By Arthur Brown
IMES is intentionally involved in a range of interfaith activities. Within Lebanon, this usually involves bringing together Evangelical Christians with both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in a variety of contexts. One such context is our annual Middle East Consultation, where during specific evening forums we invite well respected Muslim clerics and scholars to bring a different perspective to the particular theme we are discussing that year. Furthermore, within the last month, I helped lead an interfaith youth event involving six Sunni Muslims and six Evangelical Christians. Finally, I also recently attended the Doha International Conference on Interfaith Dialogue, which involved over 200 Christians, Muslims and Jews discussing interfaith initiatives among young people. Needless to say, it has been a busy but inspiring month.
However, I have also heard in this past month a number of comments questioning the wisdom and rational behind such activities, primarily it must be said from Evangelical Christians. It seems that many people are nervous about participating in any form of what might be called an ‘intentional interfaith activity’. The issue seems to be the ‘intentional’ discussion of faith, for within the Lebanese context it is more or less impossible not to have any interaction with those from a different faith background. Within this post I therefore want to address some of these specific concerns, as I understand them.
Accusations of liberalism…
Simply by being willing to talk honestly and intentionally about my faith, and listen to others talk honestly and intentionally about their [different] faith, does not make me theologically liberal [whatever that actually means!]. Since when did listening to someone with a different view require the ‘watering down’ of your own view? A humble willingness to listen, yes, but a watering down of your own faith, surely not! Maybe the fear is that some will be labeled as ‘liberal’ for simply participating in dialogue activities. I understand this fear, if interfaith dialogue is simply about trying to find some kind of mutually acceptable theological ‘middle ground,’ where we can all agree on matters of doctrine and practice, have a cup of tea together, and return home filled with warm fuzzy feelings. Unfortunately, and with some warrant it must be said, this has often been how interfaith dialogue has been perceived – an attempt to find the [lowest!] common denominator.
However, when dialogue is with people who are serious about their faith, even the religiously conservative, having the opportunity to share about how their faith inspires them towards the worship of God, love for others and the betterment of their communities is something we should all be seeking. I, for one, would much rather be at an interfaith activity with ‘conservative’ followers of different faiths who are willing and able, and with respect, to talk about their own beliefs and practices and learn from those of a different religious tradition.
What is there to be fearful of?
But it’s all too confusing…
Another fear I have heard recently, particularly when talking about young people [and those young in their faith] participating in intentional interfaith activities, is that it will confuse them. The fear is that by participating the young person’s faith will be damaged in some way. Again, this may be true if the purpose of any such interfaith activity is to either seek converts or to win a theological argument. It is also true that many teenagers still hold to a form of ‘inherited faith’ and have yet to ‘own’ their own theological beliefs and assertions.
For such young people, the prospect of ‘defending their faith against a would be challenger’ would understandably be threatening. This may be rooted in the fear that ‘other’ young people may know more about both their own faith, and the faith of ‘their adversary’. These concerns would likely also be held by parents and the young person’s religious youth leader. However, if interfaith activity becomes about sharing how your own faith inspires you to live in God honoring ways, and at the same time allows you to listen to others sharing about how their faith inspires them in the same way, then perhaps there is less to fear. The theologian Miroslav Volf suggests that,
One of the defining challenges of our time is to find workable ways for Christians and Muslims to be true to their convictions about God and God’s commands, while living peacefully and constructively together under the same political roof. 
Ahmed, a young Muslim involved in the pilot of The Feast, an interfaith initiative in which IMES and World Vision Lebanon are currently involved, further makes the point that,
Most conflicts arise from stereotyping, a lack of knowledge and miscommunication. When people communicate, they discover that they are all humans, that they seek for safety, health and they share an ambition for better life conditions. Dialogue promotes tolerance on the basis that we all respect our different paths to worship God, without having to eradicate one another or force one of us to look like the other.
But it’s not evangelism…
The final concern I want to address here is that interfaith activities should not be used for the purpose of evangelism. These are not appropriate moments for aggressive proselytization, for doing so often creates an environment of suspicion and division rather than trust. However, surely the way we speak to people of other faiths about our own faith has the potential to be a positive [or negative] witness. How we talk about our faith, and the faith of others, is as much a part of our witness as is what we say about our faith. In any such intentional interfaith activity we are essentially being given permission to model Christ to those who may not know him. These opportunities also tend to be with people who are more likely to be interested in Him, and in hearing about our experience of Him.
What an amazing opportunity!
Kenneth Leech suggests that,
Only a theology which is marked by the spirit of adventure, the urge to discovery and the practice of pilgrimage, rather than one which is static and propositional, can respond to people in transition and upheaval. 
It is clear that the MENA region is in a time of transition and upheaval, as is its church. If the church in the MENA region is going to be the missional church we are called to be, surely there is a need to explore how we intentionally engage with those from other faith traditions, within any possible setting. So the question then becomes: How will we witness to those of other faiths in ways that demonstrate the character of the hospitable and welcoming Christ, within an intentional interfaith setting?
 Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p.13-14.
 Kenneth Leech, Doing Theology in Altab Ali Park (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2006) p.25.