Islam: The other who can teach us

If we are open and humble in our engagement with Islam, then God will teach us, says the Rev. David Marshall. And one of the lessons is how to be better Christians.

Updated: David Marshall is the director of the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies, Jack and Barbara Bovender Associate Professor of Anglican Episcopal Studies and Ministry and associate research professor of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at Duke Divinity School.

The Rev. David Marshall was chaplain at Lambeth Palace from 2000 to 2005, serving both the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and his predecessor, George Carey. As chaplain, Marshall brought to the post an expertise in Christian-Muslim dialogue and helped organize and launch the Archbishop’s Building Bridges Seminar, an annual gathering of Christian and Muslim religious scholars. He continues to serve as the seminar’s academic director, is a research fellow at the Berkley Center at Georgetown University and lives in the Lake District in Northern England.

David MarshallHe visited Duke Divinity School in October 2009 to deliver a lecture for the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies and was a guest speaker in a class taught by Imam Abdullah Antepli, Duke’s Muslim chaplain. He spoke with Faith & Leadership about Islam, Christian-Muslim relations and the value of interfaith dialogue.

Q: How did you become interested in Islam and Christian/Muslim relations?

When I was an undergraduate in theology at Oxford University in the early ’80s, the curriculum was focused on traditional Christian theology. But during a vacation, I watched a television program about the Muslim community in Britain and realized that I knew nothing about it and that if I was going to be an ordained minister then I needed to. So I arranged to do a course on Islam, and it was fascinating. It opened up a whole world that I didn’t know about. It was interesting as an academic subject but it was also challenging and fruitful for me as a Christian, perhaps more than any other course because it prompted me to think harder about my own faith.

Q: What are the three virtues you’ve articulated for Christians engaged in Christian/Muslim dialogue?

The first is intelligence -- an intelligent, sympathetic openness to who Muslims actually are rather than living off the stereotypes. Don’t just hear about Islam from a Christian. Learn about Islam from Muslims. Read Muslim books, magazines and websites but also speak to Muslims, make Muslim friends. Most Muslims will be very willing to tell you about their beliefs.

Having a sympathetic intelligence involves a willingness to be confused. If you open yourself up to a sympathetic, intelligent understanding of Islam, you will be exposed to its complexity -- this Muslim believes this, and this Muslim believes that, and they don’t believe the same thing as the textbooks say they should. You're not in for an easy ride. An intelligent understanding may be a more troubled understanding, a more complex understanding, but one of the things church leaders owe to their people is a willingness to challenge simple stereotypical views.

The second virtue is humility. If we are perceptive, we can notice a theme throughout Scripture calling us to be open to what God might have to teach us through those beyond our faith community. Stories of Jesus and the Samaritan, stories like Jonah, there are these and other accounts in which it's the outsider, the apparent unbeliever beyond the covenant community, who is more attuned to God than the person within the faith community. This strand warns us against thinking that because we’re in the faith community we've got it all sorted out and they have nothing to teach us.

God is free to act through others. God wants to teach us through others. If we have a basic openness and humility in our engagement with the other, then God will teach us. And one of the things God will teach us through the encounter with Muslims is how to be better Christians. For me, it's not about wanting to become a quasi-Muslim Christian. I'm not drawn to become a Muslim, but an encounter with Muslims draws my attention to virtues and practices that may be underemphasized in contemporary Christianity, which Muslims take seriously and which we don’t, and it prompts me to think harder. It's unsettling. It challenges my complacency.

And then thirdly, confidence -- confidence that as we learn about Islam, we can remain convinced of the truth of the Christian faith and indeed be led deeper into it. We need to be ready to give an account of our faith, and the encounter with Islam challenges us to do that. It challenges us to think harder about our faith. For example, it challenges us to think why we believe in the Trinity, which many Christians struggle to give an account of. Or again, Muslims believe that in order to forgive us, God can just forgive us. Muslims can't understand the need for a cross, the need for atonement. To the Muslim mind it's a bizarre, frankly unacceptable idea. The cross is clearly a key part of the Christian faith, but if you’ve only operated within a Christian context, you perhaps take it for granted.

Can you imagine you’ve never heard this message? It is not at all self-evident that a man dying on a cross is the place you go to find the love of God. St. Paul said people regarded it as foolishness, weakness, stupidity. Why should we go there to find the love of God? It's a very unsettling question. Engagement with Islam shakes me back into a fresh appreciation of the core Christian convictions. It blows the dust off and helps me see them afresh, hopefully with a humble confidence that allows me to speak about them with my fellow Christians and also with Muslims.

Q: You have said that Christian/Muslim dialogue is about much more than theological differences. Could you elaborate on that?

The dialogue between Christians and Muslims goes on before anybody starts talking. Wherever Christians and Muslims meet each other as neighbors or friends or whatever, they will be learning about each other’s faiths simply by observing each other’s lives and priorities, the way they treat people. There is also spiritual dialogue -- discussion of each other’s spiritual experience, experience in prayer, people’s actual spiritual practices. And then there's theological dialogue, the kind that I've worked with in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Building Bridges process. There is also grassroots dialogue, which is what the Christian/Muslim Forum in England is about, identifying issues on the ground, the tension points that Christians and Muslims need to address, and also the opportunities for cooperation for the common good.

