By Duane Alexander Miller
Last week I gave six lectures on “Understanding and Reaching Muslims” at the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Madrid, where I teach research and sociology of religion. (The lectures were all in Spanish, of course, and are available at my blog.)
The main lecture room was full of eager, young students and a handful of visiting pastors and faculty. During one of the lectures I made a point about apologetics — that being able to answer Muslim objections to Christianity is useful, but in the end what leads to religious conversion is the context of a personal relationship. Apologetics, I explained, can be useful in showing your Muslim friend that you are a thinking person who has reflected on, say, what it means to claim that there is one God in three persons, or that one person (Jesus) can somehow pay for the sins of another person, even though that is not usually the way justice works.
It is also in the context of these personal relationships that you can ask questions. We are all, like fish in water, immersed in our worldviews. Our worldview represents all those things we just know. We don’t have to think about it or research the questions. We just know it is true. You, reader, probably just know that men are no better than women, that all humans are equal, that human rights exist and are important, and much more. That’s your worldview. (That’s not necessarily or wholly a Christian worldview, mind you; it’s a late modern Western worldview, and one that is in precipitous decline globally. But that’s a conversation for another day.)
Authentic religious conversations challenge worldviews. They must. But for a conversation to be authentic and have the capacity of causing a person to examine their worldview you must first earn trust and respect. That is why personal relationships characterized by honesty and compassion are indispensable. Within those relationships one can then pose questions that will help your Muslim friend to scrutinize her worldview.
Here’s an example from my wife, Sharon:
Some years ago I was meeting with a young woman from Arabia and I would help her with her university work. She was attending a Catholic university and there was a required class which was a survey of Christianity. At one point the coursework was addressing the crucifixion of Jesus. My friend explained that Muslims don’t believe that Jesus was crucified. I told her that for Christians this was not the end of the story and we went on to look at Christ’s resurrection. Death could not hold him down. This was the great triumph. Wasn’t a triumph over death itself more glorious than simply being whisked away to heaven and having another person crucified in your place? That was the question.
And the young lady listened. She listened because rather than an outright answer — The Qur’an is wrong and look at all the textual evidence behind our NT texts, etc. — she was invited to explore further. Furthermore, this invitation had come from a friend who not only spoke about the love of God in Christ, but had demonstrated it again and again.
Most Muslims have been taught that Allah would not allow one of his prophets to suffer the shame of crucifixion. They just know it, like you know that human rights are not simply a coercive Western discourse dressed up in pretty language (as many in the Middle East will explain to you), or that diversity is good.
The takeaway? Invest time in personal relationships with non-Christians. The Enlightenment was fundamentally mistaken in supposing that reason is the key driver of history and human decisions. It is not. Most people mostly make decisions based on what they think works. You can have a brilliant intellectual defense of the Trinity, but unless Muslims see that this somehow results in a life of joy and peace, it probably won’t matter. When they see that Christianity works, that it leads to a life of honor, dignity, respect for others, and proximity to God, then that is what will make a difference. Our words are key in living this reality, and in the context of a compassionate relationship we must be ready to speak, and when we speak we must ask the questions that will help our friends to question their worldview.
We were just learning Arabic and were new in the Middle East. This was many years ago. My mentor, an Anglican missionary priest, told me something profound that has always stuck with me: “When you get a Muslim to ask questions, you have them halfway to the kingdom of God.” Let us invest in Christ-centered relationships so we can earn the honor to ask the hard, deep questions of life and God.
The Rev. Dr. Duane Alexander Miller is author of Two Stories of Everything: The Competing Metanarratives of Islam and Christianity (Credo House, 2018) and keeps a weblog at duanemiller.wordpress.com. He serves on the pastoral team at the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer in Madrid, and is adjunct faculty for the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Madrid (UEBE).