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Deconstructing the Kerygmatic?

By Martin Accad

This year will mark nearly twenty years since I first began to think about the SEKAP spectrum for Christian-Muslim interaction. I have advocated for a moderate posture on a five-level continuum between Syncretism (D1: “all roads lead to Mecca”) and Polemics (D5: “aggressive and exclusivist”), with D2 and D4 representing Existential (“dialogue of life”) and Apologetic positions — hence the acronym SEKAP. Within this framework, through the Kerygmatic attitude and approach (D3), I have sought to locate a biblically faithful position for Evangelical engagement in interfaith dialogue. I have since come to describe the kerygmatic as a Christ-centered and supra-religious approach, steeped in an attitude of love and respect, which is also prophetically and intellectually critical, both of Christianity and Islam as religious traditions.

A seminal chapter, reflecting a more advanced and mature version of this framework, was first published in Evelyne Reisacher’s edited volume in honor of Professor Dudley Woodberry, Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims (2012). My chapter (Chapter 1 in the volume) was titled “Christian Attitudes and Approaches to Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach.” In 2019, I published an updated version of the framework as the introduction to my monograph, Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching across the Christian-Muslim Divide.

A simple Google search will reveal that my SEKAP spectrum and kerygmatic approach have been quite diversely received by Christians, Muslims, and others from various sides and theological positions. Most recently, Syrian theologian and former fellow student at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Najib Awad, has graced me with a rather strong negative critique, for which I am grateful, as I am of all preceding critiques both positive and negative.

As it turns out, I am hoping that Awad’s critique will counterbalance the opposite criticism I have received from other circles, where some have claimed that my kerygmatic approach waters down the gospel and compromises on the uniqueness of Christ.

In a book entitled Surviving Jewel: The Enduring Story of Christianity in the Middle East, edited by Mitri Raheb and Mark Lamport (Cascade Books, 2022), Awad writes Chapter 14: “Interfaith Relations and Middle East Christianity.” In it he presents my kerygmatic approach as a Protestant example of contemporary Christian-Muslim dialogue in Lebanon, alongside three notable dialogue veterans: Sunni Radwan al-Sayyid, Shiite Mahmoud Ayoub, and Rum Orthodox Archbishop George Khodr. The following is my very brief summary of Awad’s survey of each of their positions.

Radwan al-Sayyid identifies the main problem of Christian-Muslim dialogue in Lebanon today as Christians’ lack of recognition of Islam as an authentic revealed religion. This he sees as a thorn in the flesh of Muslims, which causes them to maintain a defensive stance and leads to a culture mutually lacking in “equality” and “freedom.” The way forward, in his view, is for Christians and Muslims to recognize each other, as a prerequisite for fruitful dialogue.

Awad’s second example, Mahmoud Ayoub, argues, based on his interpretation of the Qur’anic term Ahl al-Kitab as meaning “family of the book,” that dialogue should lead to a “fellowship of faith,” where Christians and Muslims work together for sociopolitical justice and spiritual harmony. Ayoub suggests that it is only in the context of this “neighborly relationship of sharing” that true religious dialogue can occur.

Both al-Sayyid and Ayoub’s diagnoses – and indeed it would seem Awad’s as well – of the malady of Middle Eastern cultural exclusion are attributed to the influence of Western missions and their efforts at conversion. Rather than conversion or exclusion, they argue, what is needed is full mutuality and recognition through dialogue.

Thirdly, George Khodr, according to Awad, builds his argument for Christian-Muslim relations on the model of a “dialogue of life.” It is positive mutuality in daily living between Christians and Muslims that should inform our religious dialogue. Instead, we too often construct a negative image of the other in response to our own negative life experiences.

After presenting all three as positive models of his favored understanding of interfaith dialogue as interrelationality, Awad takes me to task. He claims that my kerygmatic approach remains “an example of an ‘action-reception’ and ‘call-response’ encounter.” He suggests that upon careful consideration, the kerygmatic approach is simply a revival of the familiar conversion approach. In a word, it is the classical American missionary approach, dressed in dialogical robe.

