Saturday, May 23, 2009

Religious Pluralism

Whether we like it or not, whether we are ready or not, religious pluralism is part of our world, of our country. Here is my response to the following scenario.

Sarah, one of the high school youth in your congregation comes up to you after service on Sunday and says she needs to talk. She has a good friend who is Muslim who invited her to worship with her last Friday. Sarah went, and really enjoyed the service, but when she came home and told her parents that she had participated fully in the service, they told her she had committed idolatry, and forbade her from going back. Sarah was really upset, because the service had been very meaningful for her, and she really felt drawn to go back and learn more about Islam—was that a bad thing? Could she do that and still be a Christian? How would you answer her?

I would express my understanding of Sarah’s feelings. Islam is an impressive faith when someone is a pious, good Muslim. Particularly if one’s own faith is lukewarm or lacking, Islam is very appealing. When I lived and worked with Muslims in Palestine, I was challenged by their piety. It is natural that she should be drawn to it, especially through a friend.

Islam is definitely not idolatrous. No images of God are permitted. Christians may be viewed as idolatrous by Muslims because of pictures in stained glass windows and elsewhere in churches. We may also be viewed as polytheistic because of the doctrine of the trinity. Muslims believe in the same God we do, the God of Abraham. We all believe in the one true God.

When Muslims bow down toward Mecca, they are not worshipping idols but are simply facing east. Similar prayer positions are found throughout the Old and New Testaments with meanings such as “worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully[1] There is certainly nothing wrong in this approach to God almighty. The Islamic view of God is very high, one of reverence.

Christians often think that Allah, the Arabic word for God, is a false god, different from the God we serve. In the Arabic Old and New Testaments, this is the word used for God the Father. Arab Christians use this word in prayer and Scripture reading. Allah is none other than the same God we know and serve.This misunderstanding of who Allah is may be why Sarah’s mother thinks she has committed idolatry. Reassuring Sarah is no problem, but it is important that there be significant dialogue with her mother as well. I certainly do not want to put a wedge between Sarah and her mother. In talking with Sarah, I would want to have some one on one time with her mother regarding her concerns.

This is not to downplay real differences between the two faiths. The centrality of the meaning of the cross is a huge difference. There is also the issue of Jesus’ divinity, his death, burial, resurrection etc. This is not what should be focused upon however. The Quran says things about Jesus with which we disagree, but there are also teachings from which bridges of understanding may be built.

As Christians however, we need to realize that we are called to relate to those beyond our circle of church friends, beyond other Christians, knowing that God by the Holy Spirit is already at work whether we recongize God’s presence or not. Our desire in relating with those of other faiths should be to break down those barriers that divide us, to see the “other” as one made in the image of God, to understand that not all Muslims are right wing, fanatical terrorists, any more than all Christians are out to support Israel and destroy Islam and Arab peoples.

Sarah could certainly learn about Islam and remain a devout Christian. The Quran has much to say about Jesus. In exploration of what it says, it would be helpful to compare the Quran and the New Testament concerning Jesus—to see similarities and differences. Working from the commonalities, we can discuss the differences frankly. Sarah and her friend could perhaps work on this exercise together. Her friend could bring to the conversation what the Quran teaches of Jesus and Sarah, what the Scriptures teach.This way they can both learn from and teach each other.

In my previous experience with Muslims in Palestine, what made dialogue and understanding viable between Christians and Muslims was mutual respect of each other as persons. Friendship and trust was the basis of religious discussion. Involvement in such relatioships did/does not mean we set aside our own beliefs for the sake of pluralism.

David Teeter, head of Project Redemption wrote concerning such interfaith relationships, “They came to respect Jesus as they saw him in our lives, and we came to respect their devotion to God as they understood him in their faith [Islam].”[2] When we see each other’s humanity, the dividing lines that erect enormous barriers between us blur. When I first moved to Bethlehem, the Islamic call to prayer from the nearby mosque was at the very least an annoyance, something that at the time even seemed demonic. By the time I left, it was a welcome reminder of the devotions of my friends to God as well as a challenge to me to be as faithful as they were in prayer. Sarah, as I did, could certainly learn more about Islam and still be a Christian. Ignorance and Christianity are not synonomous terms.

How would you respond?



[1] Gingrich, BibleWorks 8.

[2] David Teeter. Following Jesus in a Muslim Community. Online: http://davidteeter.org/following.aspx [3 May 2009].

flickr foto of God's name in Arabic.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would agree totally with what you have written. Our adult Sunday School had a course called "Islam 101 for Lutherans." It was an 8 week course that included a field trip to the local Mosque. The field trip was the 7th week, the final week two young ladies from the mosque visited our church for the last class and stayed for the 11:00 am service. The mosque visit included all phases of their worship including the washing part, and prayers. After participating in this course I would say that it is my belief that apart from the difference between our beliefs in Jesus, you have the fact that Islam is definitely a religion of works. You must do this in this manner, you must do the Haj you must do this and that in this prescribed manner, and I cannot tell how you would know if you had done it totally correctly or enough.

Ivy said...

Thanks for your comments Anonymous. A Muslim never has the assurance of heaven or having done enough to please God.

I like the idea of what your adult SS did. We did something similar when I lived in Rochester, NY at The Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word. And indeed, all religions other than Christianity, rely on works. Unfortunately, even many Christians are caught up in "works righteousness" as we Lutherans would call it.

Blessings.