With approximately 7 million Muslims living in the United States, according to a recent estimate by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a dozen Christian and Muslim students are doing their part to better understand each other’s faith as they meet every other week at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
Holy Book Conversation was launched last November as an initiative of VCU’s Baptist Collegiate Ministry. The agreed vision most prominent in our initial gaze is to read and encounter the other’s holy book as a means of encountering and reading the other. Currently, we are discovering the theological and moral terrain of the Joseph narrative as it is related in both the Bible (Genesis 37-50) and the Quran (Surah 12).
Interfaith dialogue persists as a concept or activity around which there is, well, considerable dialogue – and, rather ironically, vitriolic debate. More often than not, the various stakeholders twitch nervously. Passions and emotions swell, waiting to splash down their effects. The defenses are put on high alert. Surely our tables cannot withstand this weight.
Is interfaith dialogue a field flowering with significant, relevant possibilities, or one tangled up with unquenchable, irreconcilable concerns? Is it genuinely possible in the first place? If not, what then? If so, what are the inherent exchanges or sacrifices, and are they viewed positively or negatively? And what is the end game?
Paul-Gordon Chandler, author of “Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road,” a book chronicling his spiritual journey of friendship with Arab novelist Mazhar Mallouhi, has remarked, “I’m less interested in interfaith dialogue but very passionate about interfaith friendships.”
In the March edition of Christianity Today, as part of “The Global Conversation” series, Chawkat Moucarry, an Arab Christian who directs World Vision International’s interfaith relations, describes a panoramic view of dialogue: “We often think of dialogue as verbal engagement, but this is a very narrow view. Dialogue is first of all about an open attitude toward others, a disposition that reaches out and welcomes people who are different or even antagonistic. Dialogue is a way of life.”
Dialogue, then, can carve a path toward earnest friendship. Take Waleed, a Muslim with a Pakistani heritage, who grew up in Midlothian, Va. A second-year student at VCU, he’s told me that he is truly inspired toward global citizenship by the ancient story of Joseph. He is spiritually compelled by how this famous Hebrew patriarch, whom he views as a prophet, genuinely blessed the other who went by the name Egyptian.
And then there’s Charlie, a Muslim and a blond Anglo Virginian from Prince George. He’s the vice president of the Muslim Student Association at VCU. He, too, took part in our conversation about Joseph, saying, “[Joseph] is a lesson to American Muslims about learning how to live well in the nation of the other.”
Drawing close enough to hear Waleed and Charlie discuss Joseph, I am growing to understand what both Chandler and Moucarry mean.
Our humble, little Holy Books Conversation at VCU does not assume that the answers to the above questions are entirely set in stone. Instead, we are seeking to engage further the tensions within these questions. And we are finding that the conversation is only as good – not to mention as useful for the common good – as the table we’re creating together in friendship.
In November 2007, while a pastor in a nondenominational church mostly comprised of university students in Clemson, S.C., I sat down across from Abdul, then a 40-year-old doctoral candidate in industrial engineering from Ghana. The table was tall, silver and IKEA-chic. Directly behind us, on a wooden table with a burgundy runner, the sacramental bread and juice rested.
Our teaching series for that month explored strange appearances of the divine. I had invited Abdul, a Muslim, into our Christian worship gathering of 250 university students to talk about his faith. He was our guest, our neighbor. I remember thinking in an almost childlike way: How do we love our neighbor if we don’t know our neighbor?
That Sunday, Abdul and I talked the gamut. One of my lingering memories is the warmth of his smile when I sarcastically joked that our particular church was completely innocent of manipulating or exploiting our sacred text. However, what most of my former church most remembers as powerful were not the fine points of our dialogue. Instead, it was our sincere embrace at the end – in front of what we Christians believe to be the place emblematic of the most hospitable place on earth, the Lord’s Table. Afterwards, comment after comment could be boiled down to: “You seem like friends.”
Weekly, for six months prior, I had joined Abdul for a Quran study around a hard plastic table in the Clemson mosque. Now, he had joined me in the vicinity of a table that is absolutely essential to my identity. The metaphor was, and is, apt: tables are for sharing – for creating possible friendship out of the materials at hand.
It’s true – as some have expressed after viewing the documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims” – that Baptists and Muslims must work to translate interfaith dialogue into more concrete community-oriented action. Through our Holy Books Conversation at VCU, we are working for that kind of action to emerge precisely from the conversation around the table we are making.