The purpose of IMES’ Middle East Consultation (MEC) is to equip participants to respond in prophetic and Christ-like ways to the many challenges facing Christians and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East. For its part, MEC 2018 – Jesus Christ and the Religious Other: Toward a Biblical Understanding of Islam took on the challenge of religious diversity, a fact of life in the 21st century. Be it the result of historical precedent or technological advancement, immigration or proselytization, religious diversity can be as disorienting for some as it is enriching for others.
The Challenges of Religious Diversity
We began MEC 2018, therefore, by exploring the challenges posed by the religious other, particularly within the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) context. We highlighted those problems for which we sought solutions in the remaining sessions. For example, how is the committed follower of Christ to make sense of and respond to the non-Christian religions we encounter? Importantly, how does our understanding of religion and religious phenomena impact our proactive Christian witness?
Richard McCallum, of the Oxford Center for Muslim-Christian Studies and our own Master of Religion program, gave us an overview of our pluralised, globalised world to set the scene for later sessions, asking: What is our mission? What sorts of societies do we expect to be part of? How do we respond to religious competition? For his part, ABTS Chief Academic Officer Martin Accad further elaborated on the central themes of MEC 2018, particularly the governing hypothesis that: ‘Your view of Islam will affect your attitude to Muslims. Your attitude will, in turn, influence your approach to Christian-Muslim interaction, and that approach will affect the ultimate outcome of your presence as a witness among Muslims’. To what extent, therefore, does our ‘theology of Islam’ impact our attitude, approach, and ultimately the outcome of our witness?
Toward a Biblical Understanding
In light of the challenges raised during the morning sessions, we found ourselves turning to the text – to the witness of scripture and to the great women and men of faith upon whose shoulders we stand – for guidance. What are we able to discern within the pages scripture when read in reference to the religious other? How do we understand scripture in light of the manifestly diverse Ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic contexts within which scripture was revealed? In searching “the BOOK,” we worked toward discerning a Biblically grounded theology of religion to constructively inform the Church in its thinking, attitude, and approach to ministry in and beyond the MENA.
Havilah Dharamraj, of the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies, explored with us the story of Hagar. Between episodes as weighty (and iconic) as Abraham’s call to leave Mesopotamia, the sealing of the covenant, the rite of circumcision, the Three Visitors, and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, all of which concern themselves with the making of the people of Israel, is the story of an Egyptian female slave, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael. Why would her story be interpolated into the narrative of the father of the Israelite nation? We came to the conclusion that this narrative is essential in understanding how the God revealed in the Old Testament relates to the Religious Other. Anton Deik, from the Bethlehem Bible College, looked to the book of Acts to explore what the apostolic kerygma, or proclamation, looks like when engaging with the religious other, particularly in relation to Paul’s interaction with the Athenian context. ABTS’ Karen Shaw asked whether there was a contradiction between Paul’s words and his actions regarding the religious other, concluding that we are each a sinner before the holy God in need of His grace. Finally, Ida Glaser explored the opening chapters of Genesis and what they say, or don’t say, in light of the deeply religious worldview of the Ancient Near East. In doing so, she helped give us a framework for thinking about fundamental aspects of religious humanity in this fallen world.
Thinking Theologically About the Religious Other
This session looked specifically at what Christian theology might teach us with regard to the religious other. However, this was not a session focused so much on the traditional categories or paradigms that have become associated with the theological sub-field known as the “Theology of Religions” so much as it was a “Theologically Proper” study of God’s nature and work within the culturally and religiously diverse world of the MENA. And, what impact does our understanding of God, His nature and work, have on our interactions with the religious other?
ABTS’ Mike Kuhn explored Early Christian Responses to Islam, particularly in relation to the question of God’s unity or oneness and how Christians in the East attempted to portray their understanding of the Trinity in the context of Islamic monotheism. Imad Shehadeh, founder and president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, took another look at the question of whether Muslims and Christians have the same God. While etymologically there seems to be little doubt of the connection, he proposed to us an alternative approach to this very important question.
Looking at Religion and Society
Within this session we switched from the normative/theological to the phenomenological/descriptive as we were prompted to LOOK back up from texts of scripture toward the world we inhabit as followers of Christ Jesus. Seeking the expertise of scholars of religion and sociologists to assist us we asked: When looking at the topic of religion and society, what do we see? What do we observe in the interaction between Christian and non-Christian traditions? What is the very nature of religion itself, our own as well as the other? How might this impact our understanding of other religions and our response as the Church? Finally, is ‘religion’ even a useful descriptor for non-Christian or perhaps even non-European worldviews and practices?
Ekram Lamie Hennawie, of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, explored religion and society in Egypt. He was followed by Richard McCallum who implored us to see the great benefit of the social sciences, often seen by Christians as a threat, in our thinking about other religions. He looked at the questions: Why do religions exist? What role do they play in societies? How can we use social science methods to help us in our mission?
More than Words: Ritual, Pop-Culture and ‘Orthopathy’
Given the cognitive, textual and historical nature of many faith traditions, the comparative analysis of literature functions as a supremely important method in the task of comparative religion or comparative theology. However, it must also be recognized that much of an individual or community’s religious/spiritual life exists beyond the realm of cognitive belief and beyond the pages of a literary text. Within this session, therefore, we began with the assistance of Havilah Dharamraj and Karen Shaw to LOOK beyond the BOOK, exploring alternative approaches to comparative religion/theology, e.g. art and popular culture. In addition, it was asked how we might move beyond not just orthodoxy but also orthopraxy to consider the importance of fostering a proper Christ-like emotional response, referred to as ‘orthopathy’, in our encounters with the religious other? We were encouraged to engage in self-examination regarding the emotions which motivate our mission and the emotions elicited by our approach to mission, particularly in the emotionally-charged environment of encountering people of other religions.
