The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Cragg, who passed away in November of 2012, dedicated his long career to bringing Muslims and Christians together at the deepest level of their contrasting faith journeys. The article linked below is an interview he did in 1999 which should be read by all wanting to understand the foundations of the current crisis in Muslim- Christian relations as well as positive ways forward.
You’ve said that Christians and Muslims should be trying to work for religious ecumenism. What does ecumenism look like from a Muslim perspective?
It depends on which Muslim you ask, of course, as it would depend on which Christian you asked. The word ecumenae means the whole inhabited world. But we seem to have limited it to Christian togetherness, to Christian mutuality. Couldn’t we have an ecumenae of religions?
The ecumenical movement has adopted the position that “whatever is Christian I will try to belong with, in some sense.” Can we go on to say, “I will try to belong with anything that is religious”? That, obviously, is vastly more difficult. But a good example of this happened at Temple University, where the Journal of Ecumenical Studies is produced. The journal started out dealing only with inter-Christian issues. Then the editors said, “Why not include Jews? They’re part of the ecumenae of Abraham. Why not Muslims?” If you begin thinking that way, soon you ask, “Why not every religion — Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism?”
The difficulty is that religion is such an omnibus term. Michael Ramsey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “Not everything religious is desirable.” Would we want to align ourselves with the Hinduism that undergirds the caste system or the Hinduism of Gandhi, which repudiates the caste system? To which Islam can Christians relate — the Islam of Afghanistan’s Taliban or the Islam of academics living in the West? But with due circumspection, I think it’s possible to relate to those of other faiths. We must do so with patience and modesty, with the honest recognition that the degree to which we can be together is partial, and that each faith has distinctive aspects which can’t be reconciled. If we agree to agree, we must at the same time agree to disagree. Otherwise, we may be heading only for some kind of gooey sentimentalism.
In the U.S., there always seem to be far more Christians than Muslims involved in Islamic-Christian dialogue groups. Are Christians more open than Muslims to this kind of encounter?
Even those in the two faiths who are articulate and ready for dialogue do have a different kind of calendar. Christianity has had a longer confrontation with modernity than has Islam. Our experience or awareness of the issues now facing us is, consequently, different. Christians are more aware of the need to respond to pluralism.
We have to be patient until Muslims feel they are more ready for dialogue. What I often find is that the Muslim participants in dialogue groups will make a kind of set statement reiterating how they see things. You get the impression that they haven’t really taken in the things the Christians have said. But at least they have been willing to respond. Many of the same issues face people of all religions — ecology the environment, population. In all these spheres we can, to an extent, cooperate. And religions need the criticism that those of other faiths can bring.
Aren’t many Muslim countries trying to shut themselves off from the West and the West’s religion?
There is a very deep-seated resentment of Western power, especially of American power. It’s a love-hate relationship, because these countries need Western technology and expertise. People come to the West for education, and some nations, such as Egypt and Jordan, are sustained by American aid. If you feel your culture is under threat, however, or is going to be swamped by what you regard as alien influences, or if you want to have some control over the degree to which another culture influences yours — then you may develop a mentality of resistance. We see an extreme form of this in Afghanistan. The more people see old securities threatened, the louder they tend to shout. So in that sense, fundamentalism is itself an index of the degree of inevitable change.