The Redemption of Interfaith Dialogue
Written by TM of JC on August 19, 2020
The Egyptian delegation of Muslim sheikhs settled in for the opening session of the interfaith conference. Their mainline Protestant hosts welcomed them to the hallowed halls of a historic New York seminary with pleasantries and platitudes about shared humanity and common values.
Then the moderator startled the senior scholars from Al-Azhar University, the foremost center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, with what sounded like an ultimatum: “Anyone who believes their religion is the only way is not welcome here.”
Quietly, the Muslim men rose to leave. Their impromptu translator, Joseph Cumming, a delegate from Fuller Theological Seminary, quickly intervened. “No, no, don’t be offended,” he told them. “He is not referring to you—he is speaking about us.”
Cumming is an American evangelical who has been ministering in the Islamic world since 1982. Many evangelicals, he explained to the Muslim guests, have been very critical of interfaith dialogue. They argue it cedes too much ground, reducing religion to the lowest common denominator and undermining any commitment to absolute truth. Peace is made too high a priority with so much focus on agreement, avoiding the crucial differences over salvation.
Yet Cumming was there anyway. Despite what the moderator said, he believed it was possible—even important—for evangelicals to participate in interfaith dialogue without losing any of their passionate commitment to the truth of the Bible.
The Muslim scholars, reassured, sat back down. And the conversation continued. It continues still. That conference was nearly two decades ago, and Cumming has remained engaged in interfaith dialogue. He has dedicated the second half of his christian ministry to maintaining respectful dialogue with Muslims and overcoming stereotypes between Christians and Muslims while remaining as passionate as ever about bearing witness to his faith in Christ.
Cumming didn’t always think this way. He had to be converted to the possibility of interfaith dialogue. At first he thought it was just liberal Christianity, and he wanted nothing to do with that. He had a bad experience as a teenager with a form of Christianity that accepted everyone and everything. Saved in New York City at age 13 while reading the New Testament on his own, he wandered into a church that quoted Buddha as much as it did Jesus. He met a host of unusual characters, and the seedy ones led him into a life of “spiritual exploration” that included sex and drugs.
At age 18, Cumming experienced a second conversion and rediscovered his original faith. He committed himself to the exclusivity of the gospel and vowed he would never waver from that belief. “Utterly rejecting” this syncretistic interlude, Cumming became a firm opponent of dialogue between faiths and decided instead to engage non-Christians as a witness for Christ. But his rediscovered faith also created in him a concern to help people suffering in other nations.
In 1982, Cumming went to Mauritania, a West African nation that had no known Protestant Christians. Mauritania was fourth from the bottom in the UN Human Development Index, slavery was still practiced, and malnutrition rates among children were as high as 75 percent. Cumming founded the Doulos Community humanitarian group and lived among the poor, impacting the lives of thousands.
“We wanted to help with public health,” he said, “and be faithful, winsome examples of the love of Christ.”
Eventually, that meant talking to people of a different faith. Cumming met the president of the national association of imams, who invited him to his home, presumably for the traditional three rounds of tea. But upon arrival, he discovered a roomful of the imam’s disciples and was asked to “dialogue” about Christianity.
Cumming was very reluctant upon hearing “that word,” he said. But he bore witness to his faith, expecting a negative reaction. Instead, the imam thanked him, saying it was the best explanation he had ever heard.
“I’ve been around the world in interreligious events,” the imam told him, “and most Christians hardly seem to believe their own faith. Are you willing to have more dialogues like this?”
Cumming was surprised to hear his own reply—yes. So he started—tentatively—on his path toward a new, evangelical approach to interfaith dialogue.
“What I discovered,” he said, “is if you are humble and generous and polite, if you let people see your love and respect and let the Holy Spirit give you opportunities, people will welcome your bearing of witness.”
ithout knowing it, Cumming was following in the footsteps of David Shenk, a faithful evangelical ministering in Muslim contexts, and paving the way for another, Rick Love. Shenk was born to Mennonite missionaries in Tanzania in 1937 and became a missionary himself. He worked among Muslims in Somalia and helped, with many others, to bring a modern education system to the country. Soon, however, the government forced the christian-backed schools to teach Islam. christian groups in the country took a step back to consider whether they could continue to cooperate with these schools in good faith. There was prayer, fasting, and much discussion with Mennonites in the US and local Somali believers about the best thing to do. Finally the Mennonites decided they could accept the limitations of the situation while remaining true to their own convictions about the exclusivity of the gospel.
Over time, a peacemaking commitment began to characterize the mission. As the warlords of Somalia jostled against each other, the Mennonites won the label of “peace clan.” They always tried to be upfront about the reason for their commitment to peace.
“I have always been clear about my identity and that I serve under the authority of the church,” Shenk said. “But this confession has never closed doors. On the contrary, it opened them.”
