Christians and Muslims have much in common, but some profound disagreements also. However, disagreement doesn’t have to spell the end of friendship.
One tool facilitating healthy dialogue is the ABC approach advocated by business writer Kerry Patterson. Deep division leads us to avoid talking about issues. The deeper the division, the less inclined we are to go there.
But avoiding the “elephant in the room” only makes things worse. Unfortunately, the higher the stakes, the more deeply we may disagree. And few issues raise the stakes higher than core issues of religious faith and identity.
To avoid negative disagreements, says Patterson, we need to Agree, Build and Contrast. Here’s how it works. Find something you genuinely Agree on right out of the gate. This helps
- Minimize argument
- Legitimize your partner’s concerns
- Allay her fear that you care most about being right
Once you’ve established common ground and your partner feels heard, you can Build, by seeking a broader understanding of the topic. Building can be as simple as suggesting a different way to look at the issue you’re talking about. This enables you to Contrast the two positions and explore differences and concerns constructively. But instead of disagreeing, contrasting involves laying your respective views out side-by-side and discussing them from a position of mutual respect.
For example, hearing your Muslim friend deny that Jesus was crucified since “God, being just, would never allow his holy prophet to be abused by evildoers,” you could respond like this:
Agree. “You’re right to say God takes Jesus’ honor seriously. In a passage in the Torah (Tawrat) we believe refers to the Messiah, God says, ‘Anyone who does not heed the words that prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable’ (Dt. 18:19). So your concern for Jesus’ honor is good.”
Build. “But as your own scripture says, the Israelites badly mistreated Moses at times. Even Muhammad was mistreated by people while in Mecca, to be vindicated only after years of struggle. So according to Islam, God may allow prophets to suffer at the hands of evildoers for a time. Since God can do whatever he chooses, why couldn’t he choose to let one prophet—Jesus—suffer death and then vindicate him by raising him to life? I know most Muslims think Q 4:157-58 says Jesus never died on the cross, but there’s other ways to interpret it.”
Contrast. “If I understand you correctly, you believe Jesus’ enemies tried to kill him, but God didn’t allow it. Instead, he made one of Jesus’ disciples look like him and die in his place. God then rescued Jesus, honoring him by transporting him to heaven. By contrast, the New Testament (Injil) says that Jesus, being perfectly submitted to God, willingly endured his people’s abuse. God allowed them to crucify him, supporting him through it all—never abandoning him. God then raised Jesus from the dead. He then taught his many followers for another 7 weeks before being transported to heaven in glory.”
Contrasting the two positions like this doesn’t lead to anything like a tidy resolution. It’s not meant to. It’s meant simply to make room for the two views in your ongoing friendship—to make a safe space for you to explore your differences together.
By enabling both friends to maintain their integrity, this approach can allow both to ask good questions—even hard ones. Instead of avoiding areas of strong disagreement lest we “destroy what little relationship we have,” we need to approach such differences in a way that demonstrates our respect for one another. Instead of just maintaining the status quo, this potentially builds relationship and turns competition into collaboration.
 Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high (New York: McGraw Hill Education, 2012) 170-72.
Thank you for demonstrating a new approach to inter-faith discussions! I think I would like to learn more!