Miriam Williams looks at new ways of communicating our faith story
This article was published in the May to August 2020 issue of Rapport magazine.
We were a group of local women living side by side in a neighbourhood located in a multi-faith, multi-ethnic area of a city in the UK. Walk down the street at the end of the school day and you will see Somali taxi-driver dads, shy Pakistani mums and chatty women from Morocco, Iraq, Syria and Sudan arriving to pick their children up from the local primary school. In the church community centre next door, women of both Christian and Muslim faith communities began cooking together. At this weekly group snippets of conversations around faith practices were heard and a longing expressed for more time when each community could find out more about the other’s faith. We liked being together, we had a lot of fun together but there was much ignorance and many misconceptions regarding the other’s faith belief and practice:
‘Do Christians pray?’
‘I didn’t know Muslims knew anything about Jesus!’
‘What do Christians believe happens after death?’
‘I have no idea what’s in the Bible/Qur’an.’
And then, following a conversation on the value of prayer in one’s life in the midst of struggle, someone verbalised what was becoming a collective desire:
‘I wish we had time to talk about these things together.’
But first we had to find a way of doing this. What is it possible to do within the context of women of different faiths who live side by side in the neighbourhood, and so need to both seek to understand each other and respect our differences without animosity? What are the perceived risks in engaging in this activity for individuals from both faith communities? How could we mitigate these risks? What were the barriers to participation and how could we ensure that all who wanted to do so could contribute?
Shared stories, mined for their meaning
The key, in this instance, lay in exploring the signs of the prophets and messengers of God, of which, incidentally, Christians and Muslims share over 20. Moreover, the Bible and Qur’an share themes, such as Creation and the early influence of Satan in humanity’s life, the provision for Noah and Jonah in the ark and the fish respectively, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Moses’ journey with God as a leader, Jesus’ birth story, the coming judgement and many more which can make for fruitful joint exploration through storying. And this is just what local, neighbourhood groups of women from both faith communities have been doing in venues around the country over the past six years, through following The Prophets’ Stories – a resource for use with Muslim/Christian women in grass roots dialogue, published by the Bible Society.
Questions which allow a glimpse into another way of being
Whilst stories work well for groups, I have other Muslim friends with whom I meet individually and have learnt that rather than seeking to understand and compare doctrine and orthodox belief systems, more fruitful discussions can be had in asking questions which uncover experience of the interplay between religious belief and the daily round. Women’s experience, particularly, is rooted far more deeply in daily life issues and their roles and responsibilities in family life. Their questions are around how to access blessing when the usual ways of doing so through mosque attendance or reading the Qur’an are not always available to them. How can the curse of the evil eye be avoided and where can succour be found in the midst of disappointment, pain and confusion?
So, what are those questions which enable us to understand the issues of our Muslim friends more deeply, and from their experience and perspective?
How can our questions of each other serve to bring new levels of understanding for both listener and speaker – helping us learn what we do and don’t know, our assumptions, or prejudices, the opportunities that we have?
And which are the questions that empower others by giving the space to examine themselves and to voice what’s inside? What are the Jesus stories which speak to these questions and invite understanding that all have a place in His grand narrative?
The Hospitality of God
The concept of the Hospitality of God has much to say to our engagement with those from other faiths. Inspiration can be taken from contemplating Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham painted by the Russian in the 15th Century. Depicting the account of Abraham’s encounter with the three angels at the Oak of Mamre in Genesis 18, the image is full of symbolism of the Trinity. We see how the three persons of the Trinity act as one in agency, none more important than the other, each referring to the other; there is a hint of self-sacrificing love as represented by the chalice on the table, and that love is seen as foundational to the whole with Christ at the centre. With a space at the foreground of the table around which the three are gathered, the image speaks of welcome; an implicit invitation to partake of the hospitality offered – to join in the Perichoretic (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) dance.
Cultures differ in the emphasis they place on who it is that is being honoured in situations of hospitality. Is it the guest who is honouring the household by accepting the invitation or is it the household that is honouring the guest by inviting them to share time and food with them? In either case I think we can recognise the huge privilege we have in meeting with those whose faith differs from ours.
This privilege is expressed in valuing:
- Valuing by being willing to listen as well as to tell.
- Valuing to the extent of allowing their stories to be told in addition to ours.
- Valuing in asking questions which lead us to share the heart of the issue at hand.
The hospitality of God includes making room, not only for each other, giving floor space to ‘the other’ story or life experience, but also room for the Holy Spirit to work and to bring light. So, the role of questions, rather than statements, holding space for silence …
Transformation and good conversations
Jesus used questions in His public debates with the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and in the private conversations He had with those He encountered. The Gospel accounts of Jesus dialoguing with Nicodemus, the woman at the well and the companions on the road to Emmaus are just three examples. In each of these incidents, through His use of questions and His withholding of the answers, Jesus teased out both response and understanding from His co-conversationalists. He left space for people to feel uncertainty and ambiguity which gave birth to discovery and realisation of new ways of thinking/being.
This means a vulnerability for those of us who like to have the answers sewn up. We may know and be used to sharing the Four Spiritual Laws or the Romans road to Salvation, but integrity to the ethos of open enquiry and discovery means that we can’t always be sure what the questions will be. Indeed, do Muslims feel the need for salvation when they don’t have a sense of the gravity of sin? What are the areas of concern into which we could more helpfully share Jesus?
Good conversations are the starting point and can be a transformational experience for all those involved. This is not about argument and persuasion. Instead it’s rooted in the confidence that whether we’re sharing stories or having faith conversations, the wind of the Spirit is blowing, and we are invited to participate in that work of gently pointing towards Christ, as expounded by Bishop Kenneth Cragg. How do we build skills in and grow in the practice of the Hospitality of God which requires humility, a vulnerability and an openness held in tension with a commitment to bearing witness to salvation?