Looking to the Other
This week at New College, there was a conference. It was the inaugural conference for The Christian-Muslim Studies Network. The topic was Reframing Christian-Muslim Encounters: Theological and Philosophical Perspectives. I didn't go to a lot of the conference. In fact, I only went to two sessions. In one, a friend of mine delivered a paper, and I wanted to hear it. Another was the English book release of conversations between a Christian scholar and Islamic scholar who live and work in Lebanon.
Overall, the parts of the conference I attended were insightful and thought provoking. However, the most engaging point that was made was the very last one during the book release. The Islamic scholar ended her presentation talking about her interactions with Christians and evangelism. She said, that Christian evangelism has always made her feel uncomfortable. However, her reasoning for why it made her feel uncomfortable was because she often got the feeling that when someone was trying to convert her, they didn't see her as a person anymore but just a potential convert, someone to get into their camp. It dehumanized her and made her feel like she was an object to be won rather than a person to be understood.
As the conversation ended, a good friend of mine and I were discussing this point. We both agreed that all too often this is case, not only in evangelism, but in social interactions as a whole. It can be seen in the way that we, as theologians, talk to each other. It is my job to convince everyone around me that my particular perspective is correct rather than listening and engaging with the real concerns and commitments that the other person has. Too often dialogue can be seen as a competition that I must win. We see this in much of the current political discourse happening these days. The constant question is can my side win? We fail to see the other side as people to be loved, cared for, and understood. They are the opponents that must be convinced or defeated.
Considering people as people and not as 'the other', can open us up to reframing our own opinions or, at the very least, how we express ourselves. This openness will cause us to see that solutions to big problems are often more complicated than the black and white answers we are frequently offered by our politicians and the media. This type of openness will help us to see that often the solution to many issues is as simple as knowing our neighbors. Truly listening to one another as people and not as someone that needs to be convinced that I am right and you are wrong. Being willing to see each other as people will allow us to, as one person put it, 'give honest answers to honest questions'.
Often this is uncomfortable and disquieting because we find that we don't have all the answers. We put ourselves in a vulnerable position to say, 'I don't know', and admitting that we don't know all the answers is scary. However, part of loving my neighbor is being honest with my neighbor, acknowledging I still have much to learn and a long way to go. We can recognize our ignorance and still have confidence. We can have confidence because we know that God's truth can stand up to anything; even our own questions. God can handle our doubts and fears.