One of the questions that churches are starting to ask is how we can dialogue with our Muslim neighbors in a way that is honest and faithful? Dialogue is not about compromising one’s faith or believing that we are all one in some kind of universalist paradise singing “Kumbaya.”
Rather dialogue is about understanding the person in our community who follows a different faith. In opening up to them we also hope that they will “hear” us and begin to understand what we believe – even if that involves differences. Thus, in the context of dialogue, ideas are shared in a respectful way that opens up minds and hearts to better understanding and empathy.
Dialogue is a movement that places more emphasis on a mutual exchange of ideas as opposed to a mono-logical proclamation. There are probably places for such proclamation (within the Christian community) but inter-faith communication is better placed in a dialogical context where questions can be asked and answers explained. Certainly Jesus, when he interacted with the religious other (take for example the Samaritan woman in John 4), entered into a dialogue rather than a monologue, and that led to the realization on the part of the woman and later most of her community that Jesus was the Messiah.
One model that has been used with some effectiveness in Muslim-Christian dialogue is called Meetings For Better Understanding. The key to this model is mutual respect and willingness to listen to the other perspective. Each speaker is given 30 minutes to discuss a topic of mutual agreement. This topic could be a theological subject (for example what paradise means) or it could be a social topic (raising teenagers in a secular society). Then there is 30 minutes for questions of either speaker. It is important to have a moderator who will give equal time to each speaker and to ensure that the questions are fair and respectful. This is not the place to critique the other faith, or debate the finer points. Rather the goal is get some clarity on how Muslims and Christians think about current issues and points of doctrine.
It is always good to follow up such an event with refreshments and a time of socializing. This gives opportunity for individuals present to discuss the topics covered over the evening as well as build relationships. For many this is the highlight of the evening. This is the place where stereotypes are set aside and real understanding begins. Each person has the opportunity to witness honestly and authentically to what they believe.
In both Canada and the United States we are beginning to see a new reality, a neighborhood with both a church and a mosque. The hope is that we will come out of our shell to engage with our religious neighbor – not out of a spirit of relativism – but out of a spirit of mission. The opportunities are only growing.