In my colleague’s review of the book, Dialogical Apologetics, in this blog, Gary Ridley noted that dialogue with adherents of other religions has often been seen as mutually incompatible with evangelism. Dialogue has been used to describe inter-religious discussions in which evangelism is not seen as necessary or even a desirable goal. The book Gary reviewed points to another way of viewing that dialogue.
I would like to extend that conversation to focus particularly on dialogue with adherents of the Islamic faith. Unknown to most of us, including myself until recently, Christians have a very long history of these interactions, extending back for many centuries.
Dr. Alan Guenther (my brother) has studied the history of Christian-Muslim relations for more than two decades. He currently is helping to produce a multi-volume bibliographical history of Christian-Muslim relations, a massive project to say the least. Thus far 11 volumes have already been published, starting with the period 600-900 AD. The most recent volume is still only dealing with the 17th century!
Why did Christians seek to dialogue with Muslims? Sometimes they were motivated by a desire to evangelize. But more often these discussions were motivated by a desire to defend Christianity and attack Islam (often to prevent Christians from converting to Islam).
What can we learn from this long history of interactions of Christians with their Muslim neighbours? Well, one would be justified in observing that neither side seems to remember what has already been discussed. Often participants in the dialogue were totally unaware that theological disagreements on a particular topic already had been debated time and again by adherents of both faiths for over a 1000 years. Not only are the same debates repeated in each generation, but we also find the same accusations and the same counterarguments being made over and over again.
Initially, this long history of dialogue does not encourage us in our attempts to dialogue with Muslims that we know. It seems fairly pointless. But given that there are still 3000 unreached people groups whose primary religion is Islam, the Great Commission does not give us the freedom to give up seeking to help Muslims understand the Gospel. As Paul said, “For Christ’s love compels us …” (2 Cor 5:14).
That reminds us that our dialogue with Muslims must be marked by love. Paul reminds us that kindness and gentleness, not a quarrelsome spirit is to characterize our interactions with opponents.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
2 Tim 2:24-26
In conversations with my brother, and in articles that he has written, he has emphasized that in dialogue with Muslims, we need to be careful not to impose our understanding of what we think they believe and practice, but allow them to define themselves. Alan Guenther writes:
we need to let Muslims define their beliefs and practices in their own terms, rather than imposing our own interpretations or preconceptions. We should let them express what they understand their relationship to God is like without trying to make them fit our categories. We should let them interpret their Qur’an and not use our evangelical hermeneutical tools.
(We).. likewise want Muslims to let us define ourselves as evangelicals, define our beliefs and practices, and interpret our scriptures. This does not mean that we never write about the other or try to explain Islam, but when we do so Muslims should be able to respond, “Yes, that is what I believe and practice.”
(email to me on March 31, 2017)
So does being kind, gentle and understanding prevent us from asking hard questions, even about what we see as inconsistencies in the faith of our Muslim friends? No, we can ask questions, but we must not forget to listen to their answers, and listen without immediately thinking of what our next argument might be. We need to accept their explanations of their faith, without ridiculing them.
Rather than seeking to demolish the faith of the other, let’s point our Muslim friends to the Scriptures and let them study and read it for themselves. Help them understand the whole story of the Bible and the internal consistency of the biblical revelation rather than attacking a particular aspect of Islam. Much more could be said here about the Discovery Bible Study method that many of our teams are using, but that will need to wait for future blog posts.
Hendrik Kraemer, a Dutch missionary to Indonesia 100 years ago wrote about the challenge of communicating the Gospel to Muslims in his 1938 work, “The Christian Message in a non-Christian world”. He held strongly to the belief that there is no salvation in non-Christian religions. He rejected an approach that would seek to establish dialogue based on similarities between Christianity and Islam. But nevertheless, he argued:
…the best method undoubtedly is direct personal contact and study of the Bible in a spirit of human sympathy and openness, the Moslem being treated not as a non-Christian, but as a fellow-man with the same fundamental needs, aspirations and frustrations, whose religious experience and insights are as worth while as the
missionary’s, simply because he is a living human being.
Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (London: The
Edinburgh House Press, 1938), 355.
In the process of dialogue, how we listen and demonstrate our love and respect for our Muslim friends is an integral part of our message.