A Beginning Conversation
On Thursday evening, November 12, I was part of the “Hot Topics” program at the First Christian Church in Lewisville, Texas. Together with our good friends from the Dialogue Institute Southwest, we presented “A Beginning Conversation” on Islam and Christianity. My presentation was a statement of my rationale as a Christian as to why I am involved in interfaith conversations, especially with our Muslim friends and neighbors. DBS+
My first encounter with Islam in America was back in the mid-1980’s down in Houston. I’d pulled into a McDonalds on Westheimer one afternoon to get something to drink, and as I was wheeling into what I thought was an open parking space, I suddenly became aware of something on the asphalt right in front of me. It was a man kneeling on a small rug beside his car. Well, I slammed on my brakes, muttered something impolite under my breath, tried to calm my nerves, and then I just sat there — staring.
He was a Muslim. It was an appointed time of prayer and so he had pulled into the McDonalds parking lot, gotten out of his car, faced east towards Mecca, rolled out his prayer rug on the ground and gotten down on his hands and knees to pray. And as I sat there watching him, I became aware of the fact that my initial alarm was slowly distilling into something else — admiration, genuine admiration.
It was his devotion to God that impressed me, and as sat there watching it, I found myself wondering if any of my church’s members would be willing to make such a public display of their faith in a McDonald’s parking lot on a busy afternoon? If the truth be told, I had to ask myself if I would be willing to make such a public display of my faith in a McDonald’s parking lot on a busy afternoon? And in that moment I felt the first tremor of what can only be described as a tectonic change. The world as I knew it was shifting beneath my feet.
Terry Muck of Christianity Today in his 1990 book Alien Gods on American Turf (Victor Books) was the first person I heard say out loud what I had sensed in that McDonald’s parking lot a few years before.
Ask people at work or in your neighborhood. Almost everyone knows someone who belongs to a non-Christian faith. Check the phone book of any medium to large American city. There is almost sure to be a Muslim Mosque listed. Nearly as likely there is also a Buddhist or Hindu Temple. The Encyclopedia of American Religions lists more than 1,500 distinct religious groups in America, 900 have Christian roots; 600 have non-Christian roots. Demographic and religious experts predict the trend will (only) increase; no one suggests that America will return to being the Christian monolith that it was in 1790… (14) …Ten or twenty years from now (remember – he wrote this in 1990 — it’s now 2015 — that’s 25 years later), the full force of non-Christians religions (in America) will be felt. They will be established features of our religious terrain, gaining both political and economic influence. (19) …We must expect a heightened visibility for the non-Christian world religions. We must face up to the fact of a religiously plural culture. (20)
Today, my doctor is a Buddhist. My mechanic is a Muslim. My secretary is a Hindu, and one of my closest friends is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. In the last 30 years the world has changed, and changed dramatically. What you once had to go to lectures at the University or read articles in National Geographic to learn something about has moved in next door. Today there are more Muslims in the United States than there are Episcopalians, more Hindus than there are Presbyterians, and by far more Buddhists than there are Disciples of Christ. What Terry Muck predicted back in 1990 has become our new reality, and that fact frightens some people; it scares them to death.
I was at a seminar on Islam a year ago at a big church in Plano. The speaker had been widely promoted as an international expert on Islam, and so I had gone hoping to learn something new and useful for my navigation of this new world in which we find ourselves. Instead, all I heard were stereotypes and clichés, fear-mongering and blatant false witness — a sin in my book, one of the top ten, and so I left at the first break. E. Stanley Jones, one of my role models for interfaith relationships, described the approach that he inherited and then consciously rejected as a Christian missionary to India as being a matter of “long-distance dueling.” He explained that for too long Christians had simply circled their wagons and tried to keep the religiously “other” at bay by bombarding their positions — or at least what they thought were their positions (15) — they really didn’t know what their positions were because they had never actually talked to any of them. Instead, we just attack. But as E. Stanley Jones noted, “The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and found in the end that Christ was not there… They had lost Him through the very spirit and methods by which they sought to serve Him” (11).
Jesus told us as His disciples that He expected us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39), in fact, He told one of His most famous stories, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, to illustrate this very point (Luke 10:25-37). And it has been in obedience to this command that for the past eight years I have been a regular and enthusiastic participant in a series of Interfaith Conversations, especially with my Muslim neighbors. I reject the popular cultural rhetoric that wants to indiscriminately define Muslims as my enemy who must be defeated and destroyed, and I consciously choose to embrace instead the teachings of my Lord and Savior who tells me that Muslims are my neighbors who are to be welcomed, respected and loved. The way I read the Gospel, I can’t be a follower of Jesus Christ and not be in a deliberate and ongoing relationship with them. And it’s because I have been in this deliberate and ongoing relationship with my Muslim neighbors and friends for a number of years now that I have learned some important things along the way.
First of all, I’ve learned that I have much in common with my Muslim neighbors and friends. Together with the Jews, Christians and Muslims are branches on the same family tree, the Abrahamic family tree, and we bear a strong family resemblance. We are all “ethical monotheists.” We all believe that there is just one God, that He has spoken and acted in human history, and that He has some very clear expectations of us as human beings. God makes moral and spiritual demands on us, and as Peter Kreeft, the Catholic philosopher at Boston College points out, when you start comparing what Jews, Christians and Muslims each believe about what it is that God expects of their behavior that there’s more than enough there for us to make common cause. Rather than pulling against each other, he says that we need to start pulling together out of our common commitments to a Divinely ordered sense of justice, compassion, righteousness, and peace.
