Why Engage in Dialogue?
A Muslim and Christian Perspective
Farhan Shah and Jay McDaniel
We write this essay as a Muslim and a Christian who have been dialogue partners for several years now, having recently published a short essay called Nine Ways to Overcome Islamophobia. People ask us why we work together as we do, and we are happy to respond. We think Muslim-Christian cooperation is a way of being truly Muslim and truly Christian. We hope our response might stimulate others to do the same.
Some people speak of us as "bridge-builders." We accept the designation and encourage others to take up the mantle of bridge building as well. We understand bridge-building as a very important dimension of our religious calling.
Of course, we realize that many in our respective communities are more focused on building bridges within their existing communities than in building bridges across religious communities. Indeed, some within our respective communities see bridge-building across communities as quite irrelevant to God's call. They see God as calling Muslims and Christians to be insulated and isolated from one another. Sadly, the radicals within our communities take it a step further, insisting that Muslims and Christians are diametrically opposed to each other; hence the need to combat one another. There are Muslims who see Christians as infidels, and Christians who see Muslims as agents of Satan.
We disagree completely. We believe that God wills a world in which there are many religions, and that Islam and Christianity are, or can be, among them. We believe that from God's perspective religious as well as cultural differences make the whole richer. This idea -- that God is a spacious love whose very life is enridhed by differences -- is one we share.
Trusting in a God of spacious compassion, we want to build two kinds of bridges: micro-bridges and macro-bridges. We get this idea from the Reverend Teri Daily, whose essay Can I, Too, be an Interfaith Leader?, shapes us. A micro-bridge is a friendship between individuals of different faith perspectives. When we think of faith perspectives, we, like the Pluralism Project at Harvard, include secularism and humanism as among the faiths. A macro-bridge is something larger that benefits many people: that is, a platform (such as this website) in the context of which larger numbers of people can learn and grow in knowledge and in wisdom. We write essays together with the hope that they might encourage micro-bridges (individual friendships) and function as macro-bridges.
This takes us, then, to dialogue. Ultimately, as bridge-builders, we are interested in more than dialogue or discussion. We are interested in interfaith cooperation, of which dialogue is a dimension. Cooperation can include interfaith service projects, interfaith meals, interfaith book clubs, and interfaith advocacy in the public arena. In our view Muslims and Christians, along with people of other faiths, are called toward such cooperation. Cooperation is not only a responsibility, it is also a sacred activity in which participants take delight, and in which God takes delight, too.
In what follows then, we focus on dialogue, hoping you understand that, for us, dialogue is part of something larger: namely, a hope for a better world. We have in mind dialogue about core religions beliefs: the status of the Qur'an and New Testament, the nature of prophecy, the status of Jesus in relation to God, the nature of God, the role of sacred law in religious life, and other such topics. And also have in mind, and sometimes more importantly, dialogue about what is truly important in society today.
Emphasizing dialogue over debate
As we see things, dialogue is to be preferred over debate. Etymologically, debate means, “to beat down”, considered and practiced in a confrontational way. For us, this is not an expression of civility and open-mindedness. Dialogue, on the other hand, stands for a mode of reciprocal communication between two or more human subjects, emphasising mutual respect, intellectual humility and openness, and active listening. The legitimate purpose of dialogue – especially when concerned with core religious beliefs – is not to arrive at definitive conclusions after which there will be no further questions. And it is not to convince one another that, after all, one of us has been “right” and the other “wrong.” We believe that Muslims and Christians can be right about different things, such that, when carefully considered, both are right. Still, the purpose of dialogue is not simply to be “right." In the spirit of Martin Buber, the purpose of dialogue is to nurture I-Thou relationships, as opposed to I-it relationships. Dialogue itself, when filled with respect for the thou-ness of the other party, is itself an I-Thou relationship.
