Overcoming Fear: Reflections on Intentional Interfaith Activities

By Arthur Brown

IMES is intentionally involved in a range of interfaith activities. Within Lebanon, this usually involves bringing together Evangelical Christians with both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in a variety of contexts. One such context is our annual Middle East Consultation, where during specific evening forums we invite well respected Muslim clerics and scholars to bring a different perspective to the particular theme we are discussing that year. Furthermore, within the last month, I helped lead an interfaith youth event involving six Sunni Muslims and six Evangelical Christians. Finally, I also recently attended the Doha International Conference on Interfaith Dialogue, which involved over 200 Christians, Muslims and Jews discussing interfaith initiatives among young people. Needless to say, it has been a busy but inspiring month.

However, I have also heard in this past month a number of comments questioning the wisdom and rational behind such activities, primarily it must be said from Evangelical Christians. It seems that many people are nervous about participating in any form of what might be called an ‘intentional interfaith activity’. The issue seems to be the ‘intentional’ discussion of faith, for within the Lebanese context it is more or less impossible not to have any interaction with those from a different faith background. Within this post I therefore want to address some of these specific concerns, as I understand them.

Accusations of liberalism…

Simply by being willing to talk honestly and intentionally about my faith, and listen to others talk honestly and intentionally about their [different] faith, does not make me theologically liberal [whatever that actually means!]. Since when did listening to someone with a different view require the ‘watering down’ of your own view? A humble willingness to listen, yes, but a watering down of your own faith, surely not! Maybe the fear is that some will be labeled as ‘liberal’ for simply participating in dialogue activities. I understand this fear, if interfaith dialogue is simply about trying to find some kind of mutually acceptable theological ‘middle ground,’ where we can all agree on matters of doctrine and practice, have a cup of tea together, and return home filled with warm fuzzy feelings. Unfortunately, and with some warrant it must be said, this has often been how interfaith dialogue has been perceived – an attempt to find the [lowest!] common denominator.

However, when dialogue is with people who are serious about their faith, even the religiously conservative, having the opportunity to share about how their faith inspires them towards the worship of God, love for others and the betterment of their communities is something we should all be seeking. I, for one, would much rather be at an interfaith activity with ‘conservative’ followers of different faiths who are willing and able, and with respect, to talk about their own beliefs and practices and learn from those of a different religious tradition.

What is there to be fearful of?

But it’s all too confusing…

Another fear I have heard recently, particularly when talking about young people [and those young in their faith] participating in intentional interfaith activities, is that it will confuse them. The fear is that by participating the young person’s faith will be damaged in some way. Again, this may be true if the purpose of any such interfaith activity is to either seek converts or to win a theological argument. It is also true that many teenagers still hold to a form of ‘inherited faith’ and have yet to ‘own’ their own theological beliefs and assertions.

For such young people, the prospect of ‘defending their faith against a would be challenger’ would understandably be threatening. This may be rooted in the fear that ‘other’ young people may know more about both their own faith, and the faith of ‘their adversary’. These concerns would likely also be held by parents and the young person’s religious youth leader. However, if interfaith activity becomes about sharing how your own faith inspires you to live in God honoring ways, and at the same time allows you to listen to others sharing about how their faith inspires them in the same way, then perhaps there is less to fear. The theologian Miroslav Volf suggests that,

One of the defining challenges of our time is to find workable ways for Christians and Muslims to be true to their convictions about God and God’s commands, while living peacefully and constructively together under the same political roof. [1]

Ahmed, a young Muslim involved in the pilot of The Feast, an interfaith initiative in which IMES and World Vision Lebanon are currently involved, further makes the point that,

Most conflicts arise from stereotyping, a lack of knowledge and miscommunication. When people communicate, they discover that they are all humans, that they seek for safety, health and they share an ambition for better life conditions. Dialogue promotes tolerance on the basis that we all respect our different paths to worship God, without having to eradicate one another or force one of us to look like the other.

But it’s not evangelism…

The final concern I want to address here is that interfaith activities should not be used for the purpose of evangelism. These are not appropriate moments for aggressive proselytization, for doing so often creates an environment of suspicion and division rather than trust. However, surely the way we speak to people of other faiths about our own faith has the potential to be a positive [or negative] witness. How we talk about our faith, and the faith of others, is as much a part of our witness as is what we say about our faith. In any such intentional interfaith activity we are essentially being given permission to model Christ to those who may not know him. These opportunities also tend to be with people who are more likely to be interested in Him, and in hearing about our experience of Him.