Second, I’ve learned that there are some very real and quite substantial differences between what my Muslim neighbors and friends believe and what I believe as a Christian, and that’s okay — we don’t have to pretend otherwise in order to get along with each other. What I really appreciate about my Muslim friends and conversation partners is that, as a general rule, they are just as convinced of the truth of their faith as I am convinced of the truth of mine. Now, what this means is that there’s not a lot of standing in a circle swaying and singing “Kum Ba Yah” in the Christian/Muslim Interfaith dialogues that I’ve participated in. I don’t check Jesus and my belief in Him as Lord and Savior of the world at the door as the price of admission to the party.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And except for that part about Him being born of the Virgin Mary, my Muslim neighbors and friends disagree with everything that I believe is important and essential about Jesus Christ, and rather than that being a problem, I find that that fact has power, real power.
Back in 1985 Ari Goldman took a year’s leave from his job as a religion reporter for The New York Times and enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. He went to seminary to make him a better religion reporter, but he says that he also went to Harvard Divinity School because as an Orthodox Jew he wanted to match his religious passion with the religious passion of Christians. He wanted to see his convictions and beliefs go head to head and heart to heart with their convictions and beliefs. And every time I get together with my Muslim neighbors and friends I find that my passion and their passion are evenly matched, and that makes for a powerful exchange. I find that the opportunity to talk regularly about God with my Muslim neighbors and friends forces me to be a better Christian both in terms of what I believe and in terms of how I behave, and that brings me to the last big learning that I’ll mention here this evening.
I believe that the intersection between Islam and Christianity – the two great missionary religions in the world today – is the great new fact of our age, and because of all the bad history that exists between us, we’ve got to figure out how to do this, and how to do it well. I suspect that the global future depends in no small measure on Christians and Muslims learning how to mutually and respectfully coexist. Now, “conventional wisdom says that Christians and Muslims cannot get along and have never gotten along; the Crusades, the Inquisition and September 11 have all fueled the flames of constant religious intolerance” (Skye Jethani). But I know better, and so should you.
Yes, there is a painful and hateful history between Christians and Muslims, but there is also a history of promise and hope, and just like that Native American parable about the two wolves inside us that are pitched in battle, and how the one that wins is the one you feed, so we have to decide which script we are going to follow in our relationship with each other. But for this to happen, every Christian here needs to know the stories of Christians from across time who took the risk to respectfully engage Islam as “a high and honorable faith” – St. John of Damascus in the eighth century who served in the Caliph’s court even while defending Christ, Christians and Christianity; St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century who crossed a battlefield in Egypt during the Crusades to meet with the Caliph in an attempt to end the violence, and who won his admiration and affection; Blessed Charles de Foucauld the 20th century “holy man” who lived and died as a Christian witness in the Muslim world radiating God’s love for them in Christ; and the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Cragg the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem who did more in my lifetime to help Christians understand and respect Islam than any other Christian leader I know+. Just as the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” (I Corinthians 11:1), so we can learn the gentle and gracious steps of this interfaith dance from people like them.
The first time that I read Lessing’s “Parable of the Rings” was in a class on Modern Christianity in seminary back in 1976. Like any story, it has its limitations – it can’t be pressed too hard or be taken too far – still, every time I sit down my Muslim neighbors and friends for a talk about matters of faith I find myself thinking about this little story about a very wise king. The secret to his effectiveness as a ruler resided in the ring that he wore, a ring that had been handed down throughout the generations, from fathers to sons, a ring that had the power to make the wearer beloved of both God and man.
Knowing that it would soon be time for him to hand the gift of this ring on, the King was stymied because he had three sons all of whom he loved deeply and equally. And so secretly the king went to a master jeweler and had him craft 2 exact replicas of the ring that he wore, and then he called his sons to his side and gave them each a ring – one of them the genuine article and the other two exact replicas. But before giving them these rings the king jumbled them up so that neither he nor his sons knew which one was getting the original one with the power to make the wearer beloved of God and man!
Wondering what to do, the king finally spoke, telling all three of his sons that since it was now impossible for any of them to know which one of them had the real ring, that all three of them therefore needed to live his life from that point forward as if it were him alone. Each son, believing that he had the one true ring, needed to live wisely and justly according to the dictates of that conviction and thereby fulfill its promise by becoming beloved of both God and man. And what I can tell you is that when Christians and Muslims sit down together to talk honestly and respectfully about what it is that they believe and value as we are doing here tonight, that it feels like this — like the fulfillment of the very best promise of our respective faiths — and I believe that this is one of the most hopeful things that we can do.
Goldman, Ari. The Search for God at Harvard. Ballantine. 1992.
Jethani, Skye. “Why I Defend Muslims.”
Jones, E. Stanley. Christ at the Round Table. Abingdon. 1928.
Kreeft, Peter. Ecumenical Jihad. Ignatius. 1996.
Muck, Terry. Alien Gods on American Turf. Victor Books. 1990.