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Dialogue with Muslims: a response.

In the June 2006 issue, James A. Scherer published an essay, "Harold Vogelaar: His Legacy and the Challenge of CCME [Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice]." The following is a dialogical response to some of the challenges raised by Professor Scherer.--Ed.

James A. Scherer in his article has made a significant and thoughtful contribution not least in that he raises important questions and concerns that need to be addressed. In this writing I respond to some of these apprehensions.

1. Dr. Scherer wonders (p. 234) what the term "interface" between the two Abrahamic faiths means.

Here is my understanding. While it is true that the term "interface" could have many meanings, I take it to mean that dialogue needs to take place between people, face to face. Systems, dogmas, creeds, and written confessions do not dialogue; people do--and this, I believe, is a conviction deeply held by the National Council of Churches of Christ, the World Council of Churches, Vatican II, and other mainline church bodies.

2. Scherer states that it was through me that some of Samuel Zwemer's "charisma as the original 'apostle to Islam' rubbed off on the Lutherans who previously had shown little interest in the Muslim world" and that "Now, thanks to an 'apostolic succession' of Reformed missionaries, Lutherans find themselves in the forefront of Christian bodies devoting major resources to engagement with Muslims" (p. 235).

It would be nice if this were true, but in fact the Lutheran interest to engage Muslims, at least in the Middle East, came about largely through the vision, passion, and energy of Bruce Schein, who lived and worked for several years with Palestinians in Palestine/Israel. In this he was supported and mentored by Fred Neudoerffer, then serving in the LCA as area secretary for India and the Middle East. It was Fred who came to Oman and recruited us in 1971 to join this new venture, something we gladly did, but in conjunction with the Reformed Church in America, our sending board. So it was not we who "conceived" this "project" (p. 235)--and I prefer the term "venture"--but we certainly have worked hard to advance it, along with many others in what came to be the ELCA.

3. Scherer then asks a series of questions: "What exactly is the project? Is it 'mission' in the usual sense? Is it an expression of 'interfaith dialogue' as we have come to know it? Or is it a kind of hybrid venture--similar but new and different from both? What is its rationale, what are its goals, and how are we to evaluate it?" (p. 236) He comments that "the project really cannot be considered an expression of 'interfaith ... dialogue' as defined in ecumenical and Roman Catholic documents ...--at least not at present or as presently conceived" (p. 236).

I too have often pondered these things, along with many others who share the vision. Some of these questions are answered in our statement of introduction to the program, which states quite clearly that our intention for the past fifteen years "has been to teach students how to witness to God's love in Christ Jesus while understanding and respecting the faiths of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and neighbors from other faith traditions" (http://www.lstc.edu/centers.html#ccmepj).

So what are we doing to continue this honorable tradition? At present a Turkish Muslim community is entrusting to our care--and through us to the cluster of seminaries in Hyde Park in Chicago--a number of their finest students to study the Christian faith and to engage us in dialogue. What their ultimate motives may be only God knows; what we know is that we are in a relationship of trust and mutual respect, something many of us at LSTC cherish.

But is this really interfaith dialogue in "the ecumenical sense" in which, as Scherer rightly points out, participants are encouraged to "share their deepest convictions ... even at the risk of changing or modifying their own previous understandings of the partner's position"? Does "authentic witness" to Jesus Christ take place? (p. 236)

Well, when our Muslim students are required to take courses in Bible, church history, and theology, all taught by our faculty, one can only presume that they will hear or at least be exposed to the Christian message in ways deep and profound. Add to this their experience of living with and among Christians in community for two years, interacting on many levels, sometimes as roommates, it seems reasonable to assume that the gospel has been faithfully preached and life in Christ genuinely lived. It is hard to believe that an evangelist preaching to them could do it better. But is this truly an "expression of interfaith dialogue," an authentic witness to Jesus?

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It is, I believe, if we consider that the ecumenical bodies mentioned above have said that genuine dialogue must be entered into with honest intention and not as a strategy or tactic for proselytization, a position that grows out of their equally strong conviction that dialogue must be seen as a legitimate form of Christian witness.

