It seems to me that there are few issues that are of greater importance here in middle of the second decade of the 21st century than the relationship between Muslims and Christians. There are 2.1 billion Christians worldwide, that’s 31.5% of the world’s population, and there are 1.3 billion Muslims, 23.2% of the world’s population. That’s just a little bit better than half of all the people on earth. Clearly, if we can’t figure out how to get along with each other as Muslims and Christians, then it’s going to adversely affect the rest of the world.
Both Islam and Christianity believe that they have a definitive revelation from God that makes exclusive claims that cannot easily be harmonized. Either Jesus Christ is God incarnate, or He is not. Either Jesus Christ died for our sins, or He did not. Either we are saved by grace through faith, or we are saved by our obedience to the things we believe that God has told us to do. These are not inconsequential differences. And it gets even more complicated because both Christianity and Islam seek converts. We each want to convince people of the truth of our faith claims believing that salvation hangs in the balance, and that puts us in direct competition with each other. Layer on top of these important spiritual considerations national agendas and global situations, and things get tense and messy pretty quickly.
Twenty-five years ago Terry Muck, then the editor of Christianity Today, wrote about how Christians were no longer going to encounter faithful practitioners of the world’s other great religions just on their trips overseas. Because of the way that the world was rapidly changing, Terry Muck told Christians that they would soon be rubbing shoulders with Muslims at the corner grocery store and working in cubicles next to Hindus and Buddhists at the office, and he was exactly right. As the title of one of his books put it, “Those Other Religions (were now) in Your Neighborhood,” and so he told Christians that we were going to have to learn how to love them. Learning how to relate to people of other faiths was no longer going to be optional for us as people of faith ourselves.
This is why we have participated as a congregation in the Faiths in Conversation program for the past five years. Once a month during the school year we get together with other Christians, Muslims and Jews in the area to hear presentations on a topic of shared interest or concern to our three faith traditions presented by a leader from these traditions, and then to formally and informally enter into conversation about it.
The first Faiths in Conversation program this fall will be at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church on Tuesday evening, August 30th, at 7 pm. The topic will be “Interfaith Marriage” from a Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspective.
What I have appreciated so much about these Faiths in Conversation programs through the years has been the way that the people who have made the presentations have not been squishy about their own faith convictions. So many of the interfaith conversations that I have observed through the years have been syncretistic in spirit and practice. You go away from them thinking that we’re all the same, that there’s not really anything all that important that’s keeping us apart. The distinctive faith claims and convictions of the participants seem to get dropped into a blender to become a spiritual smoothie where everything gets reduced to sticky syrupy goo. But when the desire to be nice to each other matters more than the need to be clear with each other, then I believe that interfaith dialogue has become something less than an exercise in true understanding. As Timothy Tennant, President of Asbury Seminary in Kentucky explains, when Christians are neither clear about, nor committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, then interfaith dialogue “loses its way.” He quotes Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist who has been involved in lots of interfaith conversations with Christians through the years who says of Christians – “If they are so taken by Buddhism, then why do they still hang on to their Christianity?”
Because I consciously approach my participation in these Faiths in Conversation as a Christian who is personally committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, and who wants to be absolutely clear about them in my conversation with people of other faith traditions, when I find things on which I can make common cause – both morally and spiritually – with my interfaith conversation partners, then I want to take hold of those things just as firmly and enthusiastically as I possibly can and use them as planks in the bridge of mutual understanding that we have got to be building as we move into the future together, and one of these things that I have come across in my conversations with Muslims with which I can do this are the “99 Beautiful Names of God.”
In every mosque that I have visited here in the Dallas area there is always a beautifully calligraphied wall hanging somewhere in the building, usually prominently displayed, with Arabic writing on it – 99 short self-contained units. I asked Imam Zia about the one at his mosque in Irving one day as we were climbing the staircase where it hangs, and he told me that it was the 99 names of God that are found in the Koran, and he explained that it was a spiritual prayer practice of devout Muslims to recite these 99 names each day using a string of beads like a rosary to mark their progression through the recitation. A “hadith” (a saying or story from tradition) from Muhammad says – “The Most High has ninety-nine names and whoever enumerates them will enter into Paradise”
Each name of God in the Koran celebrates a particular attribute of God, a characteristic of the Divine that then becomes part of the spiritual experience of the person who is reciting them. To know that God is “The Faithful One” leads the believer to trust God more completely. To know that God is “The Bountiful One” leads the believer to count on God’s gifts for life more directly. To know that God is “The Great Forgiver” leads the believer to seek mercy more readily.
