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How Aristotle Bolsters Christian-Muslim Interaction – Part 1

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People are intuitively innovative, but religion is a realm where innovation can easily lag.

Faith convictions have a history of taking lines in the sand and turning them into crevasses in concrete, especially regarding Christian-Muslim relations.

Over the years, many ideas have been inspired but not enough substance has transpired. Important interfaith work is indeed being done, but there is need for more and better.

I suggest here that contemporary theory for Christian-Muslim relations can benefit from leaning on the classics. By reading the philosophy of Aristotle into the ideas of Martin Accad, we might unlock some innovation.

Aristotle was concerned with being good, and in the “Nicomachean Ethics” he posits the good as a matter of virtue identified within his “rule of the golden mean.”

According to the rule, every virtue exists as a mean on a spectrum between opposing vices.

On one side is a vice marked by a deficiency of a virtue’s substance, while on other is a vice of excess. In between is a mean, the midpoint where virtue is found.

Aristotle essentially contends that being good means striking a note of moderation; to have too much or too little is bad, but to have the right amount is to be virtuous.

For example, Aristotle presents courage as a virtue relating to confidence situated between the vices of cowardice and rashness. A deficiency of confidence leads to cowardice, but the excess of confidence leads to rashness. Neither is good.

Courage is achieved when confidence is exhibited in just the right amount. As with every virtue, there is no way to have too much or too little courage; you can only get closer and closer to the golden mean.

Aristotle sees all virtue within this rule of a mean between extremes, and I believe the theoretical construction can effectively inform our approaches to Christian-Muslim relations today.

Accad, who serves as chief academic officer and associate professor of Islamic studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, has developed a framework for categorizing interfaith interaction.

The SEKAP Spectrum of Christian-Muslim Interactions seemingly evokes Aristotle’s rule of the golden mean in providing a tool to assess Christian religious receptivity – that is, listening to and understand the claims – of Islam.

Accad explains this spectrum in greater detail in his essay “Christian Attitudes Towards Islam and Muslims” published in “Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry,” as well as in his latest book, “Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching across the Christian Muslim Divide.”

What follows is a brief overview of Accad’s conceptual framework.

On one end of Accad’s spectrum is the excessive receptivity of “syncretic interaction,” which dismisses religious differences by supposing that all religions are essentially the same.

On the opposite end is “polemical interaction,” where one combats the tenets of Islam – most often found in a triumphalist, exclusionary view of Christianity.

Syncretic and polemical approaches, as Accad presents them, constitute Aristotelian vices in that they pose problematic receptivity to Islam.

In being overly receptive, syncretic interaction effectively cheapens Islamic faith by blending it into a general collective of universal belief systems.

Meanwhile, polemical interaction deems Islam so utterly meritless that nothing in its long tradition is considered worthy of consideration.

Neither approach is constructive to fostering fruitful witness of Christ, but Accad does propose a middle way, a type of Aristotelian golden mean: the kerygmatic approach.

The existential approach sits between the syncretic and kerygmatic, and the apologetic is between kerygmatic and polemical. Together, these points constitute the scope of the spectrum and make up the acronym: SEKAP.

Accad recognizes each point on the spectrum possesses degrees of legitimacy – the term vice is something I inject into the discussion, not Accad – but the kerygmatic approach is presented as an optimal way.

For the sake of dialoguing with Aristotle’s rule of the golden mean, I do not discuss the existential or apologetic approaches in this post, but they do fit into a larger discussion of Christian receptivity to Islam.

Accad’s median approach is characterized by a “kerygma” (Greek for “proclamation”) of “God’s good news concerning repentance, the kingdom and Jesus,” to quote Accad’s essay.

It exhibits religious receptivity by seeing Islam as a highly complex religious phenomenon encompassing many threads of belief and tradition.

Such a posture toward Islam is both critical and reasonable, and I believe the kerygmatic approach inspires thoughtful ways to engage Muslims in the hopefulness of Jesus Christ.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. A version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies’ blog. It is used with permission.

Brent Hamoud

Brent Hamoud is programs coordinator at the Institute of Middle East Studies. In 2016, he received a Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.