I think I am allergic to interfaith dialogue.
When I get near “interfaith dialogue” events, I begin to gnash my teeth in frustration at the tendency toward superficial, lowest-common-denominator discussions about how similar we all are and the often-aggressive hostility toward very basic religious practices such as evangelization.
When I, as a Christian, am asked to come to such events but am told that no sharing of faith will be allowed, I feel as if I am being asked to leave a part of my faith at the door.
How can an event be “interfaith” if I can’t bring my faith fully and wholly?
It’s not that I am opposed to cross-faith encounters. Hardly.
Friendships with Christians of other denominations and friendships across faith lines were a normal part of my American childhood and a public school experience for which I am deeply grateful.
As an adult, much of my education and professional work have been devoted to seeking to understand and engage Muslims.
Frankly, I think personal engagement across faith lines is an important responsibility for citizens of the modern world. Yes, responsibility.
In localities across the world, communities are becoming increasingly diverse as geographic mobility increases and modern communication technologies bring us into at least virtual contact with each other.
We need mutual understanding to inform the way in which we live together. Without it, mutual ignorance will fuel the way that we fight with each other. But “interfaith dialogue” won’t get us where we need to go.
Interfaith dialogues tend to be heavily dominated by the liberal spectrum of the religious groups involved.
For Christians, the emphasis at many such events on downplaying deeply held beliefs tends to alienate many evangelical as well as devout Catholic and Orthodox Christians, myself included.
And yet tensions between Christians and Muslims, in particular, run high in many areas, in some locations resulting in deadly conflict.
Mutual ignorance and lack of meaningful contact between these two faith groups impede improved relations.
Not only that, but in addition such tension between Christians and Muslims, observes Rick Love, “causes the church to shrink back from fulfilling Jesus’ command to love and to make disciples.”
Love, an alumnus of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., lived in Indonesia for nine years and has served as a pastor with Vineyard churches.
He studied New Testament and intercultural studies in graduate school and now focuses his work on building Jesus-centered, peace-promoting relationships between Christians and Muslims.
In his new book, “Grace and Truth: Toward Christ-like Relationships with Muslims,” Love provides Christians an alternative to “interfaith dialogue” with a particular focus on Christian-Muslim encounters.
Interfaith dialogue is sometimes just about being “nice” in some vague sense.
Yet placing such a high premium on being nice means that deeply held differences tend to get swept under the rug. Love’s approach, by contrast, is about being faithful – radically faithful.
“Dialogue between Muslims and Christians provides us with opportunities to understand Muslims, build relationships, engage in peacemaking and share an accurate explanation of our faith,” Love said. “Through dialogue, we seek to reframe the Muslim-Christian relationship so it is no longer perceived as a ‘clash of civilizations.’
“But this does not mean we dissolve our distinctive, historic beliefs into an imaginary ‘One World Religion,'” he said. “Rather, it means each community seeks to be authentically faithful to their historic beliefs and finds within those beliefs the resources to reach out to one another in love.”
“Grace and Truth” is a short book written for general audiences. It provides a brief overview of the diversity of Muslim populations today and then lays out biblically based principles for Christian engagements with Muslims.
To give you a flavor of Love’s approach: the opening sentence of the book quotes the Bible (John 1:14), and the final word of the text is “Christ.”
Love asserts that “The most important question raised by the Bible, is the one Jesus himself asked, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8:27).”
This is not a simple starting point for engaging Muslims, but as Love shows, it is a starting point with an eternal depth of richness.
The overview of Muslims in “Grace and Truth” is brief but not shallow.
It covers what Love calls “traditionalist,” “secularist,” “modernist” and “fundamentalist” Muslims as well as “terrorists” – in other words, those who use violence to advance their doctrines of intolerance and their political agendas.
Love is realistic and fair; he neither sugarcoats nor fear-mongers.
Jennifer S. Bryson is director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J. A version of this article originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J., as well as on Rick Love’s blog. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is part one of Bryson’s reflection on interfaith engagement and Rick Love’s book, “Grace and Truth,” which is available here. Part two will appear tomorrow.