This past Friday night Dr. Sally Holt, who teaches Christian ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary Tennessee, arranged for her class in Murfreesboro to meet for dinner with a rabbi who teaches at a local university and the imam of the local mosque. Her purpose was to simply engage everyone in a time of informal dialogue in a non-threatening setting. She was kind enough to invite me to participate. The discussion touched on a number of topics, and I came away with many ideas, but two things particularly stimulated my thinking.
First, the imam provided a good insight for our students who will serve local congregations. He pointed out that their situation is very different from that of ministers just a few years ago. At one point when a pastor stepped into the pulpit on Sunday morning, there was a pretty good chance that the congregation was rather homogenous—they probably were born and raised in the local area, most were of the same ethnicity, and few had been exposed to people of other faiths. The Christian minister of today can expect to speak to people who “are probably not from around here,” who have traveled widely, and may well have grown up in another Christian tradition, a non-Christian faith, or no faith at all. Such circumstances require a minister who is conversant with other cultures, faiths, and perspectives and is willing to engage the ideas found there.
This is a good insight. As we discussed this in class the next day, one student pointed out that in order to engage the “other” we must understand our own faith first and this takes work! The temptation is to adopt a type of reductionism that distills the major tenets of our faith or that of others into the lowest common denominator. We seek similarities where there are none and assume that words have the same meaning in different contexts. This does not facilitate real learning or understanding. The engagement that the imam called for requires commitment, something that most of us are not willing to make.
The second insight came from the rabbi. He pointed out that in the Western context, both Hebrew and Christian scriptures have been exposed to academic study, discourse, and deconstruction for a number of years. They have been examined in light of their original social and cultural contexts as well as their linguistic characteristics. This has provided us with deeper insights as we pursue the path of ministry in the Jewish and Christian contexts. He suggested that, as a result of a growing Islamic presence in Western cultures, the same thing will happen with the Islamic community in relation to the Koran and will open up new opportunities for dialogue.
As we consider the future of theological education, perhaps we should be providing more opportunities for interfaith dialogue and discussion about the nature of our authoritative documents. Such interaction might encourage our Muslim friends to examine and learn more about their book and share it with us. It might also stimulate us to be more creative in finding ways to communicate our faith commitment to others.
If we honor and respect the integrity of our traditions—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic—we might engage in profitable dialogue about the nature of community in our respective traditions, what we each see as authoritative, how our faiths deal with evil and suffering, and so many other topics. If we are going to effectively minister in this context where God has placed us, such interaction is indispensable. If we approach with the spirit of I John 4:18 (“perfect love drives out fear”), we have nothing to fear.