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Making Muslim-Christian Dialogue Work

Posted February 22, 2015 by Mark Anderson in Interfaith relations

Making Muslim-Christian Dialogue Work

Posted February 22, 2015 by Mark Anderson in Interfaith relations

From its appearance in the seventh century, the Qur’an has represented a challenge to historic Christianity. To take just one example, the qur’anic author views the central article of Christian faith, belief in Jesus’ deity, as an act of polytheism or associating something created (i.e. Jesus, in Muslim terms) with the creator. Not only that—according to the Qur’an, the most damnable act possible is the sin of polytheism (Arabic, shirk). Hence, Q 5:72-76 warns that anyone who holds to the Trinity will go to hell, prompting fiery Muslim preachers to hurl “epithets like ‘infidels’ and ‘idolaters’ in the direction of Christians.”[1] Though not all Muslims would phrase it in precisely those terms, most Muslims would agree. Since they believe Jesus was a great prophet, they can explain Christian belief in the Trinity only in terms of his followers’ concealing God’s message to them, despite the fact that Jesus had faithfully conveyed it to them. The Qur’an represents a challenge to Christianity in many other respects also.

The question Christians must answer is how to respond. Two signally unhelpful responses are:  1) to rail against Muslims and the Qur’an as, respectively, evildoers and the objectification of evil, and 2) to either deny that any such a challenge exists or simply refuse to take it seriously. The “railing” option represents threatened Christians in fight mode and the “denial” option puts them in flight mode. While the former has been the standard Christian response through much of our history with Muslims, it hardly brings the words “grace and truth” to mind—words John 1:17 uses to describe Jesus. In other words, attacking Muslims over their beliefs isn’t Christlike. And denying the qur’anic challenge is equally unchristian, despite its representing a seemingly better and newer approach to our theological differences. For it works only by denying a number of both faiths’ key distinctives, removing what is unique about Islam and Christianity. But according to both scriptures, truth really matters. In fact, we cannot dismiss the vital differences between the Qur’an and Bible except in the sort of grey blur of faiths that John 1:17 disallows. The Bible clearly calls Christian believers to defend the faith God has entrusted to us (Jude 1:3). But how we do it is just as important as that we do it.

The question then is, If neither railing against Muslims nor capitulating without a contest is right, then what is right? I believe three things mark all truly Christian dialogue:  1) a passionate love for truth, 2) a reckless grace toward Muslims, regardless of how they may view us, and 3) a humility that above all makes us submissive to God. This isn’t some childish squabble where we simply insist on being right and reject all who disagree. No, it’s about valuing truth as we value our lives—not as a set of sterile ideas, but as the very path God has called us to walk in (Psa. 86:11). Since that pathway represents our only chance of freedom, we adamantly refuse to be deterred from it (Jn. 8:31-32). It’s about valuing truth for others too for no one can walk a path that disappears in the woods.

But as vital as biblical truth is, truly Christian dialogue is equally marked by grace—not as a mere add-on but rather as truth’s equal, inseparably bound to it in creative tension. And the equality of truth and grace is such that allowing either one to dominate the other fails to do justice to either. For to make either primary distorts it by loosing it from its balancing corollary. Grace must define our handling of truth even as truth directs our extension of grace.

This may seem an impossible combination. And as a matter of fact, it is, barring one thing:  the third mark of truly Christian dialogue is humility under God. Though we don’t have all the answers, the Spirit of God does and he’s unlimited in how he can teach us. He may choose to teach us important truths through our Muslim brothers and sisters, made in God’s image, fellow seekers after truth. Only by humbly listening to God’s voice and longing to obey can we distinguish truth from error and keep grace and truth in proper balance (Psa. 25:9, Prov. 11:2, Jn. 10:27-28). So all three of these marks of Christian dialogue—truth, grace and humility—presuppose a living relationship with God. For from a biblical perspective, we’re called to know and love him, who grants us light both for us and for all whose lives we touch (Jn. 1:4, 17:3).

Rightly understood, dialogue is about neither arguing with nor scoring points against our brothers and sisters in the other faith. It’s about loving and pursuing God’s truth together. In doing so, we must strive to be as gracious to each other as God has been to us. But dialogue is not about pretending we don’t have major disagreements. Rather, it’s about being honest within the context of grace. And again, walking humbly and submissively before our God is what allows us to attain such heights.

Yes, Christians are disturbed by Muslim denials of Jesus’ deity—but no more than Muslims are troubled by Christian belief in his deity. Muslims would say that belief in the Trinity does not qualify as monotheism, while Christians believe that the Trinity represents monotheism at its very best. We undeniably have real differences, some being of major import. But we also share many common beliefs. And thus far the twenty-first century has done little to encourage and enrich religious faith. Hence, I believe Christian and Muslim believers need to stand together and support each other, not allowing our differences to divide us. Healthy friendship is never about “fixing” the other person, but only about accompanying them on their journey. And from a biblical perspective, extending friendship to our Muslim neighbors (regardless of how critically they view our understanding of truth) is essential not just to dialogue, but to becoming more like Christ.

[1] John Kaltner, Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 1999) 271.

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