The Christian-Muslim Studies Network just concluded a Summer School on Christian Engagement with Islam (for the first time in Edinburgh!) on Friday, so I decided to take this week to reflect and look back on our very first course on interfaith engagement for Christian leaders. We hope to keep these courses coming (perhaps for Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, or a mix of both) in future, so watch this space as we continue forward.

Contemporary Christian-Muslim relations has become a global issue, presenting ever-changing religious, political, and social challenges to communities around the world. When this throbbing dynamic affects local communities either directly or indirectly through the mass media, however, local leaders of both Muslim and Christian communities are often asked to respond to questions and provide leadership. This is a challenge for the many leaders whose training has not included guidance for interfaith engagement.

The Christian-Muslim Studies Network invited Christian leaders to Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., for ‘Understanding and Engaging our Muslim Neighbors‘, the first in a series of Continuing Education courses in August 2017. These courses equip current and future faith leaders for engagement with Christian-Muslim relations within their communities.

‘Religious practitioners are often asked to engage with Christian-Muslims during its most personal and pressurized moments at the local level’, said Dr Joshua Ralston, Director of the Christian-Muslim Studies network and the course designer. ‘Faith leaders are seeking ways to engage without sacrificing the particularity of faith’.

The course sought understanding through historical resources, theological study of scripture from both Christianity and Islam, and engagement with several contemporary models for concrete engagement with interfaith relations. Many who participated in the course described a journey from their fearful speculations about the effects of Christian-Muslim turmoil into a greater hope for neighborly love.

‘I know that my congregation struggles with how to think about Islam, and very few of them know any Muslims themselves,’ noted Rev. Bobby Hulme-Lippert of Richmond, Va., who attended the course. ‘This course gave me resources to better help my congregation think and act more faithfully, self-critically, and lovingly toward our Muslim neighbors.’

This was one of Rev. Hulme-Lippert’s first experiences to study Islam, and he found the issues examined both timely and engaging.  The course aimed at understanding the essentials of Islam and its relationship to Christianity.

‘The course explored Islam and the relationship between Christianity and Islam in helpful, nuanced ways that avoid some of the typical stereotypes and tropes that get used in our soundbite culture,’ he said.

The course offered religious leaders an opportunity to engage with the historically relevant issues of Christian-Muslim relations, including theological disagreement, resonance, and overlap. Participants engaged both scripturally and intellectually with the major debates that have shaped interfaith interaction for centuries.

Interpersonal engagement was also a highlight for many. The course included a lecture from a Muslim imam, dinner with local Muslim leaders, and a visit to a local mosque.

‘I now feel like I have a point of connection with Muslims in my own city that might better help me to facilitate and form interfaith relationships’, one noted.

The course was designed to provide the background and skills to continue studying issues within Christian-Muslim relations further as need required. Some expressed that the resources they received for this further exploration would have the largest impact.

‘I anticipate making use of those resources directly and indirectly in ministry and beyond’, said one participant.

Others left with the conviction of improving Christian-Muslim relations in their local communities by encouraging understanding from within Christian congregations.

‘The new knowledge of Islam in general will help me to respond to negative comments about Muslims among my fellow seminary students, in my work space and in my life in general’, said one pastor. ‘If I can spark a new, more accepting view of Muslims, even in only one person [in my congregation], because I’ve spoken up, then this course was important’.

Others appreciated the emphasis on engaging humbly, but boldly, from within the Christian tradition.

‘It was helpful to be reminded that I can and should speak from my particular tradition with humility even as I ask questions and inquire – with humility – into the particulars of the Muslim faith’, said one participant.

This event represented the pilot course in a series whose aim is to enable religious leaders to enhance their understanding of and ability to engage with Christian-Muslim relations. A schedule of this event may be found here.