We do not have to look far to see the need for interfaith dialogue. Perhaps first we must look at our interfaith relations before we can even have dialogue.
The modern world is pushing us out of our normal isolated and separated lives into contact with others who do not think as we do. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the religious realm. The attack on the World Trade Center by people who claimed to be acting with a religious purpose has forced religion to the center of discussion.
However, religion usually is not in the news for the purpose of quiet discussion about God, but rather the background matter for political statements and corresponding actions.
The whole world has to look at the religious thought and standards by which we act. Self identity and nationalism are easily manipulated by political and religious leaders in order to move people in the directions they want. The present situation is so excitable that it does not even need further agitation to cause problems. As most acts of terror, the purpose of the September attack apparently was to cause some political response.
Leaders in the United States have predictably moved to war with the justification that we have been attacked and the result was the war in Afghanistan. Now the United States is moving toward a war in Iraq. Some American religious leaders have thought it good to attack verbally the religion of Islam. In our beloved United States we see people of Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds being suspect and under investigation by our government. Sometimes they even come under physical attack by American extremists.
Is this the direction that we will go? We must talk together. I found the element of fear in my own involvement with the Muslim community, not just observing others, but I found the fear in myself. I learned that the Muslim community in our city was going to have a full page advertisement in the newspaper as a memorial to the people who died in the attack on the World Trade Center with an announcement of a Muslim memorial service at a particular time and place. Immediately I was afraid that some extremist would attack the meeting as some kind of retribution for the attack on our country. I even warned one of the organizers that such a public meeting should not take place at this time. My motive was fear. Yet the meeting took place. My wife and I attended with some timidity, but most of our fear was gone. The meeting was good. Yet my fear of some kind of an attack surely was also felt within the Muslim community.
Interfaith dialogue has been taking place for many years, yet I have not been involved in public meetings designed for such. Sometimes they are fierce dialogues, with the champions of the respective faiths engaging in intellectual and religious contests. The supporters of each side seem to be unchanged by the outcome. On the other hand public interfaith dialogue has sometimes seemed to be a tepid attempt to unify all religions in the world by minimizing differences. With the realization that both of the descriptions are caricatures I must admit that I have not taken part in either type and have looked for little in between. I believe that the religious understanding of every person is a sacred and respectable part of his being. I insist on this for myself and I insist on this for others too.
I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. I do not say this in embarrassment or in boasting. This is who I am. I am a Baptist Christian, and in particular a Southern Baptist. This indicates my historical and theological foundations, whether they be noble or ignoble.
I have felt the call of God into religious service, and my home church in Potosi, Missouri, along with neighboring churches, considered me worthy of acting as a minister of the good news of Jesus Christ. So in a solemn service, the elders of those churches prayed for me and individually laid their hands on me, showing their spiritual concern and approval.
Baptists were named in derision by people who were opposed to our practice of baptizing adults. We have no confidence in church or the power of religious authority to take care of our religious obligation to God. We believe that a person can not inherit his relationship with God, so we do not practice the baptism of babies. We call for each person to have a mature decision of faith in God, and only then is considered a Christian and can be baptized. It is our experience that when a person comes to God, he is inwardly changed, born again. So we preach, first of all, to our children. We teach them that there is one God ...and many other things. We call upon God to draw our children close to him.
As we think of interfaith relations and dialogue, we can often work with the personal aspect rather than dealing with anything broader. One problem with our situation today is that people tend to deal with large religious blocks instead of with individual people.
When we start speaking of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other religions as whole blocks, we may make statements which certainly can not be true for our neighbor whom we know. We might have some need to speak of religious blocks, but if we want to have some kind of dialogue, let us think of patterns of personal relationships. Surely that is the starting point.
We want no national pride or embarrassment, no sense of religious block conflict, no remembrance of war or injustice, and no sense personal superiority to stand in the way of genuine dialogue. Yet our very desire for any kind of dialogue means that some of these attitudes will intrude, for we are people who live in this world of difficulties.
How shall I approach my neighbor? How can we speak together? City living in the United States often is so impersonal that we live in isolation. If we so choose, we can keep ourselves isolated by moving in our own small sphere of relationships. If we so choose, we can exist in our own self-imposed ghetto of religious thought and discussion where the jargon, actions, worship, challenges and references to “those on the outside” only build the walls higher in our minds and actions.
For dialogue we must make sure that the essentials of hospitality are in place. Here the hospitality of the Middle East and experiences there can teach us something. The Arabic greeting of hospitality, “Ahlan wa sahlan” is full of meaning and points us to proper attitudes. Can we imagine ancient travelers in a desert situation who would come upon a tribe or large family living in tents. The travelers, needing food, water and shelter, would stop some distance away on the pretext of looking at a camel strap or hoof. A delegation of the men would go out with an invitation for the travelers to honor the encampment with their presence and the women would hang brightly colored clothes and rugs on the tent ropes as a sign of welcome. Their greeting of “Ahlan wa sahlan” meant literally “Family and a flat place.” In other words, “We are your family, and there is a good flat place where you can pitch your tent with us.” Such a greeting and meaning did not disappear with the changes of modern transportation and circumstances.
