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Much has been made recently about the comments of a professor from a North American evangelical university stressing the similarity between the faiths of Muslims and Christians. While the questions (and their responses) are not new, they revive passions that rattle the tension between the uniqueness of Christian revelation and the degree of inclusivity of that revelation. On his personal blog, Vinoth Ramachandra, Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, shares his thoughts on recent events at Wheaton College (Illinois, USA) and the much larger question of the relationship between Christianity and Islam. He provides an interesting example wherein the roles are reversed, explaining,
The Malaysian Church, in recent decades, was engaged in a prolonged legal battle with their Islamist-influenced government which prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the supreme God and creator. Church leaders received directives stating that several words of Arabic origin, including Allah, Nabi (prophet) and Al Kitab (Bible) were not to be used by non-Muslims as Arabic was the language of Muslims. Usage by Christians would sow the seeds of “confusion”. The import of Malay Bibles printed in Indonesia (which used Allah) was effectively banned.
Christians countered by pointing out that Allah was the common term used to refer to the supreme God long before Islam came into existence in North Africa. Arab Christians continue to worship God as Allah and Malay-speaking Christians have also been using Allah for centuries. Far from sowing “confusion”, it has facilitated communication and promoted mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.
Clearly this was more than a matter of official historical ignorance. Islamists fearful of the conversion of Muslims sought to deter the latter from reading the Bible by claiming that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. They have been successful. Christians lost the legal battle, with dire consequences for the future of social justice and religious harmony in Malaysia.
He continues in his post to sharply criticize Western Christians who rely upon lazy rhetoric to brush aside an entire world religion, with whom Christianity does share a significant lineage, on the basis of wider, cultural suspicions or political media fears, reminding that,
The actions of the Wheaton College authorities, like much of what is done in the U.S., reach a global audience. I can imagine how they will be seized upon by Islamists around the world as ammunition to deploy against Christians. And how betrayed Malaysian Christians must feel.
American Christians- especially those studying and working in colleges and universities- cannot remain complacent with theological, historical or political naiveté. Willful ignorance is inexcusable. Americans have ready access to a wide range of scholarly literature and the latest information technologies that the rest of us envy. They don’t have to watch Fox News or listen to the latest chauvinist or demagogue. Some of the finest biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers and historians are found in the American Church (sadly, it is not their works that are exported to the rest of the world).
Moreover, every American city is multi-cultural and multi-religious. You can meet Christians from all over the world, as well as thoughtful Muslims from every Muslim sect, Jews, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists. You can have your prejudices dispelled, your viewpoints and worldviews enlarged through such encounters and friendships.
If American Christians do not avail themselves of the resources and opportunities on their doorstep, they will remain culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and a deep source of embarrassment to the rest of the global Church.
Three quick thoughts from Ramachandra’s critique:
- How to increase the “export” of the finest of North American biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, and historians- is this a matter of educational institutions, publishing business practices, or other factors? I recall when I was living in East Africa that I could see American televangelists broadcast in syndication yet the library of the nearest theological university was woefully outdated.
- Given the presence of a wide diversity of cultural and religious adherents living in proximity to us, the church needs resources that will help to bridge these differences, both in fellowship and dialogue outside of the church. There is a tremendous opportunity to re-think our faith and practice when we are nudged to articulate our understanding to people who have had different experiences and commitments than we have had ourselves. (A useful book in encountering this process is Timothy Tennent’s Theology in the Context of World Christianity, or Soong-Chan Rah’s Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, for a more local application.)
- I would like to leave Ramachandra’s final sentence to stand on its own, as it is the most poignant of his entire post. I will only embellish his thought to remind us in North American, or any context, that if these are truly the markers of our churches- culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and embarrassing to the global Church, then there is something unhealthy that must be remedied, but this cannot occur unless we are able to evaluate ourselves with humility and grace.