Within the Church, Christian-Muslim relations have been largely the concern of a small group of specialists. All that changed on September 11, 2001. Who are Muslims? What do they believe? What are the differences among Muslims? Can Christians and Muslims live together peacefully in the same society? These and other questions have fueled an outpouring of interest in education and encounters between Christians and Muslims.
A particular danger is over-simplification about Islam and Muslims-either positive or negative-that thwarts true dialogue, true education, and genuine Christian mission.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy offers the following guidelines to individuals, churches, and Christian organizations, particularly in the West, that aspire to interact with Muslims. Suggestions, feedback, and reports regarding efforts at dialogue are welcome.
In Christian-Muslim dialogue, it is appropriate and necessary to:
- Seek to understand Islam and Muslim peoples. Most U.S. churchgoers know little about Islam. If our churches are to show Christ's love effectively to our Muslim neighbors (near and far), we must clear away misconceptions and gain accurate insights into Muslim beliefs and practices.
- Open ourselves to talk with all varieties and stations of Muslims. Of course, we recognize that some Muslims will decline the invitation to dialogue. But we must let them make that choice, rather than screening our potential interlocutors for their presumed compatibility with our own perspectives.
- Give testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is our duty to do so. Ultimately, Christ himself is the greatest blessing that we could offer to our Muslim interlocutors. The 2002 Oxford Consultation on the Future of Anglicanism noted helpfully: "Saint Paul uses dialogue and Saint Luke uses dialogomai to describe evangelism. It may involve arguing, explaining, proving, proclaiming and persuading (Acts 17:1-4, 17)" (see www.wycliffe.ox.ac.uk for the consultation reports). It is our hope that numbers of Muslims would be persuaded by the testimony of Christians whom they encounter.
- Make sure that the Christians entering into dialogue with Muslims have a firm grasp of an orthodox faith in the mainstream of the Christian tradition. Since their faith may be challenged and stretched in the dialogue, the Christian participants must know where the heart of that faith lies and where its boundaries are. Churches do no favor to the Muslims by sending out Christian "representatives" whose own faith is uncertain, confused, self-contradictory, and unable to distinguish between confessional essentials and their own idiosyncratic views.
- Endeavor to have the Christian side of the dialogue represent not just the U.S. churches, but also the global Christian community. It would be preferable to have persons in attendance who could address Islam from an African or Asian Christian perspective-particularly Christians who have lived as a minority group within predominantly Muslim nations. If the presence of such persons is not possible, some means must be found to keep their perspectives in mind. What cannot be permitted is a situation that reduces Christian-Muslim dialogue to another "North-South" confrontation, as if Christianity were equivalent to the "North" and Islam to the "South." In fact, we know that a growing proportion of the world's Christians live in the "South," and millions of Muslims are living in "North." For this same reason, the Muslim side of any global dialogue ought to include not only Muslims from predominantly Islamic developing nations, but also Muslims who live as minorities in non-Muslim nations.
- Affirm some points of theology and morality that Islam and Christianity have in common. These illustrate the "natural law" or "common grace" that is revealed to all, as Paul argues in Romans 1-2. This affirmation is particularly strategic, as secularists in western societies often mischaracterize natural law principles as narrowly Christian doctrines that do not belong in the public square.
- Address the deep differences between Islam and Christianity. Most basically, these relate to the person of Jesus Christ, who is at the center of our Christian faith. Muslims do not believe that he was God incarnate, that he truly and willingly died on the cross, that his death was the one atonement for all human sin, and that he was truly raised from the dead for our eternal life. In addressing these differences, Christians show themselves wiser and more winsome when they place their emphasis on positive affirmations of their own Christian faith. Negative judgments about Islamic beliefs and practices-although these are sometimes necessary and are often implicit in the affirmations-should not be the principal theme of the Christian participants in the dialogue.