Monday, April 16, 2007

Particularity and Pluralism in Muslim Christian Dialogue

In many circles Muslim-Christian dialogue has unfortunately come to be associated with a relativistic religious pluralism and skepticism, particularly on the Christian side, as a necessary precondition for fruitful exchange. This has meant that many Christians seem to feel obligated to abandon the distinctive claims of Christianity, particularly those which are presumed to be of offense to Muslims, or to reinterpret those claims so broadly or metaphorically as to be able to read into them a meaning which is perceived to be more acceptable to Muslim sensibilities. This paper will argue that the effect of this “rejection of Christian uniqueness”[1] as a precondition for Muslim-Christian dialogue is an undermining or invalidating of the dialogue itself, because of the philosophical and religious problems associated with such a position, and because this type of approach robs dialogue of its practical relevance for everyday Muslims and Christians. On the other hand, examples of robust Christian positions which affirm the distinctive claims of Christianity can model a better starting place for dialogue

The impulse to downplay or retreat from distinctive religious claims and unique religious identity, which Lamin Sanneh identifies as “particularity”, is predominantly a Western Christian phenomenon. This is perhaps not surprising given the historic interest that Christians have had in studying and interacting with Islam and Muslims compared to the relative lack of interest on the part of Muslims to understand and interact with Christianity. Albert Hourani, a Muslim scholar, confirms this tendency: “To the modern interest of some Christians in Muslim doctrine, there corresponds very little Muslim interest in Christian doctrine.”[2]

Perhaps for reasons historic and philosophical, this Christian interest in coming to terms with Muslim doctrine has been accompanied by a concern for dialogue and often an over-eagerness to avoid or abandon matters of Christian doctrine which might be of offense to Muslims. Interestingly, Hourani sees the lack of Muslim interest in Christianity as the result of Islam’s assurance that its conception of God is the only one that is tenable. He seems to take for granted that this type of confidence can only translate into a disregard for other religions, but there is no argument to this effect. In fact, what is also left unsaid is the implicit notion that it must be Christianity’s contrary tendency, i.e., not to be “sure that theirs is the only tenable doctrine of the nature of God and the ways in which He acts in the world,”[3] that has resulted in its ability to generate genuine interest in understanding Islam. But what evidence is there to make such a connection?

Bernard Lewis seems to make a similar assumption in his provocatively titled article, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Go to Hell”.[4] He categorizes religion very broadly into either triumphalism, characterized by its conviction that either Islam or Christianity is the true religion and an accompanying invitation for everyone else to go to Hell, or relativism, which holds that “I have my god, you have your god, and others have theirs.”[5] Lewis seems to leave no room for a Muslim or Christian to preserve the distinctive truth claims of his or her religion without falling into the camp of the triumphalists. It seems that he has not imagined the possibility of Muslims or Christians who do hold to the orthodox notion of Islam and Christianity as mutually exclusive and who also take initiatives to peacefully coexist and engage in fruitful dialogue with each other. Lewis blames the history of conflict between Muslims and Christians on what he sees as the predominant trend of triumphalism, thus suggesting that the hope for peaceful resolution is to be found in relativism, which he implies could be the result of “future understanding” of the similarities between Islam and Christianity. He agrees that it is on the Christian side that what he calls triumphalism is “increasingly under attack”, giving way to relativism, while “there is little sign as yet of a parallel development in Islam.” But is there good reason to believe that dissolving the unique claims of Christianity into relativism offers this kind of hope, or that we should adopt this kind of approach even if it could resolve historic conflicts?

In the article mentioned above, Albert Hourani insightfully describes categories of Western attitudes toward Islam. The first centers around Kant’s “distinction between the one true religion and the different systems of though through which men have tried to express it.”[6] In this view, Islam and Christianity are both imperfect expressions of the one transcendent reality. If this is an accurate description, then we are to conclude either that all religions (including Islam and Christianity) are basically the same, which highlights the need for tolerance, or that each religion reveals true values which are less evident in others, which highlights the need for dialogue. He offers Wilfred Cantwell Smith as an example of this approach. Cantwell Smith concedes that the Bible is the Word of God only in the same sense that the Qur’an can be called the Word of God, that is, because “it is a word through which men have come to know God.”[7]

From his introduction, however, it seems that Hourani would also share some aspects of this position. He writes that “…just as Christianity is unique for a Christian, there are other senses in which it should be regarded as one among several manifestations of the human spirit, one member of a class – the class of all religions…and one religion can be used to throw light on another.”[8]

As Lamin Sanneh points out, however, these types of approach, as expressed by Albert Hourani and Bernard Lewis as well as by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, raise many questions and criticisms. Sanneh calls attention to the “species of Protestant skepticism that says our own religion does not matter while that of others does.” The apparent tendency is that Christians are tempted to “give away” foundational aspects of Christianity which highlight its uniqueness in order to mitigate the sense of competing claims as a way to engender trust and promote dialogue.

