A Case Study in Muslim-Evangelical Dialogue
Introduction: An Antidote to Stereotypes
We live in very turbulent times. Technology has given voice to everyone, the wise as well as the ignorant. No longer can we assume that the influence of the academy has a premier role in shaping public opinion. It is, therefore, time for reasoned voices to speak out using the available media to engage those whose rhetoric incites hatred and perpetuates stereotypes. As Scripture says, “Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 5:20).
In the past several years, there have been a number of encouraging moves toward greater mutual understanding, as exemplified by the October 2007 letter A Common Word Between Us and You. Building on this important step, those in attendance at the “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims” conference at Yale University in July 2008 affirmed that:
Muslims and Christians affirm the unity and absoluteness of God. We recognize that God’s merciful love is infinite, eternal and embraces all things. This love is central to both our religions and is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic heritage.1
In the spirit of that historic gathering, it is the purpose of this paper to provide a case study of how an evangelical seminary is participating in dialogue and building bridges between Muslims and Christians. It is a self-study to determine the current course of engagement with its implications for further steps toward alleviating the causes of tension between us, while also reflecting on the integrity to our beliefs as Evangelical Christians.
Defining Our Terms and Labels
To begin, it is important to distinguish between Christianity and the West from an evangelical perspective. It is always difficult to claim that a term like the West can represent such a broad sector of human society with any degree of accuracy, especially given the propensity for individualism in Western societies. It is even more difficult to equate Christianity with the West, due to an equally heartfelt belief in the separation of church and state, particularly in the United States. In the minds of committed Christian people who live in the West, their faith is more often in contradiction to the mores and norms of western society. This is particularly true of Evangelical Christians, despite the fact that our social conservatism is so often the majority opinion.
By way of further clarification, while it is true that the majority in the West claim to be Christians, this is in no way a majority of Christians worldwide. For example, in an annual statistical overview of global Christianity, it was reported that there are 447 million Christians in the continent of Africa and 366 million throughout Asia, as compared to 221 million Christians in North America.2 The projection is that 42% of global Christians will live in Africa and Asia by the year 2025.3 Therefore, any serious conversation regarding Christianity must include the voices of Christians from the majority world.
In defining Evangelicalism, Pierard and Elwell describe it as “The movement in modern Christianity, transcending denominational and confessional boundaries, that emphasizes conformity to the basic tenets of the faith and a missionary outreach of compassion and urgency.”4 Evangelicalism is characterized by obedience to the basic tenets or fundamentals of the faith. While the term “fundamentalism” is primarily used in a pejorative sense today, it represents an important aspect of what it means to be an Evangelical. The Evangelical fundamentals are the unifying beliefs that tie together such a disparate group from among the Christian traditions. As Evangelicals, we hold tenaciously to “the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ” and its commands. At Fuller Seminary, our “Mission Beyond the Mission” expresses it this way:
Simply stated, the commands to which we respond are these:
- Go and make disciples;
- Call the church of Christ to renewal;
- Work for the moral health of society;
- Seek peace and justice in the world; and
- Uphold the truth of God’s revelation.5
As is apparent in these five statements, we continue to live with the contrasts of scholarship and activism.
Fuller Theological Seminary: A Case Study in Convicted Civility
An important area of scholarly focus at Fuller Seminary is in response to commands one and four, which call us to go and make disciples of Christ and to seek peace and justice in the world. In obedience, we hold together our evangelical beliefs and our social activism. Our faith is a missionary faith, proclaiming. as stated in Article 5 in Fuller’s Statement of Faith, “The only mediator between God and humankind is Christ Jesus our Lord, God’s eternal son.”6 Equally, we are committed to obeying the whole gospel of Jesus Christ-clearly stated in Article 9-”by striving for social justice, and by relieving human distress and need.”7
A helpful perspective for managing the tension is found in President Mouw’s book entitled Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Mouw identifies the core problem facing people of strong convictions.
