Highlighting differences for the sake of the gospel

One of the interesting things that crops up whenever you speak about interfaith dialogue is the fear that people have that things will descend into unproductive, nasty arguments. There can be a tendency to want to focus on what we all have in common – and let’s not pretend there aren’t things in common – to the detriment of the clear and obvious things on which we disagree. It is patronising to suggest that we all think the same things really when, if that were true, my church would all be worshipping down the mosque or our Muslim neighbours would all be in my church. That this isn’t happening in either direction shows the comment to be as assinine as it sounds.

Instead, we do much better when we recognise there are real and significant differences between us. We can’t simultaneously affirm that Jesus Christ is God incarnate and that he is not. We cannot simultaneously hold there is no God but Allah whilst worshipping Yahweh. We can’t believe Mohammad is both God’s final prophet and a false prophet. These things are mutually exclusive.

For that reason, we like to be upfront about our differences. We like to talk about why we don’t go to the mosque and our Muslim friends don’t come to church. We like to talk about why we think Jesus is the Son of God and why they don’t. We like to talk about our view of Mohammad’s claim to be a prophet and their more charitable view towards him. We talk about them because these things matter and they are no minor difference.

But I was also talking to somebody yesterday about these things. Not the specific theological questions, more about interfaith dialogue in general. One point they made – and I don’t disagree with them at all – was that these things become a problem when disagreement becomes a matter of fighting and argument. On that, we were of one mind.

But the point I made in return is that many people insist on speaking only about commonalities and, frankly, trivialities of agreement in a bid to avoid that. But doing that renders the discussion largely pointless because, at the end of the day, we all believe what we believe because we believe it is true, it is right and it has implications. That is true for us as Christians and it is true for my Muslim friends too. None of us believe what we are convinced is wrong, that is perverse. Everybody wants to believe what is true, and we all hold to the things that we think are true. If the things we think are true, it serves nobody to pretend that what they (in our estimation) wrongly believe is really true when, in fact, we firmly believe – or dare to even claim that we know – it isn’t.

So I am never offended when people come to share with me about their views on salvation. These things are important and have eternal consequences. I appreciate when people are willing to share these things with me because they are trying to persuade me of what they believe to be true. If I really love my neighbour, isn’t that what I’d want to do for them? That is all my Muslim friends are doing when they share their understanding of pleasing Allah with me and it is what I am doing with them when I share the gospel. We are both saying that we love one another, we want each other to come to know the truth and we are sharing truths that have the most serious implications in the hope the ones we love will come to accept them.

In the end, we can’t both be right. We are either both wrong or one of us is right. But we aren’t ever going to know which, if either of us, it is if we can’t speak about those differences. If we can’t try to persuade each other, nobody will ever be persuaded. One of us (at least) will forever be left in our wrongness. And we can hardly say we love someone and consider them our neighbour if we’re happy for that to happen knowing the ensuing consequences (as we understand them) if we do.

I have stood up on more than one occasion in our Muslim-Christian dialogues and told them that we would love it if all the Muslims in the room converted to Christianity. Why pretend otherwise? But I immediately went on to say, I am fairly sure that all the Muslims in the room would love it if we all converted to Islam too. They agreed. We all knew what we were there to do – we were there to discern what is true – and believing that we were the ones with the truth, we wanted to persuade our friends, whom we dearly love, of the truth we have come to believe.

Pretending we’re doing anything else is deceptive. If we are actually doing anything else, it is also unkind. We aren’t there to affirm things we don’t really believe. We are all there to help others grasp what is true and we can only do that when we embrace our differences, as friends, and loving seek to show each other why we are convinced our respective scriptures are true.