When added together, the global population of Christians and Muslims accounts for more than half of the population of the world. It is no secret that in many places the relationship between these two religious communities is characterized by tensions or even violence. There can be little doubt that the 21st Century is being shaped, in no small measure, by the way that Christians and Muslims engage with one another, both around the world and closer to home.
In Canada, Muslim believers currently account for nearly 4% of the national population. This number has continued to grow for some years, to the point where Islam is now the second largest organized religious community in Canada. While roughly 60% of all Canadian Muslims are centred in the Province of Ontario, Muslims are increasingly coming to call other regions of Canada home as well, with significant populations in Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia. In recent years, connections and relationships between Christians and Muslims have become increasingly common in many parts of the country. Some of this is as a result of church-assisted immigration and refugee settlement from majority-Muslim countries. This presents our churches with a singular opportunity and responsibility to get to know these neighbours and seek peace with them.
Loving Our Neighbours
The principle that one’s relationship to God implies both blessings and obligations is one that Christians have learned a great deal about from the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, who regularly emphasize that one’s theological beliefs and liturgical practices ought correspondingly to issue in works of justice and compassion and mercy (Amos 5:21-14, Isaiah 58:1-9, etc.). In a similar way, the New Testament stresses that what we hold to be true of God, and the words we say about God, must lead to consistency in the way we use our resources, organize our communities, care for those in need, and so on (Hebrews 13: 15-16, James 1:22-25, etc.). Followers of Jesus are also called to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40), even those we have sometimes perceived to be our enemies (Matthew 5:44).
The word neighbour in Christianity is of course one that carries a lot of theological freight. Far from being simply a description of people who happen to share space or live nearby to one another, neighbour is regularly used by Christians to identify those to whom we are connected by our very existence or with whom we share something of ourselves and our lives. In Christ, Christians are shown that, in fact, contrary to our typical human assumptions, the list of those with whom we are brought into this kind of neighbourly relationship is long. We are all created bearers of the divine image, and we are all chosen for grace and salvation.
It would appear that one of the main gifts which God seeks to give us from our neighbours is their capacity to surprise us about what God is doing, and where, and with whom. The Gospel narrative about the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) – among the most important New Testament texts to inform a Christian understanding of neighbour – makes precisely this point when Jesus reveals that the Samaritan, who at that time would have been considered to be a follower of a different religion, in fact must be judged to have discovered the very truths which the Law of Israel had intended to teach. Even more, this apparent outsider is pointed to as someone deserving of emulation by the original hearers of the story. We are left to conclude that we can and indeed ought to learn from our neighbours, even when they are our interreligious ‘others’.
Love of Neighbour and the Call to Dialogue
What love of neighbour means, and what it looks like in a given context, are both regular points for discernment within Christian communities. This is certainly true when it comes to involvement in interreligious dialogue, and dialogue with Muslims specifically. However, with the scriptural directives above firm in mind, surely at least one element of what it means for Christians to live with love towards our Muslim neighbours is to take an interest in, and seek to show respect for, that which our neighbours hold to be of greatest importance, just as we would hope they would do for us. This has sometimes been described as a form of ‘spiritual hospitality’ – a way of welcoming and making room for the other just as they are, and seeking their comfort and wellbeing. It is an expression of this kind of loving hospitality that compels Christians to take seriously and to heed the call to interreligious dialogue with our neighbours of other faiths as a dimension of our own discipleship.
The word dialogue, as its etymology itself suggests, must always allow for ‘two words’ to be spoken. In order to be genuine, a dialogue must be based on the presumption that each party has something legitimate to say, and which the other can benefit from hearing. As the example of St. Paul in dialogue with the Athenians illustrates (Acts 17:16-34), the Spirit of God does reveal truths to people in many different ways, and such truths encountered in the beliefs of others are to be rightfully recognized as having their source in God. While for Christians this does not mean compromising the important call which we have to give witness to the uniqueness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, genuine interreligious dialogue can also never operate as if the conversation about truth goes only one way. Indeed, it might serve us well to be quicker to listen than to jump at our turn to speak.
