Revisioning Christian-Muslim Relations Today
The metaphor of our world being a “global village” has never been truer than in these past several weeks. Day after day we have read online or in the newspapers about the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, and watched highlights of events on the evening news. It is hard to keep up with the dizzying unfolding of events.
Tunisia’s ruler fled and the nation has a new government. In Yemen, Egypt, and Sudan, longtime rulers announced that they will not stand for re-election. The King of Jordan replaced his own cabinet with a prime minister who promises reform. And as I write, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya is in a civil war against opposition forces in Libya, and the number of anti-government protestors in the streets in Bahrain and Morocco is growing.
The images on the front pages of our newspapers are more often than not of bearded faces shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greater), thereby reinforcing the impression that there are only Muslims who live there. This reinforces the traditional approach to understanding the relationship between Islam and Christianity, namely, to visualize the two religions, and the civilizations they have helped to create, as separate circles only touching at their perimeters.
During my years of study in theology, Professor Wilfred Cantwell Smith was already challenging that line of approach in favor of one wherein we see ourselves within the total complex of events, living within the same global village. His call for a new mental map of Christian-Muslim relations is the more urgent today in light of the changing demography of Christian-Muslim encounter.
The classical two-circle vision was based on the identification of Christendom with Europe and the North Atlantic, confronting an Islamic world that began in Western Asia and North Africa. But the twenty-first century presents us with a different picture. A majority of Christians now live in the Southern and Eastern hemispheres, outnumbering Western Christians by a ratio of three to two. Christianity is renewing itself as a non-Western religion.
The flip-side of this is that Islam is seeing significant growth in the West both within the boundaries of secularism and, in our own context, with unique American and Canadian characteristics. Muslims are taking pains to show that they can be authentically Islamic while at the same time being authentically North American. So once again we are challenged to redraft our mental cartography. The two-circle vision doesn’t reflect our present reality of truly living in a global village.
In this village, our dialogue with one another should not simply focus on finding common ground in some transcending principles or beliefs. Rather, it should include our engaging with one another in the challenges we commonly face in the social contexts that we share as we struggle together with the real issues of life.
I read recently of a group of African-American Muslims and Christians whose district was rife with drug peddlers and drug-related violence. Recognizing that the situation threatened the well-being of their children, they formed an interfaith action group and proceeded to confront the dealers night after night for a half-year until they cleared the streets of them.
The protestors in Cairo at the height of the recent crisis gave us another powerful image of people of faith acting together. The Muslims formed a protective circle around the Coptic Christians as they celebrated Mass in the city square, and then the Christians did the same for the Muslims during their time of prayer.
In the end, it is as people of faith that we meet. Professor Smith carefully distinguished between faith and belief. Faith denotes an affective relationship with God, while belief represents ways in which the faith relationship is intellectualized and expressed in creedal statements and institutional traditions.
While Muslim and Christian beliefs and institutional traditions differ, faith is the common ground of our being, something we share. This faith, as a divine gift, unites us in the grace of God.
When we see faith as the primordial issue, our relations with one another as Christians and Muslims will no longer be seen as a convergence of separate circles, but as a single circle: a shared human community of faith, differentiated by beliefs and institutional traditions, yet ultimately united in the effort to discern and conform ourselves to the purposes of God in a divided world. 
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC
 David Kerr, “Christian-Muslim Relations: Lessons from History,” in The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue, ed. Michael Ipgrave (London: Church Publishing House, 2002),, 26-37.