A Biblical Alternative to Interfaith Dialogue
by Jennifer S. Bryson
I think I am allergic to interfaith dialogue. When I get near “interfaith dialogue” events, I begin to gnash my teeth in frustration at the tendency toward superficial, lowest-common-denominator discussions about how similar we all are and the often-aggressive hostility toward very basic religious practices such as evangelization. When I, as a Christian, am asked to come to such events but am told that no sharing of faith will be allowed, I feel as if I am being asked to leave a part of my faith at the door. How can an event be “interfaith” if I can’t bring my faith fully and wholly?
It’s not that I am opposed to cross-faith encounters. Hardly. Friendships with Christians of other denominations and friendships across faith lines were a normal part of my American childhood and a public school experience for which I am deeply grateful. As an adult, much of my education and professional work have been devoted to seeking to understand and engage Muslims.
Frankly, I think personal engagement across faith lines is an important responsibility for citizens of the modern world. Yes, responsibility. In localities across the world, communities are becoming increasingly diverse as geographic mobility increases and modern communication technologies bring us into at least virtual contact with each other. We need mutual understanding to inform the way in which we live together. Without it, mutual ignorance will fuel the way that we fight with each other.
But “interfaith dialogue” won’t get us where we need to go. Interfaith dialogues tend to be heavily dominated by the liberal spectrum of the religious groups involved. For Christians, the emphasis at many such events on downplaying deeply held beliefs tends to alienate many Evangelical as well as devout Catholic and Orthodox Christians, myself included. And yet tensions between Christians and Muslims, in particular, run high in many areas, in some locations resulting in deadly conflict. Mutual ignorance and lack of meaningful contact between these two faith groups impede improved relations. Not only that, but in addition, such tension between Christians and Muslims, observes Dr. Rick Love, “causes the church to shrink back from fulfilling Jesus’s command to love and to make disciples.”
Rick Love, an alumnus of Westmont College, lived in Indonesia for nine years and has served as a pastor with Vineyard churches. He studied New Testament and Intercultural Studies in graduate school and now focuses his work on building Jesus-centered, peace-promoting relationships between Christians and Muslims. In his new book, Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims, Love provides Christians an alternative to “interfaith dialogue” with a particular focus on Christian-Muslim encounters.
Interfaith dialogue is sometimes just about being “nice” in some vague sense. Yet placing such a high premium on being nice means that deeply held differences tend to get swept under the rug. Love’s approach, by contrast, is about being faithful—radically faithful. Love explains:
Dialogue between Muslims and Christians provides us with opportunities to understand Muslims, build relationships, engage in peacemaking, and share an accurate explanation of our faith. Through dialogue, we seek to reframe the Muslim-Christian relationship so it is no longer perceived as a “clash of civilizations.”
But this does not mean we dissolve our distinctive, historic beliefs into an imaginary “One World Religion.” Rather, it means each community seeks to be authentically faithful to their historic beliefs and finds within those beliefs the resources to reach out to one another in love.
Grace and Truth is a short book written for general audiences. It provides a brief overview of the diversity of Muslim populations today and then lays out biblically based principles for Christian engagements with Muslims. To give you a flavor of Love’s approach: the opening sentence of the book quotes the Bible (John 1:14), and the final word of the text is “Christ.” Love asserts, “The most important question raised by the Bible, is the one Jesus himself asked, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8:27).” This is not a simple starting point for engaging Muslims, but as Love shows, it is a starting point with an eternal depth of richness.
The overview of Muslims in Grace and Truth is brief but not shallow; it covers what Love calls “Traditionalist,” “Secularist,” “Modernist,” and “Fundamentalist” Muslims, as well as “Terrorists”—in other words, those who use violence to advance their doctrines of intolerance and their political agendas. Love is realistic and fair; he neither sugar-coats nor fear-mongers.
Grace and Truth focuses on nine Biblical principles for seeking Christlike relationships with Muslims. They are:
1. Be faithful to God’s truth—the whole truth.
2. Be Jesus-Centered in our interaction.
3. Be truthful and gracious in our words and witness.
4. Be wise in our words and witness.
5. Be respectful and bold in our witness.
6. Be prudent in our “Google-ized” world.
7. Be persistent in our call for religious freedom.
8. Be peaceable and uncompromising in our dialog.
9. Be loving toward all.
The book explains the Biblical basis of each of these nine principles and offers some concrete examples of what encountering Muslims this way could look like. Love explains,
We seek to be accurate when we speak about Muslims and their faith. Overstatement, exaggeration, and words taken out of context are commonplace in the media and politics. But this should not be the case among followers of Jesus, for he calls us to be careful about the words we speak (Matthew 12:36). God commands us not to bear false witness against our neighbor (Exodus 20:16) and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12).
Love goes on to cite Ephesians 4:29, reminding us that “the Bible calls us to both truthful accuracy and fullness of grace. As those who have received grace, we are to convey grace.”
Emphasizing that the Bible calls us to give witness to the Gospel in a way that is not only bold but also respectful, Love offers the example of Paul in Athens. “The idolatry of the Athenians,” writes Love, “incensed Paul’s monotheistic heart.” Love recognizes that Christian engagement across religious lines, when it is allowed to get past just being “nice,” can be jarring and even upsetting. Yet Love shows from Biblical examples that it is possible—and necessary—to respond to very deep differences in a manner that is “respectful, gracious, and bridge-building.” Some matters of disagreement between Christians and Muslims are very deep, but this is not justification for rudeness. Instead, Love embraces dealing with such differences in “the spirit of the Prince of Peace.”
There are a few downsides to the way Love has structured this book; they are bothersome, but in the large scheme of things they are minor. The most inconvenient is the confusing format. The book has an “Exposition” offering the nine Biblical principles mentioned above, followed by an “Affirmation” with ten principles that are nearly but not quite identical, and are numbered differently than the first nine. One can hope a future edition of this booklet will stick to one set of principles.
At the same time, irksome format aside, the good news is that rather than skirting around topics such as evangelization and conversion, generally severely taboo in “interfaith” gatherings, Love recognizes that these are integral components of Christianity—and Islam too, for that matter. He recognizes that faith itself is central, and thus stands firm for religious freedom. He writes:
We affirm the right of religious freedom for every person and community. We defend the right of Muslims to express their faith respectfully among Christians and of Christians to express their faith respectfully among Muslims. Moreover, we affirm the right of Muslims and Christians alike to change religious beliefs, practices, and/or affiliations according to their conscience. Thus, we stand against all forms of religious persecution toward Muslims, Christians, or anyone else. God desires all people to make faith choices based on personal conscience and conviction rather than any form of coercion or violence (2 Corinthians 4:2).
The study guide at the end of the book is particularly helpful. It is divided into ten short sections with questions about specific passages. The print version has space to jot down notes; the Kindle version toggles easily back and forth between the passage under discussion and the study guide’s questions about the passage.
I recommend Grace and Truth for small-group or church-wide Bible studies—not only for Evangelicals, but also for Catholic and Orthodox Christians too. This book is short, only seventy pages. The central text is a mere eighteen pages, followed by an overview of principles, a group study guide with questions about particular passages, and a bibliography. It is just right for a quick read on a Saturday afternoon, or a stocking stuffer for that Christian you know with an affinity for less-than-love-filled rants about Muslims.
In our world of diverse and mobile populations, we need meaningful encounters across the full spectrum of religious belief. This includes those of us with allergies to interfaith dialogue, as well as any ranting Christians who might be on your Christmas shopping list. After all, what better Christmas gift could there be than to give someone some Love?