Rick Love was converted to interfaith dialogue when he became convinced of the importance of being open about his beliefs and his christian identity.
Love, who died of cancer in December 2019, became a christian as part of the Jesus People movement in the 1970s and then went to minister among Muslims in Indonesia in 1984 with the mission organization Frontiers. After 15 years there, he moved up in the organization and started working in administration. One thing he did was help missionaries develop secular platforms to reach Muslims and share their faith in the Islamic world.
Slowly, though, he became concerned about those platforms. Love’s first feeling of discontent came while visiting a team in Bahrain. He was introduced to a colonel in the country’s army. They chatted amicably.
Then Love broke out in a cold sweat. Frontiers had just launched a new website, and his picture was prominently displayed. Surely his Bahrain hosts would search for him online and learn he was not being entirely honest about who he was and what he was doing.
“He’ll learn I tell him one thing here, but he’ll read another thing there,” Love thought. “He’ll find out I’m a professional missionary.”
He realized that his approach to mission work was actually deceptive, running counter to the deep love he had for Muslims, and a barrier to genuine friendship. He respected the colonel, and his hidden identity felt like a betrayal.
Quickly he contacted his staff and told them to take down the photo. They did it in time, but the episode lodged in Love’s mind and eventually developed into deep conviction.
“It robbed me of my joy and boldness,” Love told CT before his death. “I was mobilizing for Muslims and wanted to share Jesus. But I couldn’t mention my job.”
s Cumming’s career in interfaith dialogue progressed, he prayed about how bold he should be. Six months after 9/11, he was invited to speak in Egypt at Al-Azhar on a topic dear to every evangelical heart: Did Jesus die on the cross?
The approach was academic. Muslims deny the Crucifixion, but certain verses in the Qur’an create an ambiguity. Cumming dove into Islamic commentaries to present a nuanced view of the variety of Muslim interpretations of these verses.
But before taking the podium, he prayed: “God, if you also want me to say that I believe your cross makes forgiveness possible, give me a clear opportunity.”
The atmosphere in the packed hall was electric. After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and the start of the “war on terror,” the Egyptian audience thought American Christians hated Muslims.
“They say Islam is an intolerant religion,” the moderator began, “but here we prove otherwise. Let us listen to what he has to say.”
All eyes were fixed on Cumming as he launched into his presentation. When he finished, dozens of hands went up with questions.
Then it happened. A woman stood and politely asked a question that created a clear opportunity to share about the forgiveness of sins through the cross of Christ.
“Sir, we have learned a lot about what Muslims believe about the Cross and a little about what Christians believe about the Cross. But we’ve not heard what you believe about the Cross. Would you tell us what it means to you?”
The Holy Spirit nudged him, suggesting, “This is the answer to your prayer.” Cumming poured forth the details of his personal testimony and his own deep convictions about the importance of the Cross. He received a standing ovation. Some students even cried.
“This was a watershed moment in my understanding of interfaith dialogue,” Cumming said. “I thought it meant I couldn’t bear witness to my faith, about what Jesus meant to me.”
Cumming eventually shifted toward full-time dialogue, working as director of Yale University’s reconciliation program. Among his first tasks: organizing an interfaith conference around A Common Word, a Muslim initiative promoting the idea that love is the core concept of both Islam and Christianity. One of the people he recruited for the christian response was a former missionary trying to rethink interfaith dialogue, a new doctoral student named Rick Love.
hough many Christians questioned whether A Common Word was right about the core of Islam, Love and Cumming agreed that they were commanded as Christians to love their neighbors. That, they thought, could be the basis for interfaith dialogue.
“We believe the Great Commandment governs the Great Commission,” Love said. “So we need to love our neighbor with no strings attached—whether they want to hear the gospel or not.”
Cumming said many Christians believe Muslims are disingenuous when they describe their faith as a religion of peace. They disputed the true nature of the Muslim faith and A Common Word’s message, pointing to the 9/11 attacks as one example of how Islamic theology has been used to justify violence. Cumming disagreed with that response.
“It is not our place to tell Muslims how to interpret their faith, any more than they can interpret ours,” he said. “But if Muslim leaders are telling the Muslim public that it is their duty to love Christians, why on earth would we contradict this?”
The US response to 9/11 also presented a challenge—a choice—to American Christians. They had to rethink what it meant to be christian.
“Is the christian faith a civilizational and cultural heritage, or is it discipleship to Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one?” Cumming asked. “In many situations, we can get away with both. But in the post-9/11 world in relation to Muslims, our answer will take us in opposite directions, and we are forced to choose.”
In 2010, Love founded Peace Catalyst International to engage full time in Muslim-christian dialogue. He wrote about his journey to interfaith conversations in a 2014 book, Peace Catalysts, and followed it up with a 2017 title, Glocal, urging Christians to hold to their core message.
