Holding Together the Gospel and Interfaith Relations in a Lifelong Journey

Article excerpt

For the past twenty-five years I have been a Christian teaching theologian. I also have had the privilege of friendship with practicing Jews and Muslims. One of my foremost academic and personal challenges has been guiding myself, my students, and people in parishes to think about how to be faithful as Christians and welcoming of those with other ways to God.

I begin with a bit of what I have learned through interfaith encounters during the last few years and then discuss how the Bible can both complicate and guide the task of embracing simultaneously the gospel and interfaith relations.

Interfaith encounters

In 1990 a small group of Muslims and Christians initiated the Minnesota Muslim-Christian Dialogue, sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches. At our first two or three monthly meetings, instead of comparing our abstract concepts of God we each shared our earliest awareness of God. A person raised in a family only nominally Christian recalled hearing about God mainly at Christmas and Easter. A Muslim from India said he was taught to pray at a very early age and began learning Arabic at age four. Two of us, one Christian and one Muslim, remembered our childhood awe at seeing God's natural creation. As a result of these personal and informal conversations, the Muslims were surprised by how serious the Christians were about their relationships with God. The Christians came to believe that it was the same God we were all seeking.

At a Lutheran World Federation Consultation in Brazil in December 1999 I was not with Muslims at all but rather with Lutherans from around the world. The head of the Lutheran Church in Bolivia spoke eloquently of combining the spiritual sensitivities of his Andean Indian upbringing with the theology of Martin Luther. Pastor Emmanuel Grantson, who came from his native Ghana to study and to serve an urban mission in Baltimore, led us in a ritual appropriated from non-Christian African practice, a ritual of prayer, pouring water on a plant, and remembering one's departed ancestors.

Diverse persons--Lutherans, other Christians, and other monotheists--all have influenced my understanding of God and have repeatedly reminded me how much more God is than what I as Lutheran biblical scholar can articulate about God. Sigvard von Sicard is a Swedish Lutheran scholar using ELCA Division for Global Mission funding to serve the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, England. In a 1994 presentation for the ELCA summer missionary conference, von Sicard shared this from Muslim thought: "Anything we can say about God, he is not." (1) Perhaps that conviction prompts Muslims to focus on the ninety-nine names of God more than on systematic propositions about God. At any rate, von Sicard suggested that these names could be a bridge for discussions between Muslims and Christians.

Contrast that openness to theological conversation with comments by leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod denigrating the very idea of God for Muslims and thus closing off any possibility of dialogue. The dispute about Pastor David Benke's participation in post-9/11 interfaith prayer services received attention even on New York City's National Public Radio station in 2002. The discussion on Brian Lehrer's morning program presumably came in response to an article in the New York Times in July, 2002. Reporting on the charges against this LCMS Atlantic District president, the Times quotes LCMS pastor Joel Baseley: "Instead of keeping God's name sacred and separate from every other name, it was made common as it was dragged to the level of Allah." (2) That this skewed and limited understanding of Islamic theology came from this particular pastor is both ironic and sad. His city is listed as Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to tens of thousands of Arab Muslim immigrants and American Muslims of Arab ancestry. …