Christians and Muslims: Reading Scripture Together
Benedictine University, a small Catholic college in Chicago’s western suburbs, is equally proud of its 123-year-old Catholic heritage and its present-day religious diversity. Our current student body includes not only Catholics and various other Christians, but also significant percentages of Muslims and Hindus drawn from nearby South Asian neighborhoods. So when faculty and students heard that a Florida group was planning a Qur’an burning for September 11, we were inspired to act. Several student-led organizations worked together to plan an interfaith event that would do more than just condemn the proposed book burning, but would also showcase and inspire positive relationships among the various faiths on campus.
The hour-long event, held three days after September 11, opened with brief statements from seven Catholic and Muslim students who had been involved in a bimonthly dialogue the previous spring semester. The students shared what they learned and described how their own faith has been deepened by participating. They also outlined the “ground rules” of dialogue: it is not about conversion, polemic, syncretism, or compromise; it is about listening and learning, articulating one’s faith knowledgably, affirming similarities and exploring differences, and increasing respect and trust between religious communities.
Nearly 250 students, faculty, and staff packed the student lounge and spilled over into an adjacent room. After the students spoke, the crowd divided into small groups of about ten; each group was led by a Muslim and a Christian who read and discussed passages they had personally chosen from the Qur’an and Bible. The group leaders were not scholars, of course; the point was to provide a personal entrée into sacred texts that are often difficult for individuals to access on their own. This activity got students reading and talking together, so they could learn firsthand how people of another religion understand their own scripture and apply it to life. In so doing we were following two key principles of interreligious dialogue: First, there is no dialogue between “Islam” and “Christianity,” only dialogue between particular Muslims and Christians. Second, when learning about another religion, members of that religion must be allowed to define themselves.
Introducing Students to Interfaith Dialogue
We called the event “Reading Scripture Together,” for what better way to combat a book burning than to open the targeted book, and to do so in the company of the other? Happily, the Qur’an burning never occurred, but in the end that didn’t matter, since our event was not about Florida. Rather, it was about our own community. It was about affirming more than just tolerance, but empathy. It was about giving students a taste of interfaith dialogue, by encouraging them to talk to people they might not have otherwise.
It is true that we are a religiously diverse university, but mere proximity to diversity does not ensure understanding, respect, or harmony. Interreligious diversity must be actively engaged, and that takes effort, perseverance, and time. My hope is that our humble September event has inspired us to keep talking. And indeed, some of us have. The small Catholic-Muslim dialogue group that had seven members last semester now has nine. This fall the students decided to continue the theme of “reading scripture together,” and are currently studying passages from the Qur’an and Bible related to social justice. The students still meet every other Tuesday at lunchtime.
I would like to end this article with a question to Koinonia’s readers: what does your local “interfaith landscape” look like? What kinds of interreligious events are happening in your community? The media constantly highlights controversies such as the Florida Qur’an burning and the New York City mosque, but we do not hear enough about positive interreligious encounters, especially those at the grassroots level. Please share your stories for our mutual inspiration.
Editor’s note: Articles describing your local interfaith landscape are welcome! Send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rita George Tvrtković, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University, Lisle, Illinois