What an amazing opportunity!

Kenneth Leech suggests that,

Only a theology which is marked by the spirit of adventure, the urge to discovery and the practice of pilgrimage, rather than one which is static and propositional, can respond to people in transition and upheaval. [2]

It is clear that the MENA region is in a time of transition and upheaval, as is its church. If the church in the MENA region is going to be the missional church we are called to be, surely there is a need to explore how we intentionally engage with those from other faith traditions, within any possible setting. So the question then becomes: How will we witness to those of other faiths in ways that demonstrate the character of the hospitable and welcoming Christ, within an intentional interfaith setting?

___________________________

[1] Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p.13-14.

[2] Kenneth Leech, Doing Theology in Altab Ali Park (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2006) p.25.

15 thoughts on “Overcoming Fear: Reflections on Intentional Interfaith Activities

  1. Dear Arthur
    First of all, big thank you for your courage, honesty and intentionality in International Dialogue with Muslims and Christians. I believe that we need this kind of International Dialogue or conversation or Fellowship, whatever it is called, for peace-building on this planet as a common sense and as a simple human being. ‘A human’ is 人 (in) in Chinese character, and this means two persons, leaning/relying/trusting on each other (you can see it in the character). Without this kind of interaction of one another, a human becomes an animal.
    As a Christian, I also do/should not give wrong witness to Islam, while I expect Muslims not to give wrong witness to Jesus either. So, we need this in the midst of misunderstandings you have clearly explained about. I used to criticizing this kind in the past, but I have been changed because of people like you.
    Moreover, we in our generation are responsible for preparing next generation, better generation! So, I give big clap to you in bringing young people alongside you and people there, so that they are exposed to safer learning environment and to know real truth inside.
    My question is how to make genuine and trustful and open environment in this kind of International Dialogue.
    In January 2014, I was invited by Muslim Scholars in Pakistan to a Muslim Conference in the capital city of Pakistan, Islamabad, and fully participated in it for three days. There were about 220 Muslim Scholars and Professors (from Pakistan, Oman, Jordan and Turkey) and some students. The topic was “Moderation in a Society: Peaceful Co-existence between Muslims and Non-Muslims”. About 40 Papers were presented there. I sincerely appreciate those organizers and dear friends of mine for their inputs in the Conference. I believe that they invited leaders of other faiths but did not come there. I was the only one Christian and Korean among them (I could be wrong). I do not believe that they organized it only for me with that big effort.
    God bless you and all in this.

    Matthew Jeong

  2. Dear Arthur
    First of all, big thank you for your courage, honesty and intentionality in International Dialogue with Muslims and Christians. I believe that we need this kind of International Dialogue or conversation or Fellowship, whatever it is called, for peace-building on this planet as a common sense and as a simple human being. ‘A human’ is 人 (in) in Chinese character, and this means two persons, leaning/relying/trusting on each other (you can see it in the character). Without this kind of interaction of one another, a human becomes an animal.
    As a Christian, I also do/should not give wrong witness to Islam, while I expect Mulsims not to give wrong witness to Jesus either. So, we need this in the midst of misunderstanings you have clearly explained about. I used to criticising this kind in the past, but I have been changed becasue of people like you.
    Moreover, we in our generation are responsible for preparing next generation, bettger generation! So, I give big clap to you in bringing young people alongside you and people there, so that they are exposed to safer learning envrionement and to know real truth inside.
    My question is how to make genuine and trustful and open environment in this kind of Interantional Dialogue.

    In January 2014, I was invited by Muslim Scholars in Pakistan to a Muslim Conference in the capital city of Pakistan, Islamabad, and participated in it fully for three days. There were about 220 Muslim Scholars, Professors from Oman, Jordan and Turkey) and some students, and I was the only one Christian and Korean among them. The topic was “Moderation in a Society: Peaceful Co-existence between Muslims and Non-Muslims”. I do not beleive that they organized it only for me with that big expense.
    I sincerely give big big clap to those organizers and dear frineds of mine for the Conference.
    Matthew Jeong

