) on one the hand and the Dagombas, the Nanumbas and the Gonjas (largely Muslim) on the other is a sad story to recount. This tribal conflict which arose as a result of disagreements between two people from two different tribes, soon metamorphosed into a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in the area; leading to the loss of thousands of people. Peace, which is an essential value of every meaningful religion was jettisoned in place of war. The observed religious conflicts in Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, India and Indonesia are but few examples. Religious conflicts have devastative effects on life, property and development.
Overcoming the ideological differences that trigger religious conflicts in our world today through interreligious dialogue is therefore a dire necessity. As Pratt put it, “for dialogue to proceed in the hope, if not the expectation, of a productive outcome, then the misapprehensions of the past, together with the prejudice of the present, must be addressed in a climate of mutual and reciprocal correction.” If interreligious dialogue is to succeed in this area, then there is the need for the development of constructive theological paradigms which support meaningful dialogues between them. Such paradigms need to provide context whereby the religions can creatively engage each other in conversations where shared religious experiences and theological exchanges can lead to the dialogue of life and the dialogue of common action.
Within the context of Christian-Muslim relations, “Christo-logy” is one of the most contentious Theologica-doctrinal constructs that places the two religions in diametrical opposition to each other. Whereas Muslims believes that Jesus was only a “Prophet” or the “Messenger” of Allah, Christians maintain that Jesus Christ is the “Son of God.” Islam has constantly refuted this Christian perspective on Christology both in the Qur’an (Surah 4: 171) and in the Hadiths as blasphemy. For the Christian Church, the Islamic perception of Jesus Christ as a “Prophet” or as a “Messenger” of Allah is heretical and must be condemned. Consequently, the contours of their relations have been one of claim and counterclaim. As a result, Gaudeul intimated that Islam and Christianity shared the same universe at a point, “but mentally they lived in different worlds and, as time went on, the mental universe of each society grew more impervious to the thinking, the values … and indeed the whole universe of the other.”
Today, dialogue between Christians and Muslims has contributed to establishing openness between them to some extent. Part of the fruits of these forms of dialogues is demonstrated by the way Islam is no longer exclusively perceived as a “Christian heresy” but a religion in its own right. Despite the Qur’anic rebuttal of the Christian belief in Jesus Christ as the “Son of God” (Surah 4: 171), there is growing openness between Christians and Muslims who view dialogue as the effective means to establishing a mutual understanding between the two religions on Christology. These dialogues are possible because the Qur’an has its own narratives about Jesus Christ and his mission in the entire divine plan of Allah. These Christological underpinnings in the Qur’an could be brought in conversation with the Christian accounts of the identity and the mission of Jesus Christ. Besides, Jesus Christ plays distinctive roles within Christianity and Islam as the “Son of God” and the “Prophet of Allah” respectively. His distinct identity and significance in these two traditions presents him both as a bridge and a barrier between them. Here, what is needed is the formulation of a dialogical framework which supports the effective negotiation of this dialectic of a bridge and a barrier to allow for Christian-Muslim “dialogue of life” and the “dialogue of common action”.
It must be admitted that although significant scholarly work has been done in this area, most of these do not specifically address the subject of Christology as a context for Christian-Muslim dialogue. Even in the few studies that tangentially address the subject of Christology in Christian-Muslim relations, none of them do so for the promotion of common values. For instance, Mark Beaumont’s work on Christology in Dialogue with Muslims focuses on the critical analysis of the Christian presentation of Christ to Muslims in the nineth and in the twentieth centuries. Beaumont acknowledges the contentious nature of Christian-Muslim relations within these two epochs. He indicates that at the heart of these contentions is the Christian belief in the divinity of Christ and the Islamic denial of it. Beaumont asserts that the Muslim denials of the Christian understanding of the identity and the mission of Jesus Christ brought about three forms of Christian reactions: firstly, Islam was regarded as a false ideology which had to be silenced by an aggressive policy of propagating Christian truths without considering the views of Muslims. Secondly, Christians distanced themselves from Muslims to avoid any communication with them; and thirdly, the Church attempted to, “take Muslims seriously as people of faith whose views on Christ need to be understood and related to in genuine attempts to make sense of the Christian faith to them.” Beaumont’s approach therefore follows this third response; the interest to avoid defiant proclamation and complete indifference by presenting the Christian Christ in a way that Muslims will understand. However, does dialogue not build on mutual sharing with the goal to mutually understand the dialogical other? What about presenting an “Islamic Christology” in ways that Christians will understand? Beaumont’s work lacks this side of the dialogue.
In his work on “The Portrait of Jesus in the Qur’an”, Hans Küng underscores the fact that the Qur’anic portrayal of Jesus as a Prophet must be understood independently from all Christian sources and interpretations and is situated within the Qur’an’s overall theological vision. According to Küng, “from whatever source the information about Jesus may be derived, all the texts have been unmistakably stamped by Muhammad’s intensive prophetic experience of the one God.” So, the Qur’anic’ portrayal of Jesus should be interpreted against the stand-point of the Qur’an and not from the New Testament or the council of Nicaea. He emphasized that Christians should not try to either co-opt Muhammad or Muslims as “anonymous Christians” against the Muslim self-understanding of the uniqueness of their Islamic identity. Whereas Küng’s views here are considered laudable, he however advocates for a functional Christology – one from below as the best approach to Christian-Muslim dialogue.

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