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Interfaith dialogue poses more difficulty than expected

4/9/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: For related coverage, see UMNS story #149. *McAnally retired Dec. 31 as director of United Methodist News Service.

By Tom McAnally*

OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS) -- Interfaith dialogue, particularly between Christians and Muslims following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is more difficult than imagined, according to members of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

Discussion of some of those difficulties was on the agenda of the 40-member commission as it met April 4-7 at a Catholic retreat center.

Exchanges between Muslims and Christians are taking place, but many Christians are challenged by the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation, according to the Rev. Bruce Robbins, staff executive of the New York-based agency.

Commission members were given materials representing differing theological positions, including a "Supremacy of Christ Packet." In one article, the Rev. Dean Gilliland, a United Methodist professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and a member of the unofficial Mission Society board, wrote, "Salvation, as Christians know it in Jesus, cannot be found in Islam. Islam is not a religion of faith in God (Allah) or fellowship with God, but of obedience to prescribed laws."

However, the Rev. Wesley Ariarajah, professor of ecumenical theology at United Methodist-related Drew University School of Theology in Madison, N.J., gave a contrasting view during the commission meeting. He led two Bible study sessions and appeared on a panel with the Rev. Leicester Longden on "Engaging the Other: Interreligious Dialogue in a Time of Crisis."

Longden, a United Methodist and a Canadian citizen, is associate professor of evangelism and discipleship at Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary. A third-generation Christian from Sri Lanka, Ariarajah worked for 10 years with the World Council of Churches where he led interfaith dialogues.

During their panel presentation, both men agreed that a crisis is not the best time to engage in interfaith dialogue. Nevertheless, Sept. 11 has promoted a new awareness and interest in interfaith relationships that would not have happened otherwise, they said.

"Interfaith dialogue is not an ambulance service," Ariarajah said. "It is a public health program."

Religious traditions have developed in isolation, and Christians are the least equipped to deal with the conflict and tensions inherent in interfaith dialogue, Ariarajah said. "If we don't understand our own faith and something of the faith of others, then we can't handle this crisis." Often, he said, the Christian's understanding of God, Christ and mission is at odds with relating to people of other faith.

"As Christians, we need to engage our neighbors of other faith because we believe the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," he said. "There is only one God. Nobody is outside God's love and protection.

"If interfaith dialogue doesn't begin with the acknowledgment that all people are under God's mercy and providence, and that God is the God of all nations and all creation, then we get in trouble," he said.

Longden called for a balance between a "pluralist" view that offers many pathways to God and a "particularist" view that calls for one to enter dialogue from a position of decisive commitment to one's faith.

"Pluralists tend to be known as those who see all worshipers responding to the transcendent," he said. "If the pluralist has already decided how differences are to be understood, then what is happening is not real dialogue. It is the silencing of the particular."

He called for dialogue that emphasizes a "relationship between persons, not just theological formulations." Categorizing Christians as exclusivists or inclusivists around the issue of the supremacy of Christ is a way to "target and dismiss people," he said.

"Different religious faiths face in different directions and ask different questions," he said. "There is a danger that we will turn other religions into echoes of our own." He warned against reducing religious claims to human self-understanding. While affirming that God can work outside Christianity, he said, "Christianity has its own specific role to play."

Ariarajah picked up on the topic again during a Bible study session the next day. "If the supremacy of Christ is our prerequisite for dialogue, there will be no conversation," he declared.

As a model for interfaith dialogue, he suggested looking at the New Testament story of Jesus' encounter with a Samaritan woman. By asking for a drink of water and having a conversation with the woman, Jesus broke the social, gender and religious barriers of the time, he said.

"Dialogue begins when somebody is willing to cross boundaries. … What then happens is a personal conversation in which Jesus reveals he knows about the woman's history and marital status and she asks why Jews say one can only worship in Jerusalem," Ariarajah said. He noted that Jesus answered by saying "the time is coming when you will worship neither here on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … God is spirit, and those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth."

Jesus changed the theological framework for the dialogue, according to Ariarajah. "He didn't say, 'I'm sorry, but you must worship in Jerusalem.' He didn't want to undermine the religion of this woman and say she was a victim of history. He found a new way of talking about worship. We must find a way by which we can acknowledge God as the God of all people."

While the woman had no idea Jesus was the Messiah, she was moved by the way he dealt with her, Ariarajah continued. "She was impressed that Jesus knew about her."

Invited to speak to a Hindu gathering, Ariarajah said he began by referring to their saints and scriptures. "The fact that I knew their faith impressed them," he said. "The Samaritan woman said of Jesus, 'He knows me.'"

In too many interfaith dialogues, Christians are quick to tell others about themselves, he said. "It is important that we know who others are. That, more than anything else, will open interfaith dialogue. I am more willing to dialogue with people who take the time to know me."

At the commission's previous meeting, a few weeks after Sept. 11, members met with Muslim leaders at an Islamic center in the Los Angeles area. Robbins said he hoped the momentum for stronger relations and regular contracts could continue, noting that he had been in conversation with people there since the commission meeting.

Resources to help with interfaith dialogue will be included in a packet being sent soon to all United Methodist pastors, according to Robbins.

In his report as top executive of the agency, he said he was "distraught" about the crisis in the Middle East and concerned that fragile Jewish-Christian relations are even more seriously damaged.

The commission's next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 26-29 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

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