Obesssion with Rightness as Idolatry
Given this emphasis on I-Thou relationships, we worry about people for whom being absolutely “right” becomes an absolute in its own right. We worry about a worship of “rightness” when we see it in Muslims and Christians, when we see it in people of other faiths, when we see it in secularists and naturalists for whom religion is merely primitive superstition, and we worry about it when we sense it in ourselves. When people make “being right” an absolute, they carry a false god in their hearts. Thus, we are sceptical of people who claim too much certainty. We – one of us Muslim and the other Christian – believe that Truth with an upper-case T is always more than anyone’s particular and finite understanding of it, which means that dialogue, as mentioned above, should be open-ended, creative, and humble. Indeed, for us, Truth with an upper-case T is another name for God. And we believe, in the words of the philosopher Whitehead, that the “merest hint as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” In the same vein, the Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal states “there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking. As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened…other views are possible.” Precisely because Truth is always more than our concept of it, we need never absolutize our own understandings of Truth, whether Muslim or Christian, Jewish or Hindu, Secular or Naturalist. We can hold onto our fervent convictions with a relaxed grasp, so that they do not become false gods in our minds or, worse, bludgeons by which we harm other.
The Two Aims of Dialogue
What, then, is the aim interfaith dialogue? It is twofold.
First, it is to understand that human life find its sense of meaningfulness in active relationships; to become friends with one another in ways that include, but also transcend, intellectual differences, whether contradictory or complementary. As noted above, for us as Muslims and Christians, the very activity of becoming friends is, in its way, a sacred activity. The God in whom we both believe, the "God of Becoming and Relationship," to quote our friend Rabbi Bradley Artson, is more interested in our becoming friends than in our arriving at intellectual agreement. Intellectual agreement is in the interests of friendship and meaningful relationships, not the other way around.
Second, the purpose of dialogue is to contribute to the well-being of the world around us. We can enter into dialogue about core beliefs, to be sure, but we can also enter into it in light of beliefs about how to make the world a better place filled with what we call "ecological civilizations." Influenced by the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Muhammad Iqbal, we believe that, in our time, this well-being must include taking care of people and taking care of the earth, neither to the exclusion of the other. “Taking care of people” means building communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, multi-cultural, and multi-faith, with special care for those who might otherwise be neglected: the very young, the very old, and those who feel marginalized. Such communities recognize, support, and empower what Iqbal calls the innate dignity of each and every human person. “Taking care of the earth” means making sure that space remains for other creatures (plants and animals) to flourish on their own, that the limits of the earth to absorb pollution and supply resources are respected, that that animals under human dominion are treated kindly, with respect to their subjectivity and conscious experience.
Taking care of the earth also implies a recognition that we humans are small but included in a larger web of life, itself creative and evolving, and that this larger web is loved by an inclusive One whose horizons of care include the human and the more than human and whose very nature is compassion. From the vantage point of this inclusive compassion, the whole earth is sacred ground; the whole earth is a mosque or a church. Our vocation as human beings is to be vicegerents, to be stewards, who are friends of the earth and friends of one another.
This takes us back to the original question: Why might a Muslim and a Christian engage in dialogue? The dialogue itself builds healthy relationships, quite apart from pre-existing commonalities, and it is in the relationships that life, meaning and joy are found. There is something good and even holy about rational inquiry, critical discussion, especially when it includes a willingness to criticize one's own tradition, to be aware of our own cognitive blind spots.
From our perspective, self-criticism is as important, sometimes much more important, than other-criticism, and self-criticism helps a people avoid traditionolatry, including religonolatry. One of the deepest problems in Islam and Christianity today is that too many Muslims and Christians worship "Islam" and "Christianity" more than they worship God. Islam becomes Islamism. Christianity become Christianism. Islamism and Christianism are sources of pain in the very heart of God. An antidote to both Islamism and Christianism is self-criticism. Thus we understand dialogue, including self-criticism, as sacred activities.
In short, we believe we are beckoned by the very spirit of life within the universe to be friends with one another, friends with the vulnerable, friends with other creatures, friends with the earth. We are beckoned to exercise our creative and intellectual energies in this way, not for the sake of Islam and Christianity alone, but for the sake of life itself, which God so loves. Prophet Muhammad and Jesus, each in their way, pointed toward a befriending of the world, by keeping in check the unnecessary and rigid we-they categorizations, which, as our collective experience has shown, have generated much destruction in terms of wars, periodical pogroms of people, oppression based on racial distinctions, and destruction of bio-diversity. We seek, as their followers with agency of our own, to do the same; to honour God`s creation. In thought. In word. In deed.