Encountering the Religious Other: Lessons from the Global Church
Within this facilitated panel conversation, we sought lessons from the global church in its encounters with non-Christian – as well as non-Islamic – traditions and worldviews. As such, we heard from those experienced with Traditional African Spirituality, Judaism, Hinduism, and what might be referred to as ‘Scientism’, exploring what the MENA church might learn from the global church in its interactions with and witness among the religious – or secular – other.
Within this session we ‘crossed the divide’, so to speak, to LOOK specifically at Islam and Muslims as the religious other. Taking a cue from the field of comparative theology, we asked: to what extent might the particularities of a specific tradition (doctrines, practices, liturgies, pillars, historical development, etc.) impact our view of religion and the religious other, explicitly in reference to Islam and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East and North Africa? For example, does a knowledge of Islamic origins, the Quran, hadith, foundational narrative, jurisprudence, and/or evolution of Islam as a faith tradition impact our understanding of Muslims and Muslim communities? Furthermore, how do we understand Islam in light of the Bible? And, how might we understand the Bible in light of Islam? Can we even speak of ‘Islam’, or must we speak of ‘Islams’?
Martin Accad considered various scenarios of Islamic origins, their impact on our understanding of Muhammad, the Qur’an and Muslims, and Implications for Ministry. Imad Shehadeh, on the other hand, explored the historical debates within Islam regarding the absolute oneness of God and the eternal nature of God’s attributes. Ida Glaser then pointed us to a double question for biblical thinkers in Islamic contexts: how might we view Islam in the light of the Bible, and how should we read the Bible in Islamic contexts? We reflected on what we have heard in the conference so far and were offered a model of how we might interpret the Bible in Islamic contexts together with a key analogy which opens up similarities and differences between biblical and qur’anic worldviews, in reference to Exodus 19-40 and Luke 9, as well as Hagar-Ishmael allegory of Galatians 4.
Christian Witness in MENA Contexts
Having examined the critical challenges of Islam, religious diversity and Christian witness in light of scripture and the study of religion, this session explored missiological insights and implications for the regional church. What lessons can we TAKE from the consultation back to our home and ministry contexts? Ekram Lamie Hennawie explored two approaches to understanding Islam, Monologue and Dialogue, making a case for which version is most appropriate and fruitful for the Church in its interactions with Islam and Muslims. Finally, ABTS’ Wes Watkins explored what he refers to as ‘Adaptive Missiology’ in our interactions with the MENA context, drawing insights from post-colonial studies, cultural anthropology, and recent challenges to the definition of religion.
Toward a Biblical Understanding of Islam
This final panel session allowed us to gather together for one final discussion related to the core themes of MEC 2018 and work toward discerning a Biblically grounded theology of Islam which takes seriously authentic Muslims voices, Islamic traditions and worldviews, as well as the contemporary realities of Muslims and Christian-Muslim engagement as observed throughout the week. Some interesting observations coming out of this session include the following:
At the heart of all these conversations is The Gospel: it is what God did, not what we know better than others, or anything that we have done. Christ is forgiving with the rejects of society, but with the religious leaders who he viewed as hypocritical, he was harsh. We need to look for the seeds of the Pharisees in us, which lead to extremism (same seeds that lead to terrorism). The Gospel keeps us humble and united. United in fallenness; saved by Grace. We need ongoing “gospelization.”
We all share the same human condition of fallenness. But we also all share the longing to see God and to know God. It is the longing of the human heart. Each one of us has our own mirror, through which we each try hard to see the “wholly other.” It is hardly fair for us to be unsympathetic of the other, because all of us see through a mirror. If we see God a little better than somebody else, it is only because of Grace.
Religion in Practice
In addition to the above sessions, we also explored how our understanding and experiences of religion and the religious other impact the manner by which we engage in Christian ministry, exploring this in reference to evangelism and discipleship, community development, peace-building, and different ethical understandings of what it means to be Christian. In addition to local practitioners, we heard from Rose Mary Amenga-Etego, of the University of Ghana, Anton Deik regarding his experiences as a Palestinian evangelical, and the IMES Peacebuilding Initiatives team.
Breakout Conversations, Ecumenical and Interfaith Forums Toward Better Understanding
Through breakout conversations each day, we were allowed the opportunity to engage in more intimate discussion with consultation presenters and fellow participants. In addition, on Tuesday evening we heard from Eastern Christian scholars, Orthodox and Maronite, and on Thursday we heard from Muslim scholars, Sunni and Shia, as we explored issues related to consultation themes, listening to and interact with authentic, alternative perspectives.
Finally, MEC 2018 witness the launch of the book The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically through Adversity, based on the proceedings of Middle East Consultation 2017 and Challenging Tradition: Innovation in Advanced Theological Education by ABTS’ Perry Shaw and MEC speaker Havilah Dharamraj. We also featured Strangers in the Kingdom: Ministering to Refugees, Migrants and the Stateless, by Rupen Das and Brent Hamoud.
For additional information about each book, please visit:
We hope to see you next summer for Middle East Consultation 2019, 17-21 June!