Both Muslims and Christians desire to convert the other. Love said conversations with imams could begin with this and then transition to discussions of the common good. Too many missionaries suffer with a dual identity, he believed, hiding their evangelistic hope behind a professional or humanitarian job. It isn’t good for them, and it isn’t good for the gospel.
ccording to Shenk, sometimes interfaith dialogue comes naturally as the result of relationships between neighbors. He and his fellow Mennonite missionaries have long rejected the dual identity that Love struggled with. They feel like they have to be clear that they are ambassadors for the kingdom of God.
“Platform language says to me: We do good so that we can have a reason to be here,” Shenk said. “Kingdom language says we are here to represent Jesus, through words and deeds, with a peace commitment at the center.”
Dialogue is the natural result and leads, for Shenk, to opportunities to bear witness.
He remembers when his group decided not to debate the local Muslims but instead seek their advice—on a Bible study designed for Somali Muslims.
“Does this misrepresent you?” he asked the local sheikhs. “And does it present the gospel as good news?”
Some Muslims began to follow Jesus, and Shenk was called in by the authorities for questioning. He answered truthfully, testifying that he was just in conversation with his neighbors when he told them of the contagious joy he received in knowing Jesus.
“Can I not answer them when they inquire of me?” he asked. “And can’t God alone give real faith?”
The authorities sent him on his way.
Of course, there are no guarantees in mission work. Shenk was forced out in 1978—not by Muslims, but by Marxists. He relocated to Kenya to work with Somali refugees. There, he became a professor at Kenyatta University and became friends with another professor, Badru Kateregga. The two talked about their religious differences and eventually turned their conversations into a book, A Muslim and a christian in Dialogue. First published in 1980, it’s a landmark example of the evangelical approach to interfaith dialogue and has been translated into 12 languages.
In 2013, Shenk helped found the christian-Muslim Relations Team for his denomination. Now 82, he mentors the team with the typical Mennonite commitment to nonviolence, as they, in his words, “speak boldly and train persistently to build bridges of loving and respectful connection between Christians and Muslims, while faithfully confessing Christ.”
nterfaith dialogue doesn’t always live up to people’s hopes. A Palestinian leader once told Cumming he wouldn’t speak against the popular conception of suicide bombers as martyrs—even though the leader thought the popular perception was wrong. The man was apologetic but explained he had to choose his battles.
Another time, Love tried to get Muslim leaders to discuss allowing Muslims to covert to Christianity, but he couldn’t get the topic on the agenda at an interfaith conference. “It would disturb the peace too much,” he was told.
Evangelicals often remain skeptical, too. “Sometimes we fear it will lead to a one-world religion,” said Cumming, now pastor of the International Church at Yale. “In fact, this is exactly what my original church was working towards. But if Muslims are going to enter conversation with Christians, why on earth would we abdicate and leave it to the liberals to speak on our behalf?”
The interfaith setting can be frustrating for evangelicals, he noted. There is a lot of listening and getting to know people. It is not a place for debate, and building relationships with committed believers of other faiths is often not a fertile field for evangelism.
Even though a dialogue might seem disappointing, Cumming is convinced he can communicate two important things: an accurate picture of Christianity through the person of Jesus and issues of religious liberty.
“Most evangelicals would agree these are at the top of the list,” Cumming said.
He has also seen the conversation grow and change in encouraging ways. In the decades since he had to assuage the Egyptian delegation, the discussion of ground rules has diminished, but many evangelicals are still wary.
“Now there is abundant recognition that people with ultimate-truth claims can still have a constructive dialogue,” he said. “And if you exclude them, you exclude most of the religious believers in the world—the very people who need constructive conversation the most.”
The number of these conversations seems to be growing. Shenk’s christian-
Muslim Relations Team reached an average of 4,500 people per year in 12 countries over the past five years. They were invited to distribute more than 2,000 copies of Shenk’s Dialogue at the national convention of the Islamic Society of North America—the only christian agency officially represented.
Peace Catalyst International, the group Love founded, now has 30 staff members in 18 cities and three countries, including Bosnia and Indonesia. Nearly 10,000 people of all faiths participated in peacemaking events last year, 33 percent higher than three years ago.
Cumming holds that evangelicals were right to suspect a liberal agenda in traditional interfaith dialogue. Much of it was hostile toward evangelical insistence on the unique claims of Jesus Christ. But that has changed, partly because of the work that Cumming, Love, and Shenk have done and the way they have allowed themselves to be changed by the call to love their neighbors and share the Good News.
“I am a convert to interfaith dialogue,” Cumming said. “I’ve come 180 degrees.”
Jayson Casper is the Middle East correspondent for Christianity Today.
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