Culture At Large

Opening a dialogue with Islam

Andy Rau

There's a challenging piece by Stratford Caldecott over at Godspy on Christian dialogue with Islam. Caldecott starts with the Pope's recent (controversial) comments about the Christianity/Islam dialogue and tries to sound out what, exactly, Christians might have to say to a major religion that is (or should be) going through a fierce internal debate about violence, proselytism, and the relationship between faith and reason. That's a debate that should look awfully familiar to anyone who's studied Christian history.

The most common evangelical response to the topic of Islam seems to be to view the Islamic faith as a spiritual enemy to be confronted, a demographic in great need of evangelism, or both--and I think those can both be appropriate ways to approach Islam. But Caldecott suggests that however we respond, it's important that Christianity and Islam be able to talk to each other. Islam sits at the edge of a precipice, at risk of collapsing into "ideology and tyranny." Christianity itself has, by the grace of God, waded through very similar waters in its history. Might our experience be put to use in helping Islam to escape the violent and tyrannical elements within itself?

Caldecott sees a potential bridge between the two religions in some of the more mystical branches of Islam like Sufism, which have preserved an intellectual tradition of critical thinking and tolerance not unlike the approach of Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas. At the very least, he argues, Christians need to

avoid making matters worse. We need to be realistic about the scale of persecution Christians are currently experiencing in Islamic countries, and the danger of growing Muslim fanaticism in our midst, but we must encourage and assist moderate Muslims to raise their voices and speak on behalf of Islamic traditions that may be more “rational” than we suppose. Neither Islam nor Christianity is going away, so we need to find ways of speaking together.

Do Christians have a responsibility or opportunity to help prevent the spread of violent, Wahhabi-style Islam? Encouraging the development of a more tolerant, reflective Islam might reduce the worldwide threat of terrorism and religious extremism, and it might establish a common vocabulary through which we might share the Gospel message with Muslims. But is it a step away from the Great Commission to "help" a non-Christian religion in this manner? Can the Christian church serve God by temporarily setting aside its evangelistic mission and focusing on the practical challenge of trying to help prevent Islam's fall into ideological tyranny?

I fear we're a long ways from any sort of productive inter-religion dialogue, whatever Christians decide. But I'd like to see more Christian leaders publically discussing the question of dialogue with Islam. Thus far, the Pope and a handful of Catholic thinkers have been the main voice of Christianity on this topic. Let's hear from the Protestant and other corners of the faith on the most productive way to deal with a growing Islam that, as Caldecott reminds us, is here to stay.

update:the Pope is in Turkey right now, and you can bet this is one of the main issues on the table.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Evangelism, Theology