Will such living together in faith result in the conversion of either Christian or Muslim? We do not know, because conversion is the work of God. The Spirit blows where it wills. It is certainly never ruled out! Rather, this kind of intentional Christian-Muslim engagement for peace and justice is nothing other than a sharing of and living from the deepest resources of our respective faiths. If either faith is diminished, set aside, or even abandoned for the sake of niceness, it is no longer interfaith dialogue but something else. Such diminishment of belief or disregard for integrity is something neither we nor our Muslim friends desire. Faith in God, as understood by each of us, is and must remain at the heart of what the Center hopes to accomplish.

It may be that such an experience of interfaith engagement does not "conform to the classical definition of the global mission of the church," as Scherer fears (p. 236). We may not be doing things "right" according to old patterns, but then we are no longer living in those times. Many things have changed, some blessedly so, calling forth new forms of mission. The key now is whether we are doing the right thing for our times. Only time will tell. What needs to be watched is whether God continues to bless a venture that Scherer claims has "unmistakably redefined the overall mission of LSTC within theological education" (p. 235).

4. Scherer suggests that the Niagara Foundation provided grant money to establish the Center and endow the chair (p. 235).

The fact is that funding has come from a dedicated Lutheran couple who have a strong desire that LSTC become a center of excellence for the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. From their experience in the business world, these two have long noted the need to build bridges of understanding between the two communities. That concern was translated by them into a very generous gift. Their hope now is that we and the church at large take this trust with utmost seriousness and build an effective program that will have lasting value. They see it as seed money to encourage others to contribute as well. As for the Niagara Foundation, the only money they have paid the seminary is to cover the educational costs of their students. This is not to say that if a donation were offered, it would be looked upon as unwelcome or undesirable.

5. Scherer wonders whether Muslims "are ready for this kind of dialogical engagement" (p. 236). He notes that the hospitality offered Muslims by LSTC can be interpreted as of "enormous benefit [to] the growing Islamic community in America." He cautions, however, that such friendship does not "begin to approach the demands and requirements of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims" and warns that "for the Muslim, interfaith dialogue from the outset excludes the possibility of conversion and operates solely for the advancement and triumph of Islam" (p. 237).

Such notes of caution are well heeded. One needs to remain alert to the vagaries of human relationships and their vulnerability to evil intentions. This is true for all of us. Distrust and suspicion are mutual. But to think from the outset that for Muslims certain possibilities are excluded and results known is dubious at best and at worst short-circuits the work of God's Spirit. If Christians see the future "through a glass darkly," why would it be any different for Muslims? I think we all share a feeling of being vulnerable, of being asked to take risks, of venturing--or sometimes being dragged--into unfamiliar paths and thus being opened to a future yet unknown. To be sure, we have our goals and high hopes, but the future belongs to God--who, history shows, is full of surprises.

Scherer warns that Christians themselves generally are not ready for the "demands and requirements" of interfaith dialogue (p. 237) and that the Center must take as one of its main responsibilities the task of preparing them. We could not agree more and will do our best to do so. Certainly, training future pastors and church workers here at the seminary in the art of dialogue and how to articulate their faith in conversation with others is part of that task. We also are working on how to integrate the study of other religions into the core curriculum of the seminary. Another goal is to have interfaith studies become one of the "emphases" that students can choose to pursue when they enter seminary. Online courses geared to lay leaders are being prepared as well; some have already been offered.

Part of what gives me confidence that we are moving in the right direction is that for the past fifteen years we have had Ghulam-Haider Aasi, a Muslim scholar, as an adjunct professor. Working together has enabled us to hold each other to a high standard of accountability. From me students learn about Muslims; though Dr. Aasi, they learn about Islam from a Muslim. The same can be said for our Muslim students who are learning about Christianity from Christians. The difference is significant because knowledge learned from someone is harder to use in negative and destructive ways. Meanwhile, to do all that we do within the bonds of friendship may be the best way to build that trust and confidence so needed "to go further and to explore [together the] deeper questions of faith," as Scherer puts it (p. 237).

I thank Dr. Scherer for his keen questions and astute assessment. Such scrutiny and friendly critique is welcome and will help keep the whole venture on course. Only things done wisely and well and in the spirit of faithfulness will have lasting value.

Harold Vogelaar

Director, Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Author:Vogelaar, Harold
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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