It is not enough merely to reclaim civility. We need to cultivate a civility that does not play fast and loose with the truth … to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a “passionate intensity” about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.8
In applying the concept of convicted civility, our seminary embraces dialogue on a number of levels. Currently the seminary community has formally engaged in dialogues that focus on the Abrahamic faiths-Judaism and Islamand on groups from which we as Evangelicals have either come-Catholics-or those who have come from us-Mormons. Although we affirm the engagement in dialogue with these and other faith communities, we do so with a strong sense of conviction to the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith and to the evangelistic mandate.9
Growing out of these commitments to evangelism and dialogue, members of the Fuller Seminary community are involved in a range of activities with Muslim scholars and clerics to create and sustain a civil society, thereby exemplifying “convicted civility.” An important example of this engagement was the Conflict Transformation Program of Dialogue with Muslim and Evangelical Christians sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice. The convening groups were Fuller Theological Seminary, Salam Institute for Peace and Justice, and the Islamic Society of North America. The dialogue began with consultations in April 2005 and April 2006, leading to a collaboration over “three years in a two-level project-scholarly and practitioner levels-to seek common practices, patterns, and pathways for conflict reduction, resolution, and transformation between faiths as well as to learn how to better resolve differences within our individual faiths.”10 The recent publication of Peace-Building by, between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians, edited by Professors Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David Augsburger, is a wonderful example of the kind of collaboration that is possible.
A second example of commitment is Fuller Theological Seminary’s willingness to be a prominent signatory of the Yale declaration published on November 18, 2007, in the New York Times as “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to ‘A Common Word Between Us and You.’” Building on this commitment to a serious Muslim-Christian dialogue was the attendance of five Fuller Seminary professors at a conference on dialogue at Yale University, on July 28 to 31, 2008, which included a plenary presentation by Dr. Martin Accad of Fuller.
This conference, which grew out of the historic document “A Common Word,” is another significant step, as together we embrace the goal of seeking peace and justice in the troubled world in which our two faith traditions constitute one-half of the population. Along with the Yale Conference delegates, Fuller Seminary affirms:
We Christian and Muslim participants meeting together at Yale for this historic A Common Word conference denounce and deplore threats made against those who engage in interfaith dialogue. Dialogue is not a departure from faith; it is a legitimate means of expression and an essential tool in the quest for the common good.11
Further building on our commitment, Fuller Seminary hosted the Third Evangelical Christian-Muslim Consultation: Common Word between Us and You, held April 16 to 19, 2009. The gathering included more than 40 Christian and Muslim scholars and clerics. The hope of the conference organizers, summarized by Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, scholar in residence at Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary, was that it “would lead to increased peace between the two communities and, eventually, increased peace in the world.”12 Professor Don Wagner, a conference organizer, reflected on the realization of their hope by observing that “one of the Imams affirmed [that,] despite our obvious differences, we reached a deeper level of community.”13
Beyond the commitment to formal interfaith dialogue with Muslims, members of the Fuller Seminary faculty are actively publishing and teaching in areas that build on our obedience to the commands of Jesus as expressed in Fuller’s Mission Beyond the Mission statements 3 and 4. Two books are particularly noteworthy. The first is Professor Glen Stassen’s 2008 book Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War. Building on his earlier work, which outlines ten practices for abolishing war, Stassen brings together a number of scholars to address issues of politics, society, economics, and faith. The second book, Resources for Peacemaking in Muslim-Christian Relations: Contributions from the Conflict Transformation Project, edited by J. Dudley Woodberry and Robin Basselin, was published in 2006. Professor Woodberry brought together the work of six students who participated in the Conflict Transformation Project, providing helpful insights into the changing views of students who engage in dialogue alongside their professors.
A Key Element in Interfaith Dialogue: The “Dialogue of Life”
In preparing this paper, I was reminded of the observation by Archbishop Marcello Zago that as an essential part of our approach to dialogue, we must embrace the “dialogue of life.”14 By this Zago incorporates the relational engagements that go beyond the exchange of ideas to a commitment to intentionally … get to know one another as human beings, as neighbors, and as fellow citizens.”15 This must also go beyond the relational opportunities of us as delegates to our families and our communities.
