Reflection on Interreligious Dialogue Class


Background. I was teaching a class on Dialogue with Asian Religions at seminary. One day, one of my students, a Muslim Background Believer, came to me and asked whether he could teach a couple of class hours on Islam. I was rather relieved by this. Islam is not a religion that interests me particularly, but I also know that it deserves to be taught well, since it is the largest (organized) non-Christian religion in the world, and probably the second most important religion in Southeast Asia.

Dialogue/Incident. M will stand for the student teacher in Islam. S1 will be Student 1. S2 will be Student 2. P will be the Professor (myself). <The story was written down over a year after the incident, so due to poor memory, some specifics are fictionalized although the overall story is accurately given.>

M: Good morning class. I will be teaching you about Islam today. I was born and raised a Muslim in a Muslim community, and today I will share about Islam from the perspective of a Muslim. Now Islam is a religion of peace. The name Islam is related to the word “Salaam” meaning peace and relates to the Jewish word Shalom.

S1: Excuse me. But why are Muslims so violent then if they are a religion of peace?

M: Islam is about peace. One can’t judge our faith on a few who are bad or violent. Would you like to have Christianity judged on a few bad Christians?

M: <Continuing, M read Genesis 17:17-18, 20. This speaks of God’s plan to bless Ishmael> As you can see God chose to bless Ishmael as the first son of Abraham, the inheritor of God’s favor. And as we see here <showing another slide> Ishmael was the father of the Arab peoples and one of his descendants is Muhammed who is the one who passed onto us the Quran as the final prophet of Islam.

S2: But Ishmael was not the inheritor of God’s blessing to Abraham, it was Isaac! This is what the Bible teaches.

M: Ah, but is that what it says here in Genesis 17? Verse 20 says And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget and I will make him a great nation.”

What does it say in the Taurat (Torah)? And in the Quran Surah 2, it says that Ishmael is the son who was blessed not Isaac. Ishmael was the son who was taken to be sacrificed in Arabia, and the one who Ibrahim took with him to Mekka to build the Kaaba– the first mosque of Islam.

<Some rumblings and jokes started going around that the student is a “secret Muslim.” M continued to speak talking about how Yakub (Jacob) spoke to his sons about the need to follow Allah, the god of Ibrahim, Ishmael, and Isaac. M then spoke of the prophets of Islam: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Isa (Jesus). More questions were brought up by the students. However, the questions were not actually questions to understand Islam or what M was saying, but were questions to undermine the arguments of M. Finally, I jumped in.>

P: <Angrily> You know that M said tha the was going to be speaking about Islam from the standpoint of a Muslim. So stop the little jokes about him being a closet Muslim. Your job is to listen and learn…. not debate!

Theological Reflection: Theologically, we are often insecure. We can be so insecure that we struggle when people express beliefs that are different from our own. As humans we were designed with a Fight/Flight adrenal response to address threats. That can be very useful when we are threatened— when we are under attack. However, when we are faced with a person who believes something different, the same response is often triggered. We often get angry (and wanting to respond agressively) or with fear (and wanting to escape). I think this is a socio-cultural response. Cultural establishes groupings of people who generally share a belief in how experiences are interpreted and how such interpretation would guide action. Anyone who expresses beliefs that interpret experiences quite different and have beliefs that guide actions that are very different—- they are outside of one’s cultural grouping. People who are not part of our cultural grouping are THEM (as opposed to US). “THEM” are foreign, aliens, strangers, outsiders. Such people are naturally seen as threats. Of course, people within one’s own culture (“US”) can also be seen as threats. However, they usually are less threatening because we feel like we understand them (because of the different way of interpreting experiences and guiding behavior). This feeling can be so strong, that we react even when a person is “playing a role.”

Ministerial Reflection. I believe I responded correctly in redirecting the students. They were so focused on joking and challenging, that they weren’t really listening. However, I may have come on too strong. People started focusing on listening so much that they did not really ask many questions after. The presentation became more like a one-way lecture.

Personal Reflection. Why did I get angry. I wasn’t angry at M, but I was angry at the students. I am not totally sure. Maybe I was angry because I felt like I had failed. I was trying to teach them the importance of Dialogue with those of other religions, yet even in the controlled environment of classroom (on Dialogue!) the students immediately went to Debate. Or maybe my anger wasn’t really at the students at all. Maybe I was angry at myself— thinking that I failed as an instructor. I think that maybe I was also sad. Christianity has existed for almost 2000 years. In most of those centuries, Christians have struggled in how to relate to non-Christians. Most commonly, the example of Christ is not lived out in these interactions. The class on this day gave a little snapshot of centuries of struggle in this area.

Response. It was foolish for me to get angry at my students. I was, in a sense, responding the same way they were. They reacted to the presenter, and I reacted to them. In the future, I think it is more important to have students get more practice in Dialogue. As such, I will spend less time on lecture. It is a class on Dialogue after all.

I could also give better ground rules if we do a similar exercise again— warning the students not to react to the speaker, but focus on the principles of active listening, dialogue, and clarification. Or maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it is better not to prepare them. Rather, let things happen as they happen, and use whatever happens as a learning moment for all of us. I am not sure what is best in this case.

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