Moving Beyond the Christian-Muslim Impasse

iStock_000008529485XSmallBy Paul Louis Metzger
Multnomah University Professor
New Wine Skins Ministry

Challenging Evangelical Assumptions

co-authored by Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead

Evangelicals face enormous challenges in the pluralistic public square in the 21st century, especially among Muslims. Suspicion and fear of Muslims exist in many quarters as a result of 9/11 and other radical Muslim acts of terror in places like Spain and London and some bad habits about how most of us absorb news. We firmly believe that radical Muslims do not represent the majority of Muslims in the West, who have repeatedly disavowed terrorism. Clearly, most Muslims in the U.S. seek to live out their Muslim faith in ways that affirm and resonate with American values.

Yet many evangelicals disagree. According to one study, “Nearly 6-in-10 white evangelical Protestants believe the values of Islam are at odds with American values, but majorities of Catholics, non-Christian religiously unaffiliated Americans, and religiously unaffiliated Americans disagree.” In what follows, we make two recommendations intended to challenge Evangelical assumptions and allow us to move beyond any Christian-Muslim impasse and promote greater understanding in the pursuit of peace.

First, we believe that the Evangelical encounter with Islam must not be driven primarily by fear or by a concern for orthodox doctrine (important as that is), but instead by orthopathy. Orthopathic theology refers to the emotional aspect of the Christian life, and while Evangelicals often put great emphasis on orthodoxy (sound doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice), we sadly neglect orthopathy as the driving force that flows from the command to love God and neighbor (Mk. 12:30-31).

Our colleague Terry Muck has described interreligious dialogue as “an expression of a fundamental emotion or attitude toward people who believe differently on the most important aspects of life.” If Evangelicals are to move beyond a suspicion and fear-based approach to Islam, we must come to love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves and rediscover a theology and practice of orthopathy that complements and supports biblical orthodoxy.

We have sought to engage various religious traditions in this way personally and professionally for many years.  Paul’s book, Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths, and John’s edited volume, Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega, exemplify this quest. Paul’s volume presents a sympathetic and fair portrait of the views of other religious traditions and gives representative figures of these traditions the last word. John’s collection brings together representatives from two warring religious groups, hostile to one another for a very long time, into a dialogue without compromise.

Our work with the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy through its Evangelical Chapter also provides significant opportunities for meaningful engagement. Without eroding our convictions, we learn to approach adherents of the traditions no longer as the “other” but as friends. A desire for greater understanding has led to greater affection for these neighbors of other spiritual paths. As a result, we have come to see them, including Muslims, as they would like to be understood, and they have come to a better understanding of our biblically framed Evangelical faith.

Second, in keeping with the desire to love our religiously diverse neighbors, we recommend exposing ourselves to a variety of resources for better understanding between Evangelical Christians and American Muslims. For example, we can draw from our respective Muslim and Christian religions scriptural resources that can lead us to value people of other perspectives and ways of life. We can all point to various texts and historical events that put the other group in a negative light. We need to go in search of texts and interpretations of texts that affirm one another’s humanity, seeking first and foremost common ground before we focus on what distinguishes us.  A hermeneutic of suspicion must give way to a biblical hermeneutic framed by the love of God. You’ll find a more positive biblical model in John’s article about an Evangelical approach to interreligious dialogue that weaves together the way of Christ, love for our neighbor, and the art of hospitality.

Similarly, we need to account for a wide diversity of news sources here and abroad, not limiting ourselves to our preferred programs and publications. For example, if you watch Fox News, then watch CNN, too. If you read World Magazine, read Religion Dispatches, too. We also need to become well-versed in what those from diverse traditions read and watch. Such familiarity will only serve to enhance our communication as we dialogue and respectfully debate how best to live together as Muslims and Christians, along with other groups, in America today. Our interest in what they read and watch as well as taking the time to learn to communicate more effectively with them will demonstrate our care for them and cultivate greater mutual understanding.

We would never have opened ourselves up to becoming more knowledgeable of other paths if we did not care for them. More problematic than ignorance is a hardness of heart. Without a desire to understand, we Evangelicals will never be willing to challenge our own assumptions and challenge diverse religious others’ assumptions of us.

This point came home once again to Paul, when the President of a local mosque told his world religions class recently that his movement had the hardest time engaging the Evangelical community: whereas liberal Christians accept them, Evangelicals are generally unwilling to change their preconceived, negative ideas about Muslims.

While it is important to hold firmly to biblical orthodoxy, it is also important to hold to biblical orthopathy. Why should we expect that Muslims along with others would ever take to heart what we have to say if we don’t take them to heart?  A change in their negative perceptions toward us will likely not occur unless we are willing to change our preconceived assumptions about them. By asking God first and foremost to change our hearts, we Evangelical Christians will be in a much better position to see Muslims for who they truly are rather than what we in fear make them out be.

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