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Christianity and Islam: Shifting Starting Points

I’ve just started taking a very timely course on Jesus and the Bible in Islam at the seminary in Philadelphia. As you know, I’m on the home stretch of my seminary career: only 108 days till graduation! Even so, this course is encouraging reflection on really important issues within our world, culture, and tradition. The intersection of the East and the West was a hot topic in Luther’s day, in the 19th century British imperial aspirations, in the cold war conflicts, and now in our own day with the much politicized and polemicized conflicts between Christians and Muslims. So, there is little new under the sun. But how we approach the questions at hand is incredibly important. How we portray the religion, scripture, and beliefs of another group is important. How we portray our own religious and political commitments is also important to how the debate might unfold. I wanted to share one insight with you from my class last night. We typically think of Christianity and Islam like this: Jesus was a religious/prophetic figure … Muhammed was a religious/prophetic figure. So, they are comparable. The Bible contains both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures … the Koran is a compilation of the Muslim scriptures. So, they are comparable. On the same page? I was too, until last night. My professor (an expert in Arabic, Islam, Interfaith Dialogue) pointed out, that in reality, that is pretty much the completely wrong way to think about things. In fact, the Bible, for us, is much more comparable to the role of Muhammed, in Islam. For us, as Christians in the Lutheran tradition, we confess that the scripture “bears witness to the living Word: Christ.” For Muslims, Muhammed bore witness, and, in fact, was the direct mouthpiece of the living God. and… Christ is more comparable to the Koran itself. For us, Christ is the living word of God, the very revelation of God made flesh. In the words of Colossians, “Christ is the image of the invisible God.” For Muslims, the Koran is itself the direct revelation of the ineffable God. God’s speech to humanity. A direct, and incorruptible speech from God. so, the diagram looks more like this: Jesus Christ The Koran The Bible Muhammed Now, that might be a lot to take in. It was for me. However, it gives us a fresh perspective on things, doesn’t it? It doesn’t answer questions or solve issues immediately, but it does reorient us to different starting points. Isn’t it a perennial truth that we sometimes uncritically import our own preconceptions and experience and understandings into dialogue with others? We have a tendency to just presume x=x and y=y, when in fact, x=y and y=x. Or better yet y + x= something new and broad and life changing. And, my friends, this isn’t just academic mumbo jumbo or a shell game. It has an impact on the way we see our own faith, our commitments, our families, and our mission as a congregation here at St. Stephen's. In what ways are our preconceived ideas holding us captive to old ways of thinking and being church? What if we reframe the conversation from the starting point of money…budgets…buildings…programs…growth to a different trajectory: Christ…story…engagement…relationship…story…transformation? You see, it could really make all the difference! Let keep this conversation going. What are your thoughts? --Douglas Barclay

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