Q: What are the tension points?

One of the most sensitive is conversion. If somebody converts from one community to the other, it can be quite damaging to the relationships between the communities. The Christian/Muslim Forum recently produced a document that provides some guidance for both communities. It takes for granted that Christians and Muslims naturally want to share their faith. It says this is normal for both, so let’s talk about how we can each be faithful to this sense of missionary obligation but in a way that doesn’t disrespect the other community and that doesn’t endanger our relationship. That’s a good example of how dialogue can address an actual issue that can be a source of tension.

Q: Is a pluralistic, relativistic theology a requirement for interfaith dialogue?

There has been a tendency sometimes to think that if you want to engage somebody of another faith, then you have to distance yourself from some of the distinctive Christian doctrines. But regarding the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, he’s not going to stop believing in the Trinity in order to facilitate interfaith dialogue. As [Duke chaplain Imam Abdullah Antepli] said, Muslims are baffled when they are in dialogue with Christians and find that many can't give a coherent account of their Christian beliefs.

Having an intelligent, well-informed and fundamentally traditional account of the Christian faith is not an obstacle to dialogue and in fact is probably better respected and understood by Muslims.

Q: What's your assessment of the state of Christian/Muslim relations in Great Britain, the U.S. and the world?

The relationship is different in different places. One of the key differences between the situation in Britain and the States is the kind of Muslim communities we have. We have an increasingly diverse Muslim community in Britain, but about two-thirds of British Muslims have family roots in the Indian subcontinent, and they come largely from rural communities with low levels of education and traditional expectations of the role of women. So it’s understandable that it has proved difficult for them to enter into the mainstream of British society, and they tend to remain relatively un-integrated with high levels of unemployment, ill health, crime and other negative socioeconomic indicators.

In the States, as I understand it, a far higher proportion of Muslims are highly educated professional people for whom it is much easier to enter into academic and professional life and to integrate.

Q: Tell us about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Building Bridges seminars and what it has been trying to achieve.

It has an unapologetically academic focus. It draws together senior scholars, Christian theologians and Muslim theologians, religious scholars across the world, and the aim is to promote intelligent conversation, and to learn more about each other’s faith, to inform and challenge their own teaching, to develop friendships and a sense of community, which in turn generates other alliances.

We understand that our approach with Building Bridges isn’t going to change anything tomorrow. At the end of our conferences we don’t say, “Great. Let’s go out and do X, Y and Z to solve all the tensions between Christians and Muslims.” We engage in serious discussion, ask questions about each other’s texts and traditions, and that challenges and encourages us to understand each other better. Against the backdrop of huge ignorance, that surely doesn’t need much justification.

Q: In your work for the Archbishop, you saw firsthand how issues of Christian/Muslim relations intersect often vividly with other issues. How do these issues all bump up against each other?

Clearly, Christian leaders need to have a sense of the world church and keep informed about what is happening around the world. There's a principle in Christian/Muslim relations that you need to prevent bad stuff that might be happening somewhere else from poisoning what might be reasonably good relationships here. There's a tendency sometimes to want to blame Muslims in our town for what's happening in Indonesia or Pakistan or wherever. As if Muslims throughout the world are a monolithic, interconnected organization, which is totally unrealistic and unfair. We know that’s not the case with Christians, but we somehow think that’s what's going on with Muslims. Equally, of course, Christian minorities in the Muslim world can be very vulnerable when they are viewed as somehow responsible for the policies of the Western world.

You need to have a complex sense of the many different expressions of Islam. There are very different types of Islamic belief, and it’s important not to assume that they’re all out to get Christians.

Q: Why do so many people start from that premise?

There is a visceral fear of Islam in our culture. It goes back very deeply in Europe, and it is very difficult to eradicate. Conversely, there are also similar deep-rooted fears and resentments among many Muslims towards Western Christianity, and these are being strongly reinforced at present.

Q: How do you change that, especially considering what you have pointed out is a long and difficult legacy in Christian/Muslim relations?

You start with education. The Christian/Muslim Forum in England, for example, brings together Christian and Muslim teenagers, hoping they’ll get to know each other, become friends and understand each other’s cultures, and hopefully not be so vulnerable to that historical legacy.

There's a fear amongst some Christians, this myth or fear of Islamic takeover. There are a small minority of Muslims who do have that militant, supremacist understanding. You can certainly find enough on the Internet to justify that fear. But if you actually get to know Muslims in Birmingham, London or wherever, very few are interested in that kind of approach. So just getting to know people seems a sound starting point.

Q: When you look at the state of Christian/Muslim relations today, what gives you hope?

More people are becoming better informed. More Christians at all stages of life are coming forward. Many more study Islam than 20 years ago. They are studying for doctorates and becoming well-qualified so they can help the church develop a more intelligent, well-informed, humble and confident engagement with Islam. There have also been a number of developments on the Muslim side that indicate that dialogue with Christians is becoming a greater priority.