  3. Dear Arthur,
    Thank you very much for describing your experiences and your position concerning interfaith dialogue. I particularly appreciate your emphasis the “honest and faithful” presentation of each participant, in an atmosphere of love, generosity, and humility.
    Indeed, we all need to cultivate the skills of listening, … truly listening, at least as much as we do speaking.
    The formal settings of “interfaith dialogue” is one opportunity for bi-directional communication, but without all the formality, it’s also what we do in day-by-day conversations and visits. I propose your useful encouragements are equally valid for all settings.
    I’d be curious about the sources of the criticisms, which you intended to counterbalance. Are these criticisms from within our Middle Eastern region, or from further abroad. Are these genuine accusations of compromising your faith?
    In all cases, I would heartily recommend that these critics go next door to their “other-thinking” neighbour, who ever and where ever, take time for a nice talk over tea, and seek to cultivate bi-directional communication.
    As in all other matters, we’d be well advised to follow the example of Christ. I’d propose we all reflect and study, how he communicated. I doubt we’ll find a better ideal to follow, not just in the message but also in the means.

    • Dear Robert,
      Thanks for your really helpful thoughts and comments…and for the encouragement for us all to visit our neighbours and engage in bi-dorecitonal communication.
      The sources of criticism come from various contexts, and I think from different perspectives. Some of them relate to specific concerns from within my local context and others from general conversations over the years both within my current MENA context and from the UK. However they are all genuine fears I have heard from people first hand within the last few months.
      As well as the ‘formal’ settings, I would like people to consider non-formal and informal [but intentional] contexts. For me it is the intentionality – the going next door – that is vital. Sometimes interfaith encounters that are very formal seem to stifle honest – and sometimes complex – communication, particularly when there is the pressure to ‘achieve’ something, or draft some kind of statement.
      Thanks again for reading the blog and commenting.

    • Hi Robert
      Nice to have interaction with you on line. How are you?
      I like your comment and moreover your question.
      I like Arthur’s honest and open answer to your question.
      Blessings

      Matthew

  4. Thank you for this article Mr Brown. A big problem I see is that sometimes people with missions depending on funds from the West to continue serving in our part of the world ( the Arab World) are using (or wanting to be seen using) interfaith activities to try and convert others and not dialogue with them. In fact, they see “dialogue” as simply a way to try to convert others, or that the time invested is only justified if it leads to conversions? Many will support a person or ministry if there are stories of converting or attempts at converting.
    It would also be good to have other perspectives, from outside Lebanon, bearing in mind what a relatively free country and complex religious mosaic our country is.

  5. Will remain anonymous please.
    For over a year now on I go on a weekly (or bi-weekly) visit in the heartland of Islam to bond, talk about God and spiritual matters and faith has been the highlight of my life. Indeed being an unapologetic follower of Issa has provided more opportunists than ever before to talk the talk , walk the talk and love the talk among prominent businessmen, and community leaders who gather together for the particular purpose of seeking to understand God better. Their turf, their rules, their country – and i have been grafted into this community because ( not in spite of ) I am a Nazarene Follower who Loves God🙂
    Just today, one of these Men ( a clan Sheikh) was having a cup of tea at my home and he wanted to understand why a Loving and Compassionate God would allow his son ( yes, he used that word without even flinching – when I had intentionally avoided using it during our yearlong discourse) ) to die .
    I can’t share much of the discourse , but it saddened me when looking at me in wonder he said: I never heard that before. You are the first person I ever heard say these words …

    SO blessed Evangelicals, what we fear most is what we should fear the least.

    • Blushes, thanks for your comment. It sounds like a fascinating context you are in. It’s encouraging to hear how you are involved in these types of discussion. I agree with you that fear can be paralysing, where as the type of contexts we are talking about can be really energising, exciting and influential.
      Salaam.

    • Dear Blushes,
      Thanks for your comments. I’d be curious how you use the word “Nazarene” in Arabic.
      There are some, who would make a case that the common use of “Nazarene”, as understood by the majority of people in our region, could mean something quite different than what you may intend.
      Just a thot and a question.

  6. Excellent perspective, Arthur. Keep pressing on, standing on the historic Christian Scriptures, with your assignment to have substantive dialogue with those of other (different) Faiths. I am praying for you, Martin, and the others. Byron Spradlin, USA

  7. Amen, brother – thank you for all the work that you and others do at IMES; it’s always an encouragement to hear what is on your hearts and what God is doing among and through you.

  8. The dialogue is not , by all means, liberalism. Some Evangelicals believe that all our relationships with others should be to evangelize. We miss the point of love of the other which requires understanding , communication and hospitality.
    Thanks Arthur for this clear theologically sound message.
    Antoine Haddad

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