It was a Muslim friend of mine, a cleric, who once pointed out to me how artificial our practice of Christian-Muslim dialogue was.
Our usual idea of interfaith dialogue is an officially organized session where one or more representatives of each religion presents their own perspective on a topic before an audience, which is generally made up of adherents of each of the religions being spoken for.
Instead, he suggested, let us bring our students together and organize a joint outing or picnic. Let our students interact and get to know one another at the human level.
The concept was so simple, so relational and human, that I had never thought about it.
I was, after all, an Oxford-bred intellectual, an American-style evangelical, transplanted into the Arab world.
I realized that my worldview was missing the communal aspect of faith and the biblical imperative that God’s mission (the missio dei) was first and foremost about relationship.
Our world has come into its very existence, and we know God as creator, because of God’s initial thrust to create for the sake of relationship.
Redemptive history, too, as reflected in the Bible, is the enactment of God’s ongoing initiative to restore humanity and creation unto Himself by His grace, while the whole of creation continues to be inclined to move away from Him through the exercise of its God-given free will.
The ultimate and supreme expression of God’s passion for relationship is found in the life and teaching of the Jesus of history, who reaches the pinnacle of relationship-restoration at the cross.
Why is it, then, that as Christians and Muslims in our world today, we keep interacting with one another at best through the cold pages of books and disengaged panels of our institutions, and at worst through the cowardly anonymous or pseudonymous pages of our websites, or much worse by seeking each other’s annihilation through armed conflict and suppression?
Every year, as part of our Middle East conference during the third week of June, we organize a series of evening forums, where Muslim clerics, intellectuals and politicians are invited to share their views on common topics with evangelical Christian speakers.
We never cease to recognize the importance of these gatherings, as preconceived notions, assumptions and often outright prejudice are addressed and challenged through the perspectives of those who can most legitimately speak for Islam.
These are also outstanding opportunities for us to share our understanding of Jesus’ view on matters from doctrinal to those pertaining to daily life challenges and realities.
But probably one of the greatest benefits of these encounters has been the personal relationships that have developed out of them between Christians from our community and Muslims.
Official interfaith dialogue committees and organizations often prefer to avoid doctrinal and theological topics, directing their energy on practical existential matters.
Their view is that no progress can be expected to emerge from theological talk, and that, therefore, it is best to avoid topics that may lead to disagreement and offence.
But for us as evangelicals, it is the Bible and theology that matter most. Our experience at IMES is that doctrinal dialogue has led us into deep relationships and conversations about daily existential matters.
Rather than leading to disagreement, polemics and offense, our focus on theology and its practical implications has communicated that we are serious about our faith in God and our committed response to his self-revelation in Christ.
And it is the relationships emerging from these authentic encounters that are leading us into more action.
MartinAccad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. This column first appeared in TheVoiceMagazine and is used here with permission.
Listen to a brief interview with Accad below.