Something similar to the thought that Christianity and Islam are equally imperfect expressions of reality underlies these impulses. Sanneh’s observation, however, is that if this is the case and the nature of dialogue is to “increase our grasp of the Reality of which we have only partial, imperfect glimpses in our own religion” then “we are left with a melting-pot solution to religious differences.”[9] As Sanneh’s comment suggests, this approach betrays a reductive, utilitarian view of religion in which the ultimate goal is for humanity to acquire the right information about “Reality” or to adopt the right kind of morality. Religion is reduced to intellectual insight or moral improvement, which is contrary to the historic teachings of both Islam and Christianity.

Such a philosophical presupposition raises the question of the necessity for dialogue. If a determination has already been made, discounting the distinctive claims of Islam and Christianity (or any other religion), then dialogue seems to be a futile effort. Those who share this presupposition might be seen as doing nothing more than patting each other on the back in dialogue, congratulating one another for agreeing with, or benefiting from, the pre-established conclusion. He argues that worthwhile Christian dialogue should recognize, rather than rescind, particularity. He makes a distinction between particularity, as the distinctiveness of a religion’s claims, and particularism, as the conviction that one’s own distinct claims are the only true ones.
Another criticism raised by an insistence on this type of pluralism as a precondition for dialogue is that it begs the question as to which beliefs and teachings of each religion are to be adopted or rejected. Where would the criteria for making that kind of determination come from? It would obviously have to come from outside either religion, setting up some other standard as the arbiter of divine revelation in an effort to see the religions as equal. But on what basis could such criteria be said to be authoritative? If, as Bernard Lewis suggests, we are to prefer relativism to triumphalism, on what basis should those whom he would describe as triumphalists abandon their convictions in order to become relativists?

Similarly, Sanneh asks, “If we use Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist objections to rescind Christian particularity how is that better or worse than using Christian objections to wreak similar havoc with Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist particularity?”[10] This highlights a serious problem with this type of pluralism as a presupposition for dialogue. If religious pluralism is to be adopted in light of the multiplicity of religious faiths with sincere believers making mutually contradictory claims, then the effect is to invalidate the distinctive claims of Islam as well as Christianity.

It is not difficult to understand why Muslims would not find such an approach endearing. It is more likely, in fact, that Muslims would be surprised by the relativistic implication that Islam is not “valid for them or anybody else.”[11] It is seems unlikely that what appears to be an eagerness to minimize or abandon unique Christian doctrines could engender trust on the part of Muslims. If we are so recklessly dismissive about our own faith, Muslims who do honor the distinctive claims of their religion will have little incentive to identify with us or trust us in religious matters.

In the West, however, it is often accepted as axiomatic that religion is a purely individual matter. Christianity is reduced to “choice and option”, so the religious cost of pluralism is hardly felt in comparison to the alternative, a burden of guilt associated with taking the unique claims of Christianity seriously. It is assumed that holding to the unique truth of Christian claims betrays some arrogance or religious imperialism. But such a charge is self-defeating. As Sanneh asks, “Have we in fact abandoned the one-sidedness we condemn in others when we proceed to make our own formulations – or those of Muslims or others – normative for all religions?” In other words, if we accuse particularist claims of being inherently arrogant or “one-sided” we take on an argument which Alvin Plantinga describes as a “philosophical tar baby”[12], since any claim about religions, including the claim that all religions are equally valid, excludes all opposing positions and is subject to the same accusation of arrogance. A Christian or a Muslim might ask why he or she should accept an exclusive claim made by a liberal theologian over the exclusive claims already present in Christianity and Islam as revealed in their scriptures.

