WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Whatever else might have resulted from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, they have brought about a moment of great religious change, Catholic theologian and author Richard John Neuhaus told United Press International Wednesday.
Like several moderate Muslim scholars, Neuhaus pleaded for honesty in the dialogue between Christianity and Islam. Neuhaus, president of the New York-based Institute on Religion and Public Life, said that in the past it had been difficult to find authentic spokesmen for the Muslim faith.
Bassam Tibi, who teaches political science at Goettingen University in Germany and is a research scholar at Harvard, sees an urgent need for a new discourse between the two monotheistic religions, even while the terrorism problem is being dealt with politically and militarily.
What was not needed on the Christian side of the roundtable were self-loathing Protestants, said Tibi, a Syrian-German, who by his own definition is a "reformist Muslim."
This squares with Neuhaus' observation that it was essential for Christian interlocutors not to be apologetic for their faith.
"Muslims would have no respect for Christians who don't take the tenets of their own religion seriously," said Gerald R. McDermott, an evangelical Episcopalian who teaches religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
If Christians had problems finding bona fide Muslim discussion partners in the past, Muslims often were dissatisfied with Christian theologians only too willing to give away the store.
"Pastors who don't really believe in God and lead lifestyles the Bible does not countenance aren't credible interlocutors," said Tariq Ramadan, a Geneva-based Muslim scholar dedicated to integrating his coreligionists in French-speaking countries.
Ramadan, too, called himself a reformist Muslim, adding that that this description would probably fit hundreds of different varieties of Muslim thinkers.
Said Bassam Tibi, "We reformists account probably for 1 percent of the world's Muslims."
"Nevertheless, the dialogue has to proceed," insisted Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali, a high-ranking Shiite cleric in the leadership of the London-based Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of political groups endeavoring to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.
"The theologies of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are 80 percent identical. Why don't we agree on that to begin with, and then tackle the rest in hard theological discourse?"
This kind of talk might ring alarm bells in the heads of conservative Christians weary of the dishonest, saccharine interfaith lovefests some liberal theologians have allowed in the past.
But this is precisely not what scholars such as Neuhaus, McDermott, Tibi, Ramadan and Ali have in mind. They favor a discourse of the type so aptly circumscribed by David Koropkin, an orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles, in an interfaith encounter:
"Of course I believe that we are God's chosen people. At the same time, I expect everyone of you to believe that your religion is truth. Otherwise, why bother (with the dialogue)?"
Thus, firmly grounded in one's own faith, conservative Christian theologians conversing with their Muslim counterparts should refrain from dismissing everything in Islam as Satanic, according to McDermott, who is beyond suspicion of being a wishy-washy syncretistic liberal.
"We should recognize that there is something true and beautiful about Islam, even though as Christians we profess that the full truth is revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who atoned for our sins."
"The key to an honest dialogue," McDermott says, "is that we genuinely disagree but at the same time respect and engage each other's position."
Jay Rochelle, a former Lutheran seminary professor who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, sees the mercy of God as unifying factor of all three Abrahamic religions. But this leaves us still within Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali's 80-percent agreement.
In his award-winning work, "Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions?" (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), McDermott seems to see wiggle room even in some of the seemingly most intractable differences between Christianity and Islam. For example, McDermott writes, "(Islam) denies that Jesus was a savior because of its conviction that each of us must be responsible for our own action. To imagine that someone else can save us from our sins seems to Muslims to be spiritually irresponsible. No one can receive such spiritual benefits from another."
Clearly, the very article of faith on which the Christian church stands or falls is in question here.
But, continues McDermott, "The differences are not as sharp as may at first appear. If Muslims deny that grace from God -- a term which the Qu'ran uses repeatedly -- can mean (wholly) unmerited favor, they nevertheless emphasize God's mercy toward sinners. The Qu'ran repeats incessantly that Allah is 'most forgiving' and 'most merciful.' "
McDermott goes on to state: "There are other indications that the usual Christian view of Islamic soteriology (teachings on salvation) as Pelagian is misleading." Pelegianism was an early 5th-century heresy claiming that man can take initial and fundamental steps toward his salvation, apart from God's grace.
McDermott cites Valerie J. Hoffman, a U.S. scholar specializing in Islam: "Despite what Christians say about Muslims, Muslims don't believe God will simply stack good deeds against bad -- in fact, such a perspective is very frightening to Muslims, who are well aware of their fault. They tend to place their hope in God's mercy and the Prophet's intercession for them."
Even the motif of redemptive suffering -- the motif defining Christian theology -- can be found in at least one Islamic tradition, according to McDermott: "It is based in part on the assassination at Karbala in 680 of Mohammed's grandson Husayn, which is believed by Shi'ites to have been a 'ransom for his people, for mankind.'"
Redemptive suffering also marked the life and death of Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj who consciously identified himself with Jesus Christ and was crucified in 922 A.D. "He approached his cross laughing, forgiving his executioners, and thanking Allah that he was permitted to see 'the raging fires of Thy face.'"
None of this is to suggest that the two Husayns were identical to Christ and that their dying was analogous to the vicarious suffering of the incarnate God on the cross. Nevertheless, themes like these might facilitate the theological debate, which according to Neuhaus is urgently needed lest the current "religious-cultural clash degenerate into full religious warfare."
Even the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, if properly explained, can be discussed successfully with Muslims, said Gary Lane, a senior official in the international Voice of the Martyrs organization helping Christians in Islamic and communist countries.
Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet. They also accept the Virgin Birth, the New Testament's miracle stories, and acknowledge that God "raised (Jesus) to himself" (Surah 3:55).
But they deny that Jesus was the Son of God because in their eyes this would mean that God had engaged in sex, which is unacceptable to Muslims.
But Lane insists that he could convince Muslims of this -- and indeed of the entire concept of the Holy Trinity -- by stressing that Christ and the Holy Spirit were not separate deities but aspects of the one true God.
The question is, then: What Muslims are Christians scholars talking about when pushing for the kind of dialogue that would not oblige them to betray their own, orthodox faith?
Tariq Ramadan and Bassam Tibi readily acknowledge that this discourse would be difficult with the majority of Muslims who see the Koran as rigid. However, Ramadan stresses a parallel Islamic tradition -- the prophetic tradition that believes that in every century God sends a renovator of the faith.
"Of course, the Koran is the word of God," he said, "but it is being read by humans from the perspective of their era and has to be explained accordingly."
Presumably it is with Muslim scholars thinking along these lines that the dialogue ought to commence.
It won't kick off a mass movement anytime soon. But then who -- other than Marxists -- would dispute that history has rarely been changed by the masses? The fact is vanguards are never large.