A story shared by Fuller Professor Jim Butler illustrates the “dialogue of life” in the actions of people near his home in Claremont in the months after September 11, 2001.16 Churches organized a number of events in support of Muslims, including interfaith services, hosting Islamic speakers to educate church members on Islam, and shared meals. A particularly touching response is related by Jerry Irish, a member of Claremont Presbyterian Church: “Adult community members organized to provide a daily presence around the City of Knowledge School, a local Muslim institution, to ensure the safety of its staff and students in the weeks following 9/11.”17
On a personal level, the “dialogue of life” can be illustrated beyond the interaction in the plenary addresses, panel discussions, and responses at a formal interfaith dialogue gathering. One evening, as delegates of the Yale Conference, we were taken by bus to an old Connecticut farm, where blueberries, peaches, and other crops were grown. Before our dinner together, we were invited to go into the orchards to pick fruit. This simple activity of life afforded us the opportunity o meet one another and enjoy a slice of life together. It was followed by a wonderful buffet dinner that continued to foster our interaction.
During the evening, I met the Honorable Professor Dr. Sallama Shaker, Deputy Foreign Minister for the Americas, Arab Republic of Egypt. Professor Shaker introduced the world of foreign diplomacy from the perspective of an Arab state in a way that purged my thinking of media generated stereotypes. In one evening of simple recreation, my life was impacted by her warmth and intellect as she shared stories that deepened my understanding. A further outcome of our relationship was the invitation to participate in this important conference sponsored by Al-Azhar University.
It is precisely this type of positive interaction that lies at the heart of Zago’s concept of the dialogue of life. To limit the dialogue to those who are skilled in communication and highly educated in their faith traditions is to seriously miss an important aspect of dialogue. We as thought leaders within our faith traditions are called together by our shared humanity to break down the barriers of hatred and bigotry that plague the world. If this is to move from theory to practice, we must be willing to risk exclusion for the sake of our embrace. In this, we will truly honor the common word among us.
As it is written in the Bible,
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”18
In obedience to these commands, Fuller Theological Seminary is exploring what it means to love our neighbor, while respecting our differences as well as our commonalities. To truly love means to embrace others with civility while holding to the convictions of our faith. In concluding his inaugural address, Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw provided an important insight into what has become a guiding principle for our interfaith dialogues:
We are a people who believe strongly in naming the Savior’s name and witnessing to his power to transform lives. It cannot be otherwise.
But we would do well also to emphasize the importance of being emissaries of God’s gentle guidance. I am convinced that this emphasis is especially important in our time. It is my deep hope that the evangelical movement can consciously move into a new dispensation of Christian gentleness, and I sincerely pray that Fuller Seminary can have a role in making that happen.19
I hope that our future interactions will be characterized by the gentle guidance of the Living God.
1Joint statement of the attendees at the “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims” conference at Yale University, July 28-31, 2008.
2David Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing, “Christian World Communions: Five Overviews of Global Christianity, AD 1800-2025,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 33, no. 1 (January 2009): 32.
3Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford Press, 2002), 3.
4Richard V. Pierard and Walter A. Elwel “Evangelicalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of
Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 405.
5Available online at http://documents.fuller.edu/news/html/mission_beyond_mission.asp, accessed April 15, 2009.
6Available online at http://www.fuller.edu/aboutfuller/mission-and-history/statement-of-faith.
aspx, accessed June 19, 2009.
8Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 12.
9For a discussion of specific presuppositions and principles for interfaith dialogue, see C. Douglas McConnell, “Missional Principles and Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue: An Evangelical’s View of the Do’s and Don’ts of Theological Dialogue,” in Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue, Issue 1.1, Winter 2010.
10Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David Augsburger, Editors, Peace-Building by, between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), xii.
11Joint statement of the attendees at the “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims” conference at Yale University, July 28-31, 2008.
12Quoted from press release for the Third Evangelical Christian-Muslim Consultation: Common Word Between Us and You.
13Personal correspondence from Professor Donald E. Wagner, North Park Seminary, sent April 20, 2009.
14Marcello Zago, quoted in Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 383.
16Personal correspondence from Professor Jim Butler, Fuller Theological Seminary, sent June 20 and June 26, 2009.
17Jerry Irish, book review of Beyond Tolerance, by Gustav Niebuhr (New York: Viking, 2008). Published in Pomona College Magazine, Spring/Summer 2009.
18Matthew 22:36-40, NRSV.
19Richard Mouw, “Educating for the Kingdom,” in Fuller Voices: Then and Now, ed. Russell P. Spittler. (Pasadena: Fuller Seminary Press, 2004), 45.