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The challenges of Islam and pluralism

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Last week I had an essay exploring Abraham Kuyper’s interactions with Islam, focused particularly on his tour around the Mediterranean Sea in the early years of the twentieth century. As I argue,

Throughout his travels, Kuyper was confronted by the diversity, vitality, and comprehensiveness of the Islamic faith. In Islam, Kuyper sees a world-shaping civilization force, one with the cogency and dynamism to rival Christianity. Kuyper’s reflections remain salient today, as his engagement of and appreciation for the motivating power of religion surpasses the now-defunct, mid-twentieth-century hegemony of narratives of secularization.

Kuyper saw Islam as both a challenge and as an opportunity, for both Christianity and the West. As I conclude, “Kuyper’s ability to recognize what was and was not required by fidelity to his own confession provides a wonderful model for cross-cultural and interreligious engagement today.”

Thankfully we also have an example of just that sort of incisive and generous spirit on this topic in Matthew Kaemingk’s new volume, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. I was honored to endorse this fine volume, which brings a Kuyperian perspective to bear on the pressing challenges of responsible neighborliness and charity. Here’s what I said: “In this compelling work Matthew Kaemingk asks what Amsterdam has to do with Mecca, and the answers he finds turn out to have implications the world over. . . . The charity and clarity on display here will challenge Christians to think more deeply, and to act more responsibly, in response to the call to live peacefully and faithfully with Muslim neighbors.”

Kaemingk also had an essay run on this topic last week, provocatively titled, “A Calvinist Defense of Islam.” As he puts it, “For all Christians should know (especially my fellow Calvinists) that they neither earned nor deserved the love and hospitality that Christ demonstrated to them on the cross. Furthermore, they should know full well that they are called to demonstrate that same love and hospitality to their neighbors.”

Kaemingk will be speaking this year at Acton University, and I highly recommend attending his session on “Islam, Religious Freedom, and Reformed Political Theology” if you can. Even if you are not convinced you will be challenged and better for it.

One of the standard responses to Kaemingk’s proposal from Christians runs something like this: your “Calvinist case” for hospitality toward Muslims may be well and good, but what about their responsibilities? Why don’t you say more about what Muslims must do when faced with the challenges of religious pluralism?

My own response is that it is quite enough for a single book to lay out a convincing case for a shift in posture, attitude, and behavior towards others.

During the roundtable last month about Kuyper’s volume On Islam, at one point I somewhat cheekily remarked that Kuyper might well contend that Islam needs its own Kuyper, that is, a theorist of sphere sovereignty and pluralism. There are many who are working on such a project today, and part of what it means to be a good neighbor is to bear with one another’s shortcomings and imperfections…even as we accept help and seek to provide help along the way. Islam has to find its own path from a pre-modern to today’s world, both in doctrine and in practice. It is perhaps easy for Christians to forget that we have had to walk this path ourselves, and it wasn’t (and isn’t) a development that happens overnight or is a once-and-for-all phenomenon. The checkered relationship between Christianity and Judaism is sufficient and humbling evidence enough of that.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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