My family and I have received such greetings in our years of living in the Middle East and North Africa. We have been received with genuine hospitality and were even given protection in times of danger, particularly during the war in Lebanon. We readily admit that we learned much from the people, and hospitality was one big lesson.
Do Muslims in the United States need protection? Does hostility exist which labels Muslims as “the enemy” in our midst? If so, we must make sure that the people are protected. We especially must see that our neighbors are safe from abuse.
I have found that the best Muslim-Christian discussions take place with two people privately talking and that is the pattern which I want to present. Even so, our attitudes can raise barriers. If my Muslim friend and I are talking about God and both of us feel keenly the need to defend the true worship of God, we may oppose each other strongly. Our attitudes may be to guard ourselves and jab at the weaknesses of our opponent. If that is the case, then we have taken the role of boxers facing each other “toe to toe” and hitting at the other person with all our power. Such a contest may be interesting and stimulating, but is that what we need?
If my friend and I want to talk about truth of God’s truth, then we surely need a specific orientation. In English “orientation” has come to mean an introduction to a particular situation, such as an “orientation for new students” in a university. But the word “Orient” means East, and the original meaning of orientation surely meant to position yourself in relation to the East. This is familiar to the Muslim as he always considers the proper direction in which to pray. But the orientation that I am speaking of is to consider that we are having our attention on God, and not just on our ideas.
I am not saying that we stand and face toward Mecca, but I am saying that when we focus our attention on God, it is as if we stand with our shoes off and we find ourselves standing side by side. If we really stand before God in our conversation, we stand in humility and in recognition that our conversation is a sacred privilege. We have no responsibility to accomplish anything but to speak of what we understand.
All truth is God’s truth and we can not play with it as if it were our possession. We whisper to each other what we have seen of God and what we know of his truth.
What happens when we are facing God and his truth? I must admit that my own personal faith provides my answer at this point. I believe that God is active in our world. We all have our little personal signs or miracles when we say that God has dealt with us in a personal way. And when we come in contact with God’s truth, I believe that God gives witness to us that this indeed is the truth. It is as if the Spirit of God were whispering “Amen” in our ears when we hear the truth. Then, as always when we hear the truth, we have to say “Amen” to that divine “Amen.” Otherwise our silence will be a rejection of God’s witness to his truth.
If two people are facing God and saying “Amen” to some of the same things, will they not each have some recognition of the Holy Spirit working in the depths of the other? Can they be considering the other as an enemy of their faith?
I remember riding with a young taxi driver in Tangier, Morocco. I sat in the front with him in order to be more of a friend instead of riding in the back as a taxi client. Our conversation was minimal and the ride was short. His beard and jalaba robe were a contrast to my own appearance, but I recognized in the young man a desire for that which is good and right. I thought to myself, “What a fine and serious young man this is.” His final statement to me was, “Why are you not a Muslim?”
His tone was not one of challenge or accusation. It was more a statement of amazement that I was not a Muslim. Did he realize my respect for him which included a genuine hope for his well being? Did he find in me the echoes of my “Amens” to God which corresponded to his own? I had no answer as I thought the many wonderful aspects of my own worship of God. Memories of times of worship; awareness of truth; realizations of purpose, love, joy, forgiveness; my own personal history; all competed in my thoughts as I considered his question. The language was too difficult to attempt a worthy answer for even my own language is not adequate to speak accurately. We continued our trip in silence as I was faced with the inability to communicate the very foundations on which my life is built. The trip was finished. I paid the fare. We parted, each with the blessings of the other echoing in his ears, “Allah m’ak,” “God be with you.” Was something else echoing in our ears? Was God at work with each of us saying “Amen” to our genuine desires for that which is good and right and just and strengthening and eternal? Was God at work with each of us allowing us to hear his “Amen ” of approval of the other? Were our final blessings in God’s name an affirmation of a deeper “Amen” which each pronounced concerning the other?
Much more needs to be said. How shall I speak of the deep things of the heart? Formal statements of theology and doctrine are helpful for holding ideas together, but they often seem to be cold and stark. They are the stone walls of our fortresses, but even fortresses must have life.
Some have observed that we are all practical theologians. We live our lives according to what we believe. This gives us great hope for it means that some factors of our lives are as theologically vital as our unexpressed doctrines. We may not know how to relate competing theologies, but we can relate to each other.
October 15, 2002