Pragmatically, if the impulse to concede Christian convictions arises, at least in part, from a desire to establish common ground with Muslims and improve our relationships with them, then we ought to look for evidence that such a strategy is or has been successful. Much to the contrary, however, as Sanneh points out, “Just at the time when the liberal West is prepared, rightly or wrongly, to abandon all matters of religious offense to Muslims…Muslims hold tenaciously to a view of the perfidious West”. It seems quite legitimate to ask if there is some support in the history of Muslim Christian encounter for the notion that a pluralistic view of religion will have a salutary impact on that relationship. But the call for dialogue, accompanied by the call for a “rejection of Christian uniqueness”, has been present for at least a generation, and has also coincided with “a deafening Muslim chorus proclaiming the West as a religious antagonist”, suggesting, perhaps, that the approach of the liberal West is ineffective at best.
Bearing in mind, however, that a majority of Muslims and Christians do not live in the West and will not share the religious pluralism of Immanuel Kant or Wilfred Cantwell Smith, it should also be questioned in what way dialogue on this basis will represent their concerns. It seems evident that one of the most significant values of Muslim-Christian dialogue is that it can serve as a model for how everyday Muslims and Christians can relate to one another. However, if we maintain the presupposition that real conversation and engagement can’t occur unless we concede certain distinctive religious claims or adopt a position of religious pluralism in general, we alienate the majority of the world’s Muslims and Christians from dialogue. And to the extent that the non-Western world is impacted by religious developments in the West, we effectively communicate the undesirable message that dialogue between Muslims and Christians, as they actually are in their mainstream expressions worldwide, is impossible. If we are looking to achieve the greatest global benefit from Muslim-Christian dialogue, therefore, it seems that we would be well-served to abandon hope that the rest of the world will adopt religious pluralism and instead focus our energies on modeling a way for Muslims and Christians to engage in fruitful conversation while honoring their respective religious particularity. After all, it is the Muslims and Christians who hold the most exclusivistic positions with regard to each other who stand to benefit most from learning a way to dialogue.

Returning to Hourani’s categories of Western attitudes towards Islam, and to take Hourani’s categories out of order, his third approach is the view that “Islam, like other religions outside Christianity, can be seen, so to speak, as stopping places on the road to the Church.”[13] This position allows for non-Christian religions such as Islam to be “accidental” sources of truth and inspiration for their followers, while maintaining that Christianity is somehow the “ultimate meeting-point of all faiths”.[14] By emphasizing areas of commonality between Islam and Christianity, this approach attempts to “make possible cooperation in the natural order”.[15]
This position is represented by Robin Zaehner, who accepts Muhammad as a prophet, since “there is no criterion by which the gift of prophecy can be withheld from him unless it is withheld from the Hebrew prophets also.”[16] According to Zaehner, when understood correctly, there is also no contradiction between the Qur’an and the New Testament. In fact, he tries to read Christian interpretations into Qur’anic passages. While this position attempts to preserve a unique place for Christianity, it does so at the cost of both Christian and Muslim uniqueness. Muhammad is included as a prophet, which seems to secularize the notion of prophecy. It can hardly be the same voice speaking in such contradictory messages through Jesus and Muhammad, for example, especially in the Muslim view of revelation as the dictated speech of God. And the Qur’an is interpreted in a Christian light, which seems to completely discount the history of Qur’anic interpretation by Muslims themselves.

The second approach Hourani outlines is represented by Hendrik Kraemer. Kraemer, as Cantwell Smith, was also brought up in the Calvinist tradition, but comes to very different conclusions with regard to Christianity’s relationship to Islam. Kraemer points to the Incarnation as the unique, definitive moment of God’s revelation to humanity. In this way Christianity has a unique position and can be the only “authentic response” to God. As Hourani describes his position, “All other responses, all religious systems, are merely human constructions…They are not alternative paths to God.”[17] In fact, any non-Christian religious system, including Islam, of which Kraemer had a profound understanding, is described by Kraemer as sinful, an artificial attempt to be like God and in this way, a repetition of the Fall.
The boldness of Kraemer’s position is intensified when set in its historical context. By the time of the international missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910, the Protestant mission movement was experiencing the height of its development. Missionary fervor had been expanding globally and an underlying theme of the conference members, including Hendrik Kraemer, was: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.”[18] However, after World War I (1914-1918) this optimism gave way to what Sanneh describes as a “loss of Christian self-confidence” due to a crisis about the relevance of the gospel; “If evangelized, Christian countries of Europe could make war on each other, then what was the use of evangelizing non-Western societies?”[19] This crisis tempered the intensity and scale of the church’s missionary interests, and the notion of religious pluralism gained credence. By the time of the third international missionary conference at Tambaram in 1938, Kraemer’s “intolerant exclusivism” was radically at odds with the general tone of the church. His book, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World was written, at least in part, in response to W.E. Hocking’s book Rethinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years, which assumed a “relationship of continuity” between Christianity and the rest of the world’s religions[20].

