Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part editorial on interfaith dialogue.
Interfaith dialogue is difficult for many Baptists. By theology, most Baptists think they are right and everybody else is either wrong or misguided. By tradition, we are a missionary people who believe we ought to be about converting others. By disposition, too many of us are either too arrogant or too insecure about our faith to dialogue with Catholics and Jews, much less Muslims.
Dismissing or avoiding interfaith dialogue is not an option in the 21st century. We live in a global village, in a multifaith world. We must engage the world as it is, not pine for an age of theo-cultural domination that has long passed.
One of the joys in producing our latest documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” is learning from other members of the Abrahamic traditions.
Two of our interviewees have some wisdom about interfaith dialogue from which goodwill Baptists could draw.
“People think that in order for Baptists and Muslims to agree in doing anything that I have to water down my religion,” said Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, about how pastors and imams fear interfaith dialogue because they think it leads to theological compromise.
The energetic vice president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) argued that the reverse is true for both faith groups: “By working with other people you assert your own belief…you dig deeper in the Scripture…loss of ‘my own’ religion comes from unfounded fear.”
He said interfaith dialogue shrinks the distance between both faiths and helps to dispel negative stereotypes.
“I believe that interfaith dialogue is sometimes confused with theological debate and discussion,” said ISNA’s president, Ingrid Mattson. “Normally we don’t get very far with theological debate and discussion except to dispel misconceptions. I think that it is important for each group to articulate their beliefs and for the other group to understand what those are.”
She said that the “issues of ethics, civic life, political engagement are issues” that Baptists and Muslims need to focus on to ensure “that we can continue this harmonious living together here and in other places, really spread that model to other places, because there are people who are ideologically opposed to us doing good together. And if we don’t have answers from our own traditions to refute those divisive perspectives, then our relationships might be vulnerable.”
Mattson, a professor of Christian-Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary, noted, “There are always going to be people who make their living from causing trouble, whose mission in life is to keep people like us apart.”
Countering the “loud voices” of opposition to dialogue requires courage, she said.
Both Mattson and Magid asserted some valuable points for goodwill Baptists.
First, interfaith dialogue does not necessitate that each faith water down its theological convictions. Dialogue helps Baptists and Muslims clarify their beliefs to each other.
Second, interfaith dialogue can dispel false stereotypes. Knowing the truth about another faith is crucial to advancing the common good. Hearing the truth about another faith comes best from a member of that faith, not from a secondary source in a different faith.
Third, if Muslims and Baptists in America model positive interfaith dialogue, then we offer the global community an alternative to distrust and divisiveness. We show the world a better way.
Fourth, interfaith dialogue demands courage – courage keeps us from shrinking from the angry voices and the fear of the unknown. Courage helps us shrink the distance of non-engagement based on anxious misperceptions.
We believe our hour-long documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” will facilitate interfaith dialogue and interfaith action. We think our five stories will challenge negative stereotypes and offer positive narratives. We trust that both Muslims and Baptists will benefit from listening to members of the other faith. We hope you will watch it when it begins airing on ABC-TV stations in January 2010.
Christianity and Islam are the world’s largest two religions. If they are not at peace, then the world will not be at peace. If Baptists and Muslims in America can establish meaningful and irenic engagement, then we will play an important role in being makers of peace.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.