By The Rev. Dr. H. Gene Straatmeyer
In the book Acts of Faith, “The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation,” author Eboo Patel, a Muslim, makes a case for introducing Interfaith to young people in America and internationally. He sees this as a way for religions1 to come together in a positive and peaceful way rather than today’s often violent encounters.
Interfaith is religions uniting to work together in areas involving charity, justice and disaster. Some go further and join together in religious services. However, Patel seems to say, and I agree, that service to humanity may be the only “constant” among religions and it can be a bridge we can use to co-exist with one another and live side by side in peace. One example of this, with which I have experience, is working with Galveston Interfaith during Hurricane Ike.
In Malawi, Christians and Muslims worked together in peacefully bringing to an end the dictatorship of their country in 1993. Community service is also the area where Muslims and Christians came together in Rotary in Malawi.
Nevertheless, from my perspective, pan-religious worship services have their problems. I say this having participated in such a service several years ago and as I have reflected on it, the biggest drawback I felt then and now was and is the assumption that we all worship the same God.
Since Patel is Muslim, I will focus my thoughts on Muslims and Christians.
Both my learning and personal experience inform me that the God I know through Jesus and the god of Mohammed are quite different. Muslims, who have read both the Quran and the Bible, should agree with me. My conclusion is based on studying world religions during my formal education, my reading focus on Islam, including the Quran, which I read while serving in Africa a decade ago, and living and working among Muslims in Malawi.
In Africa I was a member of Rotary International where at least weekly I rubbed elbows with Muslim businessmen. My wife and I were dinner guests in one of their homes during a visit by American Rotarians. At the social level of contact, I enjoyed their hospitality and friendship but at the spiritual level, there were and still are wide gaps in our beliefs. One of the most visible differences concerns the role of women.
I also have problems with Sharia Law even though I recently listened to a Muslim scholar on National Public Radio who said that the extreme punishments of Sharia only come from the interpretations of the radical wing of Islam. What I think this scholar didn’t understand is that at the present time our government as well as other countries are dealing with extremist Muslims (terrorists) and when terrorists kill innocents or are arrested in our country or in our communities, Christians become skeptical of all Muslims as well as Sharia law. In parts of Africa like Nigeria, Sharia becomes operative in areas where Muslims are in charge of the local government.
I also reject their belief in theocracy as the only way countries are to be ruled. Iran is an example of this ideal Muslim government with an Imam as the representative of God who makes sure the country maintains theological purity. I reject theocracy when it is advocated by Christians as well.
Concerning my current opposition to interfaith worship, as America becomes more religiously diverse, our culture will continue to be the messenger of the secular religion and will inform us what we should believe. For instance, Benjamin Zellar notes how the final episode of the television program LOST portrayed a “religion…that mirrored (the) contemporary development in American religion. The writers combined a hodge-podge of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Egyptian religions and New Age spirituality shorn of their historical and theological contexts. The show’s writers even offered a vision of the afterlife. The LOST survivors met in the afterlife in an interfaith chapel replete with sacred objects and symbols from a variety of world religions. Rather than focus on a single religion or spirituality, the writers created a postmodern patchwork.”2
That’s what secular belief will be and probably already is pedaling, but my preference is for Christians to be knowledgeable enough now and in the future to see that the two religions do not have the same understanding of who God is. Presently I see Christianity as inclusive, like “For God so loved world” and I see Islam as exclusive of any who aren’t Muslim. It’s like the bumper sticker, “If you aren’t Dutch, you aren’t much!” I also experienced this attitude of Muslims in Malawi.
When there is religious discussion between Christians and Muslims, its primary foundation should be mutual respect for one another. Without mutual respect, dialogue will never begin. Discussions of beliefs should be the first topic. For me, reading the Quran was informative but I realize that I took it literally. Reading the Bible in the same fashion can lead to misunderstandings and so I would like to see participation in deeper discussions with those who have an excellent knowledge of the Quran and how it is to be interpreted. Probably what is also needed is dialogue with moderate Muslims concerning their views on militant Islam and its connection with global terrorism and Christian persecution. Both of the viewpoints Muslims have of jihad are a part of the Quran and in some books I have read by Muslim authors, the stress is on the “intellectual jihad” as the struggle to bring the positive things of Islam into a Muslim’s life while others stress the “war jihad” that makes Christians and others fearful.
But I also know there are Muslims who love peace as I do. I recently read about a Palestinian Christian who noted that in his land Muslims and Christians had lived peacefully together for 1200 years. There are other instances when these two religions have managed to live side by side without the kind of rancor, fear and violence we see today. Christians and Muslims need to move in that direction in our country and such talks should not be delayed.
It is hard for many of us to dialogue at the local level in rural and low population areas where there are no mosques or imams. Another major hindrance to even starting such a dialogue is terrorism itself. Moderate Muslims may not claim the radicals, but the radicals do claim Islam as their religion. We need to know why Christians are persecuted and Muslim converts to Christianity are sentenced to death. By the same token, Christians need to hear from Muslims their feelings about Christians who have negative views towards them. In dialogue, we may find ways to live together in peace and without fear of one another.
So, my reading and experience in Africa has led me to the place where I can participate in interfaith activities for the service of humankind. But, before I personally proceed further down the road of interfaith, I feel a need to dialogue with knowledgeable Muslims to openly discuss their faith and mine. Reading about them is not sufficient. Right now I’m skeptical of such dialogue because a decade ago I was in a meeting with Muslims but the Imam wouldn’t allow any questions from the Christian group. It was only show-and-tell on their part. My group was not from the Christian right where militant and hard doctrinal beliefs might have been forthcoming but we were missionaries in training to serve in countries where there was a significant Muslim presence. We would have asked questions to help us understand rather than attack and demean his faith. But he appeared to be afraid of that kind of dialogue. He shouldn’t have been because it is in this kind of mutual give and take where we gain respect, trust and understanding of one another. Trust allows for further cooperation and dialogue. It is a necessary and essential step for better relationships between Muslim and Christian relations in the U.S.
I know there is some dialogue going on, but I believe it is not widespread enough so that it can have a significant impact on Christian/Muslim relationships at the present time.
1. When I use the word “religion” I’m using it in the context of world religions, not Christian denominations. Christianity in this case is considered a religion along with Muslims, Hindus, etc.
2. Missional Spiritualityby Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, page 199.