Friday, June 13, 2008

CCET Conference a Success

OK, all y'all missed a really fantastic conference this week. I am just back (and really tired and fuzzy brained) from the annual conference (sounds Methodist, doesn't it?) of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, which was held in beautiful, hot-as-Hades Baltimore, MD, this year. The issue: A Christian response to Islam. Presenters dealt with a general approach to dialogue with Islam (and, actually, to all intra- and inter-faith dialogue!); with the approach of 9th century Christian theologians who wrote maybe-apologetics (Mark Swanson raised a keen question about whether it was in fact apologetics at all!) in the face of the new appeal of Islam; with the practical realities of engaging in dialogue with Islam and Muslims (to be more specific). Such notables as Sidney Griffith (probably the dean of Islamic scholars in the theological world of USAmerica), Mark Swanson (Lutheranism's own terrific contribution to the tribe of specialists in Islamic-Christian studies), Nelly van Doorn-Harder (Valparaiso's expert on how dialogue between Christians and Muslims can actually occur -- based on her experience in Indonesia), and others presented papers and engaged in intra-Christian conversation about those papers with conference attendees and one another.

I was able to dine with each of the scholars, but one, and can testify that they are serious, brilliant, and wonderfully humane people -- not just intellects. They were generous with their time with us average-Joes; they didn't clump together with just the other scholars.

For me, the second greatest challenge (after that of wringing out -- see below) was to get my mind around the historical stuff. I knew absolutely nothing -- and still know virtually absolutely nothing -- about the 9th century and the scholarly interchange between Christian and Muslim thinkers, both of which groups wrote in Arabic. Further, David Burrell finally noted for me the difficulty in Christians' talking with Muslims about the Quran: For Muslims, the Quran "fits" in the scheme of faith in the way that Jesus "fits" for Christians; it is a false relationship to deal with the Quran as though it were the Bible for Muslims. The relationship must be noted (and I'll try to say more when I clear it up in my head a little) if any fruitful conversation is to occur. That is one illustration of the way I experienced a "paradigm shift" (with all due respect for Thomas Kuhn) in my conceptualizing the issue of Christian-Muslim theological relations.

There were, for me, two problems with the conference: First, I think it was a little heavy on the history. (Three scholars dealt with the 9th century theological "interface" between Arab-Christian and Arab-Muslim theologians -- and then Mark Swanson kind of wrapped up with an alternate analysis of the three theologians that the earlier scholars had focussed on.) Second, the Center has no control over weather or mechanical problems. As a result, some of us were in constant pools of sweat (high-90s temperatures, with air condition's not working well in either the conference center or the motel where some of us were staying). I'm back in Minnesota, which once again proves itself God's chosen land by its temperatures in the low-to-mid 70s.

I'm going to try to pull my notes and thoughts together and set out -- for my own satisfaction and illumination -- something of a precis of the conference presentation. (If nothing else, there was sort of a "theme" or "lesson" in each talk, and I'll try to epitomize that. They all had something notable to contribute to our understanding of what may be the second-greatest challenge to Christianity, after modernist-secularism, in history.)

Next year's conference will be on the East Coast again. I expect to see more of you there.

In the meantime, Brian Bennett was at the conference, and it was good to put a handsome face with a keen mind (evident from his blogging and responding). I'd like more of that. And Brian, feel free to kick in here.

One last thing, the Center's chair, Prof. Dr. Robert Wilken, gave the banquet talk. It's always a good experience, but his meditation on the place of the communion of the saints in the life of the Christian was positively lovely! It will appear in the Center's newsletter, and I hope it inspires millions to contribute money to secure the future work of the Center. If you do not receive the newsletter (it's pretty much a once-a-year thing, but it's worth the paper it's printed on), e-mail me ( with your mailing address, and I'll begrudgingly add you to the elite list!