Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on interfaith dialogue.
Some Christians are fearful of interfaith dialogue because they think such engagement results in compromising the faith, dodging the hard issues or settling for a lowest common denominator between Christianity and other faiths.
No doubt there are times when this has been, or is, true. But the renewed emphasis on engaging with other faiths that is evident these days, especially from within the evangelical world, has brought with it a dynamic that may not have been so noticeable in past years.
The need of the hour is for a courageous engagement of people from different faiths. This does not mean combative, but it does mean frank and honest.
A good example of this was the publication recently of “A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor.” For those unaware of the original document on which this book is based, you can read it here. And among the hundreds of responses received, that which came from the Baptist World Alliance was exemplary in its courtesy, its appreciation and yet also its honesty concerning the many major differences between Christianity and Islam.
The book, “A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor,” is edited by HRH Prince Ghazi of Jordan, Miroslav Volf from Yale Divinity School and Melissa Yarrington, also from Yale. It is one of the first systematic theological explorations of the issues that “A Common Word” has evoked.
The approach the book takes is in keeping with the robust nature of contemporary engagement. Take this extract from Prince Ghazi: “A Common Word does not signal that Muslims are prepared to deviate from, or concede one iota of, any of their convictions in order to reach out to Christians – and we expect the reverse is also true … neither does (it) mean Muslims are going to facilitate foreign ‘evangelism opportunities’ in the Islamic world in the name of ‘freedom of religion.'”
No room for slushy sentiment there. Nor when Volf himself reflects on the dialogue that “A Common Word” has made possible, especially doctrines such as the Trinity and Christ’s atoning death: “Significant agreement on love of God and neighbor does not erase these undeniable, deep and consequential differences.” He goes on to mention “practical problems causing tensions” between communities and cites specifically “persecution and lack of full religious freedom, problems concerning evangelism … and many others.”
So this engagement is one that entertains few illusions. Mistakes may be made along the way, but the need of the hour is for God’s people to engage in brave theology that:
- will recognize in this moment in history the need for Christianity and Islam especially to find a way of co-existing peaceably (blessed are the peacemakers) while staying true to our religious convictions.
- will look to build interfaith relationships because only in the context of relationships can hard things be said to those to whom you have been willing to listen deeply, and hard things be heard from those who likewise have listened deeply to you.
- will recognize that the biblical injunction to love our neighbor means, in this situation, the risk of sitting down and talking, not with people of no faith (which characterizes most expressions of outreach), but with people of strong faith, a people for whom, if we are honest, we sometimes entertain both fear and suspicion in our hearts.
One of the most challenging chapters in the book is from Martin Accad, a good friend of BMS through our partnership with Lebanese Baptists and the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is based.
In exploring what Jesus meant by “love your neighbor,” Martin helpfully reminds us that in the Old Testament this primarily meant, “Love the strangers living among you” (Leviticus 19:34) and the familiar command of course was, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in effect a call to be hospitable. (Leviticus 19:18)
When Jesus was asked “who is my neighbor,” he radically extended the definition of neighbor to include those who were the archenemies of the Jews, namely the Samaritans (Luke 10:30ff). Hence it was logical, but controversial, for Jesus also to add the injunction, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
Martin is not implying that Muslims are the enemy, but he is helping us to see how radical “love your neighbor” must be.
None of this is easy. In most Muslim-majority countries, there are far fewer freedoms than Muslims enjoy elsewhere in the world, not least in Judeo-Christian cultures like the United Kingdom. I see the growth of Islam in the West, and I worry deeply for our Christian heritage, which is being eroded.
I hear hostile comments from hostile Muslims and don’t easily hear the voices of those more moderate. I recognize “fear and suspicion” as emotions that sometimes describe how I feel, and I am not blind to seeing that it is but a short step further to seeing Muslims as my enemy.
That is not the road I wish to travel. There is an alternative.
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.