A.W. Tozer wrote his classic little book The Knowledge of the Holy to do this same exact for Christians. Each chapter is a devotional reflection from Scripture on some revealed aspect of God’s being –
The Holy Trinity
The Self-existence of God
The self-sufficiency Of God
The Eternity of God
The Immutability of God
The Divine Omniscience
The Wisdom of God
The Omnipotence of God
The Divine Transcendence
The Faithfulness of God
The Goodness of God
The Justice of God
The Mercy of God
The Grace of God
The Love of God
The Holiness of God
The Sovereignty of God
The entire text of this book can be found online @ http://www.ntcg-aylesbury.org.uk/books/knowledge_of_the_holy.pdf, and I can highly recommend it as a wonderful resource for spiritual formation from my own personal use of it. And once you’ve done this, then here’s another suggestion of something else that you might think about doing out of your devotion to the one true and living God who is there.
Not long after my conversation with Imam Zia about the wall hanging at his mosque, I came across David Bentley’s book on The 99 Beautiful Names of God For all the People of the Book (William Carey Library – 1999). A Christian who has lived and served in the Middle East, and who has written extensively on Islamic topics, David Bentley explains that every one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Koran that our Muslim neighbors and friends recite each day can also be found in the Bible!
He was quick to note that there are “some vital Biblical thoughts that are missing from these 99 names,” and, as you would expect, there are no references in them at all about Jesus Christ as our Savior or Redeemer. Which is to say that we as Christians would not be well served to ignore our own sources. But – and this is the keen insight of David Bentley’s book it seems to me – since there is nothing on this list of the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Koran with which we as Christians would have any quarrel at all, as a supplement to our own devotion to the God who has revealed Himself to us decisively in Jesus Christ, there might actually be something to be gained for us as Christians to spend some time mediating on the 99 Beautiful Names of God that our Muslim neighbors and friends pray every day, especially in this world where anything that builds mutual respect and serves a better understanding between our two faith traditions is something that we should enthusiastically embrace.
David Bentley wrote his book as a resource for Christians to be able to do this very thing. Each page of it is a meditation based on one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God that shows just exactly where in our own Bibles as Christians the attributes of God that this name of God from the Koran affirms can be found. For instance, the very first Beautiful Name for God on the list from the Koran is “God the Beneficent, God the Most Gracious, God the Most Merciful.”
This is what we are singing about as Christians when we sing “Amazing Grace” –
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.
As David Bentley pointed out in his first mediation on this Beautiful Name of God –
“Amazing Grace” is a glorious affirmation of a benevolent God converging with the human condition that constantly needs wholeness and salvation. …(And) “Ar-Rahman, the “Merciful One,” (in the Koran) describes the Divine who constantly reveals a compassionate nature toward His creation. “Ar-Rahmim” is what this Divine One does in a cosmos that perpetually requires providential, loving care. The Greek of the New Testament identifies this compassion with the person and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah. …His compassion for the world is found in the words He speaks to His followers about His mission – “I have come not to be served but to serve and to give me life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
More than once at a Faiths in Conversation event I have been able to establish a meaningful connection with a Muslim participant by beginning with this mutual affirmation of who we both think that God is, and by then going on to explain how I as a Christian understand the person and work of Jesus Christ – always a confusing and controversial idea for Muslims – to be nothing more than a concrete expression of this Divine beneficence, grace and mercy. I always tell my Muslim friends that how I know that God is beneficent, gracious and merciful because of what I believe that God did for us in Jesus Christ, and suddenly, rather than being an insurmountable barrier, Jesus as an expression of Divine beneficence, mercy and grace becomes a meaningful category for further conversation. And that’s just the first of 99 categories – 99 planks in a bridge of mutual understanding that we as Christians have got to be about building in a world where walls are so much more popular, and so much easier to build. DBS +