Although I hope that my American Evangelical critics will hear his concerns, I would also argue that Awad has missed the basic premise of my thesis. Namely, Jesus’s message was relationship-centered rather than religion-centered. He did not call people to better religion but to relationship with God as Father. My claim is that Christ’s kerygma is supra-religious, that he disentangles his gospel message from some cosmic war between religions.

My critique of both Christianity and Islam as religious institutions is made in light of Jesus’s inclusive, yet Christ-centered, approach. Jesus called for a changed attitude and approach toward God and religion, a model which permeates the New Testament. It seems that Awad would like both Christian and Muslim dialogue partners to give up the distinctive aspects within their traditions, to the benefit of what he would like to see as mutually-recognizing interrelationality. How such human benevolence should suddenly emerge from a long history of discursive interreligious violence and actual conflict is bewildering to me. Awad’s interpretation of al-Sayyid’s, Ayoub’s, and Khodr’s views seems to be based on a fanciful wish that Muslims and Christians will somehow manage to get along, while ignoring a long history of intellectual and sociopolitical conflict, and somehow arrive at the collaborative construction of a peaceful culture, steeped in “equality” and “freedom.”

My own thesis is that this desirable outcome will have to be achieved by listening deeply to each other and through the patient and tedious deconstruction of our past hegemonic projects that sought to essentialize and caricature the other. To do this, we need to draw from the most life-giving waters of our traditions. For Christ followers, the source of living water is Jesus, the essence of the good news. Some Muslims would summarize the message of the Qur’an as the “perfection of morality,” based on a Hadith attributed to Islam’s prophet: “I have come to perfect morality” (بُعِثْتُ لأتمّم مكارم الأخلاق). But it is up to each community to speak for itself, and up to the other to listen with care.

Awad concludes his chapter with a closing critique of my call to the primacy of theological dialogue, stating that Christian-Muslim dialogue should be “a call that does not make theology exhaustively definitive of the interreligious communication. It just deems it as one among many other equally constitutive levels of reasoning that are procreated by interrelationality.”

Awad would have seen that I agree with this conclusion, but he seems to miss my call to practice the kerygmatic approach as one – even if central – among an infinite possibility of other approaches on a spectrum of engagement. That is indeed the purpose of using a “spectrum” when speaking of interfaith dialogue. As a follower of Jesus who still believes in the unique good news he offered us, a good news worth sharing for its life-giving distinctiveness, I continue to listen to what Muslims have to say about the Islamic kerygma. I do so with love and respect. I do so critically and prophetically. And I will continue to call all followers of the living Christ to disentangle themselves from the battle of religions by engaging with others on the life-giving premise of Christ, rather than Christianity, as the center of our kerygma.

Martin is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at ABTS and Founder/Director of the research group Action Research Associates.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you for this very informative and helpful essay. I pray for your work to promote understanding and respect.

  2. Martin Accad says:

    Thank you so much Frances 🙏🏽

  3. Douglas Ward says:

    Thanks for this Martin. I am now working with Cardus (cardus.ca) and dialogue with Muslims have put us into relationship with one another. Not always easy or seamless. This is helpful as always. Doug

  4. Martin, it’s meaningful to see you address the kerygmatic approach by amplifying the voice of its critics. This demonstrates an intellectual self-confidence/security and spirit of dialogue that is severely lacking in the world of Christian academic discourse. Your blogpost also supports my belief that the Kerygmatic Approach and SEKAP Spectrum warrant more construction than a mere book chapter and part of a book introduction. Perhaps a more developed scholarly construction is in order (a complete book!). And if it leads to further deconstruction, and after that some more reconstruction, then we all stand to profit. Thanks for keep the discussion vibrant in this post!

    • Martin Accad says:

      Thank you for your comment and encouragement. I would consider that my monograph, Sacred Misinterpretation: Bridging across the Christian-Muslim Divide, is a practical application of my Kerygmatic approach in the field of theological dialogue. Chapter 1 in that book is a restatement of my approach. I do think it may be worthwhile in the longer term to write a more popular and practical version of that approach.

  5. excellent blog! Thank you Martin. I enjoyed reading this. A lot of insight!

  6. […] articulation of the spectrum, crafted by theologian Martin Accad, arranges common Christian responses into five categories: syncretistic […]

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