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How Aristotle Bolsters Christian-Muslim Interaction – Part 2

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Martin Accad’s SEKAP Spectrum of Christian-Muslim Interactions brings to mind Aristotle’s “golden mean” and offers insights into constructive approaches for interfaith engagement.

As I explained previously, his kerygmatic approach could be viewed as the middle, or virtuous, path between vices, to use Aristotle’s language.

While dialoguing, Aristotle and Martin Accad, chief academic officer and associate professor of Islamic studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, may help us formulate virtuous approaches to Christian-Muslim interaction; the exercise also reveals ways in which the kerygmatic approach is perceived by others.

An intriguing aspect of Aristotle’s rule of the golden mean is the idea that virtues appear relative to their corresponding vices.

In other words, a virtue seems different depending on whether one is viewing from a position of excess or of deficiency.

Let us again consider courage as the mean relative to cowardice and rashness. To the one who is rash, a courageous action will appear to be something cowardly. But to the coward, a deed of courage will appear rash.

For example, it is courageous to report a corrupt work supervisor to higher authorities.

However, this action appears cowardly to rash people who are inclined to confront corrupt supervisors directly and forcefully.

Cowards, on the other hand, consider this courageous act rash because of its likelihood to result in negative backlash and repercussions.

An act of courage appears quite different depending on the amount of confidence the viewer possesses, and to hit the mark of virtue we often must act in a way that feels excessive or deficient.

In similar fashion, perception of the kerygmatic approach to interfaith interaction is relative to one’s positioning on the SEKAP spectrum.

Polemicists tend to view the kerygmatic as being syncretic due to its receptivity to Islamic teachings about Muhammad and the Quran.

Meanwhile, the syncretic will look at the kerygmatic as disturbingly polemical in its refusal to minimize truth claims of Jesus Christ and its insistence to scrutinize Islam’s narrative and historical expression.

The kerygmatic approach can be misread by those on either end of the spectrum, which is something Aristotle accounts for in his understanding of virtue.

Though this mental exercise may have theoretical value, it is of little use to us if it does not hold up to the example of Jesus Christ.

While Aristotle has his theories of virtue, Jesus Christ in his incarnation is the very embodiment of virtue.

Everything about him is a living statement about the good; to know him is to know the way of God!

Any attempt to contain Christ to a theoretical spectrum is foolhardy, but we do see in Scripture a portrayal of Jesus as a golden figure who constantly unsettled those of the extremes.

The moralistic, hard-headed religionists of the day were utterly dismayed by the scandalous ways Jesus rebuffed convention to extend mercy and kindness to “undesirables.”

His social life and personal associations led to accusations of being a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).

Conversely, Jesus’ “hard teachings” were met with irritation and displeasure by those opposing his elevated reading of law and obedience (John 6:53-66, Mark 10:17-22, Matthew 19:1-12).

Jesus modeled virtue in a world corrupted by excess and deficiency by being the transforming revelation of God.

As Aristotle gestures downward at the School of Athens, so must we bring this discussion to our own contexts.

For the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon, interfaith engagement is a demonstration of its testimony to Christ, and several peace-building initiatives of the Institute of Middle East Studies seek to facilitate kerygmatic interactions with Muslims.

This admittedly draws the ire of some who interpret such an approach to Islam as backsliding on the essentials of biblical faith.

Often, attempts to love our Muslim neighbors are judged for what they appear to be rather than what they necessarily are.

I appreciate the rule of the golden mean and the SEKAP spectrum because they are useful in helping us understand that acting virtuously is less about hitting stationary bull’s-eyes and more about moving from glory to glory within ever-shifting contextual landscapes.

Aristotle alludes to this process of ethical calibration in “Nicomachean Ethics” when he says, “We must incline sometimes toward the excess, sometimes toward the deficiency, for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.”

Jesus’ tip for hitting the mark is more straightforward, “Abide in me.”

No one has mastered Christian engagement with Islam; we must constantly work toward betterment.

When we encounter different approaches, let’s not quickly dismiss what we think we see while entrenching ourselves in a preferred position.

Instead, let’s humbly pursue our own journey toward virtue as we dialogue with others in a mutual desire to magnify the golden Christ.

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a two-part series. Part one 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.