Kraemer called for a “divine realism” which takes “man and God radically seriously” recognizing God as the center of reality and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ as the only solution to the “radical rejection and condemnation of man” which was wrought by his corruption in sin.[21] He argued for a Christocentric view of religion which sees Christ as the standard of reference for evaluating a religion. Contrary to Hocking’s position, this view sets Christianity apart, in discontinuity with the religions of the world.

While elements of Kraemer’s position are often murky and open to criticism on the basis of his narrowly defined exclusivism, Hourani writes that in his writing “there is a certain compassionate understanding of the fragile human achievements of Muslims”[22]. Kraemer saw the value of other religions as limited to their contributions to social virtue, order, and art, but he could hardly be described as “triumphalistic” in his attitude toward Muslims.
Another scholar who went to some lengths to defend Kraemer’s position while it was not popular to do so was Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin, whose own theology in this area may be even more coherent and influential, writes of Kraemer that:

“If we are speaking about religious ideas, or about religious experiences, then certainly to claim uniqueness and finality for one’s own is intolerable arrogance. Kraemer’s whole point is that we are not; we are talking about facts of history. If, in fact, it is true that almighty God…so humbled himself as to become a part of our sinful humanity and to suffer and die a shameful death to take away our sin and rise from the dead…if this is a fact, then to affirm it is not arrogance. To remain quiet about it is treason to our fellow human beings.”[23]

Newbigin also insisted on God’s unique revelation in Christ as well as “the obligation to proclaim that in mission and service.”[24] These convictions led Newbigin to address what he saw as the challenge of religious pluralism. Newbigin took seriously the calls for cultural sensitivity and tolerance. The increasing awareness in the West of other cultures and faiths seemed to make it increasingly difficult to affirm the uniqueness of Christianity, let alone the obligation to convert people of other faiths. These circumstances served to underscore the urgency with which Newbigin defended Christian particularity and the call to mission.

Despite his sympathetic stance to such criticism, Newbigin maintained that humans are all in a search for truth and this did not mean that “all roads led to the peak of the same mountain. Some were false short cuts, and even if they did not lead over the precipice, they left us self-centeredly entangled in muddy fields.”[25] Newbigin’s warning about religious pluralism, then, was that it “could not exclude claims of absolute uniqueness lest we became totally imprisoned in subjective relativism.” He warned against using truth claims as a means for asserting personal advantage as if to “produce the sacrosanct truth of the infallibility of revolutionary relativism and smash your way to victory by gutting truth claims, any or all of them.”[26]

Although the concern to avoid a harmful triumphalism was legitimate in his view, sacrificing truth claims was not the solution. He pointed out the reality that relativism could be just as triumphalistic as exclusivism and described an attack on truth claims as expedient, perhaps, but not worthy of the gospel since that kind of “ideological pragmatism” could not provide hope and trust to the world.

Newbigin also described the self-defeating nature of relativism. Making a normative claim about the lack of absolute truth stands on the very thing it denies. One cannot avoid appealing to truth in the form of generalizations.

Similarly, claiming that all religions have impartial access to God in order to prove that Christians should reject exclusivism is itself circular. The person making such an accusation must also have imperfect access to this kind of truth, which begs the question, on what authority can such a person claim to have enough objectivity to make that generalization?[27]
He argued that in order to honor other religions we need a “standard of honor” such as a Christian finds in the Bible. “If we want to find norms of tolerance and open-mindedness we could do worse than go to the generalizations that faith communities characteristically make, rather than going outside those communities in a bid for risk-free knowledge,” which is only an illusion. Christian truth claims provide a standard and a motivation to honor others. It is when our actions are motivated by a desire to glorify God as an expression of love for him that we are most able to love our neighbor as one who is made in the image of God. He argued that a “confessional stance” as Sanneh describes it, “a commitment to what is worthy of God and of honoring the neighbor”, is inescapable for religious communities.[28] Religious pluralism cannot provide this standard, this confessional stance.

With regard to cultural relativism, Newbigin revealed the logical flaw of assuming a “subjective retreat… that avoids the arrogance of imposing our views on others”. Since such a retreat was impossible, and humans could only evaluate other cultures in terms of their own, Newbigin wrote that “To affirm the unique decisiveness of God’s action in Jesus Christ is not arrogance; it is the enduring bulwark against the arrogance of every culture to be itself the criterion by which others are judged.” [29]

Newbigin would offer no definitive answer to the question of whether the non-Christian could be saved and go to heaven. He saw the question as flawed and any definitive answer as arrogant since it could only be answered by God, ultimately. Such a question also drew attention away from God’s glory as the focus of the Christian life and of Christian mission.[30] It could not be affirmed, for example, that everyone who did not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior was lost.

