Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on interfaith dialogue.
When our core business is making Jesus known, why are some otherwise committed Christians so unsure about talking to people of other faiths?
Toward the end of March, I was invited to share in a meeting of the Christian-Muslim Forum, in this case a meeting of 30 to 35 Muslim and Christian scholars gathered together to explore the nature of dialogue itself.
The meeting was at Lambeth Palace and, as one would expect, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke well. Dialogue, he said, in a typically Rowanesque way, is not polemic (an argument to prove me right and you wrong), nor debate (a rehearsal of arguments for and against certain positions) but a God-given means of discovery (about God, about self and about one’s conversation partner).
Professor Tim Winter from Cambridge University responded, but did so under his Islamic persona Sheik Abdal Hakim Murad; he is a Muslim convert. He reminded us how the media delights in focusing solely on what he called the trouble spots of faith – the Christian church’s obsession about issues of sexuality, Muslims and the blight of terrorism, Judaism and the stubborn resistance of Israel over the Palestinian people. In these contexts, he said, “a hurting world lashes out in its meaninglessness against those who still find meaning.”
The other main speakers were Maulana Yunus Mohammed of Bolton Council of Mosques and Dr. John Azumah of London School of Theology. Azumah reflected on how dialogue was being embraced by evangelical Christians in a new way.
What made this gathering “real” was the desire to be forthright and honest. No one is under the illusion that the universal truth claims of Christianity and Islam are reconcilable. They are not.
The archbishop caught the mood when he argued against the views of those who, he said, seem to presuppose that real differences between faiths don’t exist and all such differences can be reconciled. “They can’t,” he said and added later that because our religions both make exclusive truth claims, “it is not easy to find a space that we can inhabit together.”
So why bother with dialogue at all? Why enter into dialogue with people whose faith position is strong, whose likelihood of converting is limited, and whose view of your own faith is that it is inadequate?
Yes indeed, these are questions many Muslims ask each other!
And so do Christians.
But since when did we only seek to share our faith with those we consider potential converts? As a BMS missionary, I lived in a country of 125 million Muslims. Do you think that was fruitful territory? What about our people working today in West Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa? France and Belgium? Moss Side and Blackbird Leys? The God revealed in Scripture calls us to engage with all who need to hear of the love of God in Jesus Christ.
So let’s be honest. In my experience, people who are most often critical about interfaith dialogue are critical on two grounds. The first is fear, and the second is fear. But the two are different.
The first fear is a fear of the unfamiliar. It’s a fear of people whose lives are so different, whose language and culture are alien, whose worldview is so utterly “other” that people don’t know where to start. People who are most loudly critical often (not always) don’t know a solitary man or woman from another faith. They have never shared a meal in a Hindu home, they do not have a Buddhist or Sikh they would count as a friend, or even a passing acquaintance. This is the fear of the unknown, and it is quite understandable. It just needs to be recognized, owned and dealt with. And in the coming year I’m hoping we at BMS can help provide resources to help in this area.
But there is a second kind of fear, too. It’s the fear of selling out, of compromising our faith and settling for the so-called lowest common denominator.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column first appeared on his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.