However, it is also critical to note that such a dialogical engagement does not imply parties to the conversation having to give up their cherished distinctives, nor minimizing areas of significant difference, nor avoiding the difficult questions. While love is always patient, kind, and humble, it can also be an act of love to offer one another challenges and criticisms, and to state clearly what it is about our own faith in God which we believe the other partner needs to hear. It is equally inappropriate for Christians to cease adhering to the core of Christian revelation (the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the death and resurrection of Jesus, etc.) for the sake of ‘getting along’ as it is to expect Muslims to set aside their central convictions (strict monotheism, the pre-eminence of the prophet Muhammad among the prophets, etc.) in favor of a generic pluralism. While A Common Word does presuppose that some of what Christians and Muslims hold to be true about God is indeed shared, it does not imply that it is all the same. Indeed, both faiths understand and teach, in their own ways, that sameness need not be viewed as a necessary condition for living together with respect and peace. We are called to these things even in our diversity.
Forms of Dialogue
A Common Word invites Christians and Muslims to make their respective holy scriptures the primary locus upon which our dialogue is based. This is wisdom we do well to follow. While Christians and Muslims see the role which the scriptures play in their understanding and worship of God differently, in both of these faith communities scripture is a uniquely normative source of revelation. Placing the focus of our conversations in this context, we ensure that we are ‘keeping the main things the main things’ – i.e. talking to one another about the core elements of our faith rather than secondary or tertiary matters that can detract from the ‘main thing’.
However – and this is certainly a critical point for Christians – the dialogue between us is by no means exhausted by scriptural and theological discussion alone. Indeed, as people who stress the importance of the Incarnation of the Word in Christ, and of visible signs as instruments of truth and grace, it is easily argued that Christians are uniquely called to engage in what is sometimes described as the ‘dialogue of life.’ This means meeting real Muslim people face to face and growing in friendship; experiencing the way that faith informs their lives and decision making; seeing them practice their acts of prayer and devotion; and so on. It also means, where possible, finding ways to respond together to those in need. Not only do these things prevent us from relying on abstract stereotypes and misrepresentations, they also help to create an environment of greater trust and generosity towards one another. From there, more challenging issues may be faced effectively. These components, therefore, are also built into the A Common Word ethos, and into the model of Muslim-Christian dialogue which it proposes.
An Invitation to Christians
It is important to note that the A Common Word letter was originally addressed to “Christians” in a broad and ecumenical sense. Although our Muslim friends are well aware of the denominational diversity that exists within the Christian community (and in the Islamic community as well), and seek to respect it in their addressing by name the numerous families of churches and their respective leaders, A Common Word is not an invitation that is made to Anglicans or Lutherans or Catholics or Presbyterians, in particular. Rather, the invitation goes out to all who claim to follow Jesus Christ. Our Muslim interlocutors are calling upon us to speak to them as far as possible with one voice – a Christian voice.
It is significant, therefore, that A Common Word has seen such considerable endorsement and engagement, much of it jointly, from Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and ecumenical organizations like the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches in the US, and so on. Thus, while this present resource has its origins in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, members of these churches should be mindful to take every opportunity to venture into relationships with Islam with their fellow Christians closely at their side. In Canada, this especially includes (though is not limited to) our Roman Catholic, United Church of Canada, Presbyterian Church in Canada, and Mennonite Church Canada siblings, each of which have responded to and interacted with the A Common Word initiative in positive ways. In this call to us, therefore, our Muslim neighbours are also thereby providing us with an ecumenical learning and growth.
A Gift to Be Received
In a sense, A Common Word is not something we have chosen for ourselves, but it has chosen us. This path of dialogue is being offered as a gift to Christians by the generosity of faithful Muslims. In so doing they are offering to play host to a new mode of engagement, one which is much different from the conflict which has so often characterized our history. Learning to be gracious in receiving a gift, and to be a gracious guest, are both important aspects of growing in maturity. This is true on an individual interpersonal level, and in contact between spiritual and religious traditions. For this reason, Christians have a particular responsibility to seek to honour the invitation that has been presented to us.
The urgency of our making our reply is enhanced further by current realities of our time. The growing instances of religiously motivated hate speech and violence, at home and abroad, mean that real lives are at stake. More positively, growing real-life connections and friendships between Christians and Muslims across this land make our shared life and interactions possible in ways that have not been before. The time is now for the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and any other partners who will walk with us on this path, to take up the call, and to do so in a manner entirely consistent with the Gospel of Jesus to which we witness.
May God now show us the way.
Pastor André Lavergne (The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada)
Former Assistant to the National Bishop, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations (2010-2019)
The Rev. Canon Dr. Scott Sharman (The Anglican Church of Canada)
Animator for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations
 Based on statistics from the Pew Research Centre, 2017.