Newbigin, then, could not affirm a total discontinuity between Christianity and other religions (the very thing that Kraemer had argued against) because the gospel was to be presented to the non-Christian with his own experience as the starting point. In this way exclusivism gave way to the acknowledgement of common ground, even in Newbigin’s system. Also unlike Kraemer, Newbigin was therefore “free to explore human religiosity in both its historical and intellectual expression.”[31] He explored and appreciated the richness of cultural settings for the diversity of Christian expression they could offer and advocated an appreciation and concern for our shared human commitment with non-Christians as the foundation for dialogue. For Newbigin, “The Christian responsibility in dialogue was to tell the story of Jesus, the story of the Bible, as the power of God for salvation.”

Religious pluralism and the retreat from Christian uniqueness as preconditions for Muslim-Christian dialogue are religiously and philosophically problematic, as well as ultimately counter-productive. With the compelling examples of Hendrik Kraemer, and especially of Lesslie Newbigin, it is clear that the slogan, “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell” does not need to characterize a position which retains a positive view of Christian uniqueness. However, “we have in common at least the fact that we make distinctive claims, enough so that the names we bear mean something personally and historically.”[32] Dialogue which insists on preserving our distinctive religious claims may be more difficult. Awkward tension and mutual offense may even be inevitable, but dialogue on this basis is ultimately likely to engender more trust and sincerity and be taken more seriously; and in it we may model a way for the world’s Christians and Muslims to be with one another. There is indeed a way for Christians to relate to Muslims that does not sacrifice the integrity of Christian claims, that appreciates the dignity and value of Muslims, and that reflects the truth and love that the gospel demands of us.


Hourani, Albert. “Western Attitudes Towards Islam”. The Tenth Montefiore Memorial Lecture. University of Southampton, 1974.

Lewis, Bernard. “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Go to Hell”. Atlantic Monthly. (May 2003).

Plantinga, Alvin. “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. ed. Louis Pojman. (Belmont, Wadsworth, 2003).

Plantinga, Richard. “Missionary Thinking at Tambaram.” The Changing Face of Christianity. ed. Lamin Sanneh and Joel A. Carpenter. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Sanneh, Lamin. “Between East and West: Confrontation and Encounter”. The Christian Century. (November 13, 1991).

Sanneh, Lamin. “Should Christianity be Missionary? An Appraisal and an Agenda”. dialog: A Journal of Theology. (Vol. 40, Number 2, Summer 2001).
[1] Lamin Sanneh, “Between East and West: Confrontation and Encounter”, The Christian Century, November 13, 1991, 55.
[2] Albert Hourani, “Western Attitudes Towards Islam”, The Tenth Montefiore Memorial Lecture, University of Southampton, 1974,
[3] Hourani, 8.
[4] Bernard Lewis, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Go to Hell”, Atlantic Monthly, May 2003.
[5] Lewis, “I’m Right…”
[6] Hourani, 17.
[7] Hourani, 17.
[8] Hourani, 4.
[9] Sanneh, “Between East and West”, 156.
[10] Sanneh, “Between East and West”, 156.
[11] Sanneh, “Between East and West”, 158.
[12] Alvin Plantinga, “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, ed. Louis Pojman, (Belmont, Wadsworth, 2003), 511.
[13] Hourani, 18.
[14] Hourani, 19.
[15]Quoted in Hourani, 18.
[16] Hourani, 19.
[17] Quoted in Hourani, 18
[18] Richard Plantinga, “Missionary Thinking at Tambaram,” The Changing Face of Christianity, ed. Lamin Sanneh and Joel A. Carpenter. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 161.
[19] Lamin Sanneh, “Should Christianity be Missionary? An Appraisal and an Agenda”, dialog: A Journal of Theology, Vol. 40, Number 2, Summer 2001.
[20] Richard Plantinga, 163.
[21] Quoted in Richard Plantinga, 164.
[22] Hourani, 18.
[23]Quoted in Richard Plantinga, 175.
[24] Sanneh, “Should Christianity”, 93.
[25] Sanneh, “Should Christianity”, 93.
[26] Sanneh, “Should Christianity”, 93.
[27] Sanneh, “Should Chritianity, 94.
[28] Sanneh, “Should Christianity”, 94.
[29] Quoted in Sanneh, “Should Christianity”, 95.
[30] Sanneh, “Should Christianity”, 95..
[31] Sanneh, “Should Christianity, 95.
[32] Sanneh, “Between East and West”, 156.

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