In response to a question, I mentioned, among other things, that the second most important prophet in Islam is Jesus and that the Quran contains (in surah, or chapter, 3) an account of his virgin birth — in effect the Muslims’ Christmas story.
A man in the front row was incredulous. He had never heard about this and had difficulty squaring it with what he thought he knew about Islam.
So he had no idea that Mary has a whole chapter of the Quran named after her — No. 19. Or that Muslims regard Mary as a sign of hope and blessing for them.
Now, before we get all mushy about the Islamic view of Jesus, let’s remember that there also are significant differences between that and the Christian view. Islam does not consider Jesus divine. And because Muslims think it would be untoward for a prophet to suffer the ignominy of crucifixion, they do not believe Jesus was crucified. There are different Islamic scholarly interpretations of what happened to Jesus, but the result is the same — he didn’t really die on a cross.
What I concluded from my listener’s astonishment is that many Christians are not just theologically ignorant about Christianity — a sad truth I learned long ago — but many of us are in no position yet to engage in meaningful interfaith conversation because we are much too ignorant even to know where to begin such a discussion.
Some years ago, when the level of theological illiteracy in Presbyterian pews became clearer to me, I started teaching a class I called “Theology Even the Clergy Can Understand.” Eventually I devoted a whole week to a seminar by that name at Ghost Ranch. It was essentially a primer on the basics of Reformed Tradition theology.
But it’s apparent that we need to go beyond that in our increasingly pluralistic society. We need to find ways to grasp the basics of Islam, of Buddhism, of Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, Baha’ism and other religions that our neighbors practice.
One of the places to begin such an exploration is to seek out the stories and/or characters that our religions might share.
That could, with proper guidance, lead us to the Quran’s Christmas story, for instance. And surely it would lead us back to the texts in the Hebrew Scripture passages that we Christians consider to be prophecies about Jesus.
One of the questions we’d want to answer is how followers of Islam and Judaism understand the texts in question. If, for instance, Muslims don’t consider Jesus divine, what purpose is served by a story about his virgin birth? And if Jews don’t read those texts in the prophetic way Christians read them, which of course they don’t, what do they make of them?
The important thing about interfaith discussion done properly is that conversion is not the primary purpose. Rather, the idea is to know and to be known. Sometimes the ultimate result is that someone decides to change religious commitments, but if that were the goal at the start, everyone would be on the defensive and unable to learn much.
Spending a lot of time with people of another faith can convince you of your own ignorance and prejudices.
And that’s precisely what we need to do if the United States is going to respond to what I think it’s being called to do: Become a model for how people of different faith commitments can live together in harmony.
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http://billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected].