Dialogue or Conversion? An examination of Christian-Muslim eschatological texts and their potential impact on interfaith dialogue
 

As the world continues to divide along the lines of faith and religion, interfaith dialogue has emerged as a legitimate and powerful tool for peacemaking across the boundaries of culture and belief. This is especially true for followers of the three Abrahamic traditions who have the potential to realize geo-political and cross-cultural reconciliation through this type of engagement. But viewed through the prism of the eschatological texts of Twelver Shi'ism and Christianity, does interfaith dialogue serve a valid and useful purpose?

If, as both traditions claim, the return of the Redeemer signals a period of bloodshed and conversion to "the one true faith" before peace occurs, does interfaith dialogue play a legitimate role in peacemaking? Or, does the moral imperative of converting "the other" as outlined in the sacred texts of both traditions supersede the significance of this peacemaking approach?

The role of religion in international conflict

The events of September 11th, the war and sectarian violence in Iraq, Islamaphobia in the West, and the ongoing discord in the Holy Land have underscored the significant role that faith and religion play in the world's most intractable conflicts. Central to our understanding of these and other struggles are the relationships that exist between and among followers of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each tradition brings its own doctrinal and geo-political issues to this triad and each must be understood within the context of its association to the other to appreciate fully past and present clashes.

As followers of each faith have assumed a position of religious and cultural supremacy through the ages, the relationships have been characterized by periods of peaceful co-existence juxtaposed with periods of bloody warfare. Today, the ongoing discord in Holy Land and the mounting tensions between Islam and the West underscore the need for a reevaluation of these relationships as Jews, Christians, and Muslims encounter each other with increasing frequency and intimacy.

As the international community continues to divide along the lines of faith and religion, nations are faced with the moral imperative of engaging with peoples across the boundaries of culture and belief. Because religion is at the core of so much political violence, many religious leaders have begun to successfully engage in the kind of reconciliation dialogue that has eluded diplomats and political leaders for decades. Many of these religious leaders recognize the troubled history that exists between Jews, Christians, and Muslims and, in a post-9/11 world, have a special dedication to promoting reconciliation between and among followers of the Abrahamic faiths.

Human Agency

Many would argue that there is no more salient need in the global community than to facilitate interfaith dialogue conducted within the framework of international peacekeeping and, in recent years, we have seen this kind of outreach become a priority of the world's major religions. It is important to note that interfaith dialogue is implemented through a belief in the concept of human agency which states that human beings have the freedom and capacity make choices, can impose those choices on the world, and ultimately bring about change (in this case, peace and reconciliation between faiths and nations).

However, if viewed through the prism of the eschatological texts of Twelver Shi'ism and Christianity, one may question whether interfaith dialogue serves a valid and useful purpose. If, as both traditions state, the return of the Redeemer signals a period of bloodshed and conversion to "the one true faith" before peace occurs, does human agency expressed through interfaith dialogue play a legitimate role in peacemaking?

Human beings have struggled for centuries to understand their relationship to and with the Creator and creation. The freedom to act, the notion of free will, and the power to affect change are concepts found in many of the world's great religions.

But where is the line drawn between God's activity and human activity in the world? What is the responsibility of God and what is the responsibility of human beings, and where and how do these intersect, overlap, or differentiate? Are there really activities belonging only to and preordained by God? If so, where and how do we draw this line and make this distinction between what is up to God and what is properly within the purview of man's power to affect or change? Under what conditions does man have the capacity to affect his environment and which events in human history are outside of the purview of human agency?

These are questions that may never be answered to the satisfaction of all believers but we may search the sacred texts and teachings of Christianity and Islam to determine what followers of both traditions are called and empowered to do.

It is clear from the writings of both traditions that Christians and Muslims are entrusted with great responsibility by God for the betterment of the world. A common theme in the teachings of Christian social justice emphasizes the responsible participation in God's own work of creating a more just society. For example, the United States Catholic bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter on the economy entitled Economic Justice for All provide a case in point:

Men and women are also to share in the creative activity of God. They are to be faithful, to care for the earth ("The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.") (Genesis 2:15), and to have "dominion" over it ("God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.

Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'") (Genesis 1:28), which means they are "to govern the world in holiness and justice and to render judgment in integrity of heart" (Wisdom 9:3). Creation is a gift; women and men are to be faithful stewards in caring for the earth. They can justly consider that by their labor they are unfolding the Creator's work.

Later, the bishops explain that "although the ultimate realization of God's plan lies in the future, Christians in union with all people of good will are summoned to shape history in the image of God's creative design..." (section 53). Here the bishops echo a point made by John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical Laborem

Exercens:

The word of God's revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man [sic], created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man [sic] in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.

Further, in two passages from the New Testament, we see that Christians are called to a life of loving service through pastoral action and direct participation in the lives of others. James 1:27 states, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Also, 1 John 3:18 says, "Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth."

Of course, the most compelling command for Christians is found in Matthew 22:37-40 in which Jesus says, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 'This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

According to Christian teachings, then, God's agency is made concrete or complete in human activity in the pursuit of justice and in acts of loving service to mankind.

The concept of human agency in Islam bears similarities to those tenets found in Christianity. For Muslims, sovereignty belongs to God but it has been delegated in the form of human agency (Quran, 2:30). The task for human beings is to reflect on how this God-given agency can be best employed in creating a society that will bring welfare and goodness to the population both now and in the future. God is sovereign in all affairs, but God has exercised sovereignty by delegating some of it in the form of human agency.

Not unlike the passage in Genesis which speaks to the dominion of man over all creation, Surah 45:13 of the Qur'an states: "And He has disposed for your benefit whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. All is from Him." In addition, Surah 53:39 of the Holy Qur'an states: "Man can have nothing except that which he strives for and the results of his striving will soon be seen." In his book, "Our Belief," His Holiness Ayatullahelozma Makarem Shirazi responds to this by saying, "Such verses in the holy Qur'an will clearly show that man has free will and that we may submit man's deeds and acts to God without any reduction in his responsibilities for what he does.

God wills that we do what we do by freedom and free will so that he may examine us and lead us forward in the way of perfection which can be attained through free will and serving the Lord."

We see also in Islam a pastoral imperative to provide for the orphan and the widow. "And they give food out of love to the poor and the orphan and the captive" (Qur'an 76:8). In addition, it is evident from the numerous references in the Qur'an and the Bible concerning the Day of Judgment that Christians and Muslims cannot be held accountable for their actions unless they are given the agency to do so. So it is clear that for both Christians and Muslims, human agency and free will are important components of their respective traditions.

But the question remains regarding how that agency is best applied when encountering those of other faiths. If, as eschatological texts from both traditions say, there is only one true faith and all who do not accept that faith will perish, is the moral imperative for Christians and Muslims one of dialogue or conversion?