Six principles for meaningful interfaith dialogue

As long-time readers will know, we have regular meetings with our Muslim neighbours to discuss our respective faiths and beliefs. We currently do this on a monthly basis. But I thought it might be worth laying out five key principles that we operate on to help us as we talk together. These are things, if you are interested in setting up similar discussions in your locality, you could almost certainly emulate and use as the basis for shared conversations, discussion and debates.

So, in no particular order, here are some principles we employ:

No questions out of bounds

Ultimately, if we want our discussions to be real, we need to have a ‘no questions barred’ policy. If we really are going to understand what each other really believe, and we are going to meaningfully engage with one another, it only works if we are clear that people can ask whatever they want without fear of causing offence. Even hard, and potentially offensive questions – so long as people are not asking them in order to cause offense for its own sake – are all acceptable and on the table.

Respect does not mean agreement

We are very clear from the outset that there are things we disagree on. We all know this, which is ultimately why we are there. We want to be clear that we can disagree – maybe even sharply so and over very serious things – and yet still remain friends. The whole activity is built on this premise. It is possible to listen, to disagree, to ask probing questions, to be unconvinced or unpersuaded by answers, and yet still remain friends. In order to encourage this, we are always sure to eat together afterwards. It helps calm any tension that might have arisen but also acts as a genuine gesture of friendship – we want to extend hospitality and eat together even though we deeply disagree.

Each side controls their own guest list

By this, I mean that it is not appropriate for the Christians in the room to approach another Muslim they know and ask them to speak on behalf of the Muslims. Likewise, it is not appropriate for the Muslims to call a Christian they know and ask them to speak on behalf of the Christians. The reason – obvious though it may seem – is that we all know not every Christian or Muslim can claim to represent the views of those in the room. It is hard enough – as the pastor of a church – to represent the views of the Christians who come to my church on every topic even though we do definitely agree on so much. If we are going to invite outside speakers, they need to be people that the groups they are speaking for are happy to be represented by. It is no good inviting a liberal Catholic priest to represent the Christian view of my church, it simply won’t represent us at all. It is no good me inviting a Shia or Ahmaddiya Muslim to represent the views of the Pakistani folks we meet with. They wouldn’t adequately represent their views. For discussions to be valuable, each side needs to control their own guest list.

Be honest why you are there

A couple of times, we have expressly said that we would love it if all the Muslims in the room became Christians. We have also quickly followed up by saying that we’re sure all the Muslims would love it if the Christians turned to Islam. This usually finds a ripple of awkward laughter and then nods of agreement. Few people want to say it, but it is good to be honest – we all effectively want to convert each other! Once that is out in the open, we can get down to brass tacks and discuss whose religion (if either) is right. We can seek to persuade one another. Being direct and frank about this being what we want to do allows us to have more honest conversations. We’re not trying to hide the fact that we want them to convert. They’re not hiding that from us either. We can happily try and convert each other by seeking to persuade one another from our respective scriptures and with whatever evidences we have found personally compelling. This sort of honesty is rare in these discussions, but it necessarily makes them better.

Discuss what people are interested in

Our format is to have two talks: one from a Muslim perspective and one from a Christian perspective. We follow each with Q&A. Occasionally, we dispense with the talks altogether – or we say something incredibly short (2 minutes or so) just so people can hang whatever question they want to ask onto something.

Often, me and my Imam friend come up with a topic to discuss. Invariably, when we do that ourselves, the meetings are less good. The better meetings are always when one of our people has suggested a topic they’re interested in or there is no specific topic at all and we can just let people ask whatever they like. In other words, it is always best to talk about whatever the people are actually interested in talking about. Whatever mechanism you use to judge that and make it happen, try your level best to discuss what people want to know not whatever you have decided might be interesting for them to hear.

Discuss genuine differences

It might be nice to note some of our similarities and agreements from time to time. But the reality is, those things are not that interesting. If everyone in the room all agree that there is a Day of Judgement, there isn’t all that much to discuss. If everyone in the room believes Jesus is going to return, there’s not much to say. The whole point at issue is that we all know there are significant matters on which we disagree. So, rather than talk about points of agreement – Day of Judgement or Jesus’ return – better to focus on points of disagreement, like the grounds of judgement or what Jesus is returning to do. These are the matters at issue and they are where points of interest lie.