Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 2, no. 2 (August 2011)

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The Missional Posture and Our Muslim Neighbors

John Barton

If nothing else, the meaning of the term “missional” hinges on the idea that mission is always God’s mission, the missio Dei. Mission is not about what we envision and enact in the world for God’s sake or to expand God’s territory, but rather what God wills and what God is doing in the world in anticipation of an open, yet promised future. And we are invited and privileged to collaborate with God and participate in God’s missional purposes. As is often repeated, therefore, a primary requirement of the missional posture is discernment; we are called to have our eyes open and our ears to the ground so that we might perceive God’s presence and calling, and thus position ourselves to be participating vessels and instruments.

Assuming that we can discern something of God’s global calling by reflecting on significant world events, it is hard to ignore the following fact: Many of the most significant geopolitical issues of this era are surfacing along the borders of Islam and Christianity. Religion is not the only relevant category through which to understand geopolitical issues, but Muslim/Christian relations and interactions certainly play a vital role when considering major occurrences in recent decades such as 9/11, the “war on terror,” satirical cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and the violent backlash they spurred, Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address in which he made controversial statements about Islam, Christian/Muslim conflicts in places like the Balkans and Nigeria, the Arab Spring, a Christian pastor in Florida publically burning copies of the Koran, the death of Osama bin Laden, and the dramatic growth of Islam worldwide and especially in Europe and North America. These complex and overlapping dynamics are as sensitive as they are unavoidable, and are increasingly important in the global community and in our own backyards. More than acknowledging that these dynamics are newsworthy, however, the missional posture seeks to find in them signs of God’s purposeful presence: What does God desire in these interactions? What is God trying to show us about ourselves and our Muslim neighbors? What might God be calling us to see and to be? How can we participate and contribute?

Unfortunately, the corresponding Muslim/Christian interactions are often about as rational and helpful as what is depicted in the comedy routine between Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert on the Daily Show in which they argue over which religion is better (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32QFWMQzgQ4). Like all good comedy, this piece entertains while it delivers a sharp indictment. It mocks the inappropriate ways Christians and Muslims often employ apologetics or “power encounter” tactics; it belies assumptions that Christian/Muslim interactions must involve political positioning and debates over superiority, or that the primary purpose of interactions is to address conflicting visions of salvation. It also playfully critiques the idea that the only Christian/Muslim alliances that are possible are those built on the shared mistrust of a common opponent (e.g., Jews). As Christians, we need to promote a different posture for Christian reflection and missional engagement with Islam and our Muslim neighbors.

Currently, one of the most significant voices from the Christian side of this engagement, and a voice that represents a more healthy posture, is that of Miroslav Volf of Yale University and Divinity School. Volf is well known for his masterful studies of reconciliation, ecclesiology, and the Trinity, among others. But through his new book, Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011), Volf turns his attention to Muslim/Christian relationships and interactions. Specifically, he addresses a question that is relevant for many of our century’s most sensitive geopolitical concerns: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Volf acknowledges that this may not be the most important question to ask, but it is certainly one of the most common and is, therefore, a good place to start. From this starting point, he explores both the remarkable similarities between the faith and practice of the two religious communities (they are, he suggests, “sufficiently similar” to claim that mainstream Muslims and Christians do, in fact, worship the same God), as well as the significant and irreducible differences between the two (what he calls “rival versions of the Master of the Universe”). He then is able to explore and assess the theological, political, and existential implications of the issues, highlighting what he finds to be opportunities for more peaceful engagement, as well as opportunities for authentic Christian mission. Volf’s views will certainly produce much discussion and debate, but in the pluralistic world in which we find ourselves, his voice is an important one as we strive to live and serve in ways which are faithful to Christ.

Recently, at Rochester College’s Center for Missional Leadership, we hosted Professor Volf as part of our annual Streaming Conference, and he presented his material from Allah. As part of the program, we also practiced the kind of dialog promoted in the book by organizing a panel discussion between Volf and two other special guests: Saeed Khan, a Muslim scholar and commentator from Wayne State University in Detroit, and Mark Kinzer, a Messianic Jewish rabbi and scholar from Ann Arbor, Michigan. The discussion not only probed and critiqued some of Volf’s materials, but it humanized the whole issue as we struggled with each other on a few points, laughed together on some others, and forged relationships that will extend beyond the discussion.

Some immediate outcomes of the panel discussion include the following: Two audience members, one Muslim and one Christian, discovered their shared backgrounds in South Africa and went to lunch after the conference and are now keeping in touch with one another; two other participants, again one Muslim and one Christian, discovered that their daughters attended the same local high school and made plans to get their families together for dinner; two of the panelists (myself and Saeed Khan) will be co-teaching a class at Rochester College this fall on “Christian/Muslim Interactions” using Volf’s book as the text; and there are already plans to reassemble the panelists (including Volf) to continue this discussion next summer at the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University. These are just a few examples of the missional interactions which developed and were nurtured as a result of the panel discussion.

The link below features a sampling of the panel discussion. Beyond being merely a fascinating dialog, it offers an invitation into discernment processes for one of the most important missional issues of our time.

God is moving and calling. Are our eyes and ears open?

Rochester College has graciously made available a taste of the discussion surrounding Dr. Volf’s book: http://photos.rc.edu/2010-2011/events/Streaming11/17132702_4B439z#1370817846_XBMvQ6m-M-LB

(One can order the materials from the Streaming Conference by contacting Phebe Dollan at pdollan@rc.edu).

John Barton is currently the Provost at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He and his family lived and worked in Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, from 1994 to 2002 as part of a church-planting mission team. While in Uganda, John completed a Ph.D. in philosophy at Makerere University in Kampala. His special areas of interest include African Philosophy, inter-cultural and inter-religious dialog, and reconciliation studies. Recent publications include articles in Philosophia Africana, Restoration Quarterly, and Missiology (forthcoming).