Christian ministry within a religiously plural America: the importance of Christian-Muslim relations within theological education.

Author:Grafton, David D.
 
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Sitting at a desk in Dakar, Senegal, after having spent the day with ELCA missionaries who live and work in a Muslim-majority country, Mark Thomsen reflected on why the ELCA has a presence in that country and what form of mission their witness takes.

Christian mission among Muslim people is carried out for the sake of reinterpreting for Muslims the Christian understanding of the gospel. As Christians we feel compelled to share that our Trinitarian language, in contrast to tritheism, is spoken in order to maintain our witness to the unity of God. Our incarnational language, rather than shirk (associating partners with God, for Muslims the greatest sin), affirms that Jesus is truly human and not some ethereal phantom or ghostly spear. Further, our incarnational language witnesses to our conviction that we have encountered the Word of God in the total person and mission of Jesus and not just in his prophetic message. (1) Almost thirty years later, we might reflect again on Christian witness to Muslims, this time not in the Sahel of West Africa, but in the environs of North America. Thomsen's interest in re-defining global mission for the ELCA back in the nineties is still an important project for a church that has latched onto an important but vague theological and missiological mantra as a "missional church." (2) In this article we would like to explore the impetus for such an encounter with Muslims not "over there" in some far-off place where the church can send missionaries who cross geographical and cultural boundaries but "here" in the midst of our own communities, congregations and families. It is not possible to undertake Christian ministry in North America today without recognition of, encounter with, and sensitivity to, a wider variety of non-Christian religious traditions; Islam being one of the most important. The 1980s and 1990s produced a handful of theologians and ecclesiastical leaders who were attentive to interfaith dialogue or encounter with a variety of different religious traditions "over there." However, the training of leaders today requires an approach to ministry that recognizes the reality of persons of other faiths not only in the communities in which we live, but the ministries in which we work, and the families to which we belong.

The 2010 U.S. presidential election highlighted the dramatic demographic changes within the United States, prompting many pundits to note with "concern" the growth of Latino voters, the Black caucus, and the rise of Arab-American blocs. Long before this election, however, Harvard Professor Diana Eck's research on the New Religious America brought to light the amazing ethnic and religious diversity already then fully present within the citizenry of the United States. (3) While it might be tempting to relegate the topic of religious pluralism to an elective course in seminary for those who are of like-minded interfaith specialists, the reality is that all of our ethnic and religious diversity is experienced within reach of a typical middle-class, Anglo Lutheran congregation. Others will certainly be more qualified to comment on the ministerial encounter with Buddhists, Hindus, or Jews in American settings; hence, we will limit ourself to the Christian-Muslim encounter.

Questions about Islam

A pastor walks into a church committee meeting and is handed a hard copy of an email chain by a member with the heading, Muslims demand shar'ia" and says, "Pastor we must do something!"

While innocently shaking hands with parishioners after a rather benign Sunday morning service, one member bluntly asks, "Pastor, is Allah the same as the God of Jesus Christ?"

In meeting an Imam from the mosque across town for the first time he asks flat out, "Please explain to me how the Trinity is nothing less than the worship of Three Gods?"

Each one of these scenarios was a real event. Many leaders in the church have certainly experienced similar encounters. Responses to these questions require some knowledge, skill, and sensitivity. They entail more than simply an arming of oneself with apologetic arguments or retreating into defensive retorts that smack of racism, ethnocentrism, or even hate speech. To be able to respond to the dramatically changing social and religious dynamics in our communities and families; rostered leaders, seminarians, and lay church leaders need to be able to witness to the loving crucified God "molded by humility, vulnerability, and servanthood," as Thomsen has said. (4)

When there is so much for a church leader to do, or for a seminarian to learn and experience, why take up their time with what for some may seem at best as an interesting hobby or elective topic, or at worst may be seen as a liberal agenda that demonstrates the abandonment of the universal claims of the gospel? There are three important aspects of why the study of Christian-Muslim relations is vital for ministry today: theological, sociological, and pastoral.

Theological

Islam is one of the major world religions to have appeared after Christianity. Because of this, Islam has posed particular theological problems for the church. As one prominent missionary among Muslims had agonized often, how could God allow a significant portion of the human community who had heard the name Jesus refuse to accept his salvific role and allow them to thrive? (5) This is complicated by the fact that the Qur'an does explicitly recognize Christians and has an important place for Jesus, albeit from within its own theological convictions. Christ's identity is based upon the "Prophetology" of the Islamic scriptural and theological tradition...

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