Sunday, May 15, 2016

Building Bridges - an academic exercise in mutual Christian-Muslim theologising

For some years now, I've been involved in an academic inter-faith exercise that was originally sponsored by Lambeth Palace and really well supported by Rowan Williams but since his resignation as ABC, it has been run by Georgetown University. Here is the link for the Building Bridges seminar.

The original intention was for the seminar - which brings together around 15 or so Christian and a similar number of Muslim participants - to alternate between being convened in a 'Christian majority' and a 'Muslim majority' context; but in recent years the public events held in the latter which has basically been the Georgetown campus in Doha have been disappointing. One could spend some time analysing why that is the case - is interfaith 'mutual theologising' a concern of metropolitan western academia which has not equivalent elsewhere? Perhaps - and there are elements of how, despite our best efforts, there is a somewhat Protestant bias in what we do - the quasi-scriptural reasoning at the heart of much of our practice in small groups, for example. But there is little doubt that I've learnt much from the process and continue to do so - and it's fun engaging, disputing, arguing, theologising with some of the best theologians around such as Janet Soskice, John Milbank, Mona Siddiqui, Christoph Schwobel, Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Susan Eastman, Reza Shah-Kazemi and of course Rowan Williams himself. As well as hanging out with old friends who like myself prefer to define themselves as 'historians' like Feras Hamza, and biblical and Quranic scholars like Paul Joyce and Mehdi Azaiez.

This was the 15th instalment focused on Monotheism and its Complexities. I wasn't the only one who was concerned that such a topic could take a rather apologetic turn as a defence of the trinity. But in many ways the discussions were far more interesting than I had expected. The rich tradition of christology and the expositions and uses of the Trinity were set out for us by Schwobel. Richard Bauckham presented the Biblical texts and how the monotheism of Judaism was given a Christian reading and developed into a theology of three persons, one substance, with rather non-Aristotelian understandings of both key terms, Asma Afsaruddin presented the monotheism of the Qurʾan and hadith in her characteristically scholarly and rigorous manner, while I presented perhaps a rather complicated and complexifying reading of various arguments about the One True God in Islamic traditions, some tending towards the more transcendent theologically and others more mystically monistic.

At some point when the papers are ready for publication I will post mine on my page. Suffice it to say that I did not help by sending one paper in and reading as a presentation something altogether a bit different and more engaged with contemporary usages of tawḥīd in Islamic discourses and trying to think through on my feet the ethical implications of the doctrine - the most difficult point being how do I square my own insistence upon the walāya and theosis (taʾalluh) centred doctrines and paths of what I consider Islam to be with our contemporary attempts at producing critical democratic understandings of faith?

Anyway, I look forward to many more years of such wonderful company and satisfying but also at times very cerebral working through key issues in our faiths. In particular, I have come to appreciate and love the Eastern Orthodox traditions and many elements of Catholic thought through these exercises and found a particular theological language for expressing my own ideas. It's always a pleasure to have the opportunity to think beyond the confines of my work as an intellectual historian and do more applied, interventionist work - doing the actual thinking and not just exegesis as a friend once put it.

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