Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Interfaith Dialogue Bears (Rotten) Fruit

Gerald Calvin, Staff Writer

While many Christian groups have been working together to outline common theological ground--most notably in recent months, the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation--one denomination has taken a much bolder step.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, has recently completed a round of talks with the Council of Muslims Worldwide, a fundamentalist group known for its virulent declarations against the United States, Israel and Christianity. These talks, to the surprise of long-time observers of interfaith dialogue, resulted in complete agreement between the two parties.

Representative from each group--68 total, and all men--met to discuss 23 separate theological issues, some with direct political connections, such as Israel’s right to exist. When the dust had settled, the SBC and CMW issued a joint statement saying, “We have agreed to disagree on all 23 points of theology and ethics. This accord will enable us move forward in a new relationship based upon mutual misunderstanding and complete distrust.”

In a closing ceremony Tuesday at the University of Iceland campus at Reykjavic, SBC and CMW leaders signed the historic agreement, shook hands and embraced tentatively, and then sat down for a shared meal of fried seal blubber and Chai tea. The celebratory feast was awkward at first, but both sides loosened up and frequent laughter rolled through the room when each group tried to outdo the other at telling jokes about Jewish bankers.

An unidentified SBC delegate reacts after sampling the fried seal blubber.

Arriving at that jovial atmosphere based upon a common dislike for one another was not as easy as it seemed on the surface. “There were some tough issues to be hammered out,” said the SBC’s senior representative Bruce Wilks. “The whole thing nearly fell apart on the second day. We were precariously close to a point of theological agreement.”

The sticky issue was whether or not each party worships the one true God. At first, it seemed as if both groups could grudgingly admit that the other did indeed worship the one true God based upon their shared faith heritage as the actual or spiritual offspring of Abraham. Fortunately, author Robert Morey, invited by the SBC for just such an impasse, came up with a solution. Since, as he contends, “Allah” is really the name of an ancient heathen god, Muslims are idolaters.

CMW scholars immediately countered with the fact that by improperly lifting up Jesus of Nazareth as a deity, the Christians were clearly infidel idolaters themselves. “You could sense the relief spread through the room when we resolved that issue,” said Wilks. “Imagine our embarrassment if we had to return to our people telling them that we had something in common with the Muslims.”

A second round of talks is planned for early 2007, but neither side expects the same success. Twelve theological issues, including the role of women in society, are expected to create a disheartening amount of common ground. For now, both sides are still enjoying the moment. “God has really done a new thing here,” said an unnamed SBC delegate. “I came here not knowing what to expect, but I have learned that my new brothers,” he said, pointing toward a group from the CMW, “really are as evil as I had always believed.

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