Commission for Ecumenism & Interfaith Dialogue

Talk About Islam and Christianity


Tim Staples is an American Catholic evangelist who made a speaking tour of Australia in 2009. Recordings of his lectures are circulating among those impressed by their content and his style. The talk he gave on Islam in Sydney attracted a large crowd but his approach to the subject left me wondering how best to engage in interfaith discussion.

I felt Tim Staples was taking us back to the days before the Second Vatican Council when we used to discuss and debate with people from other religions (or of no religion at all) on the assumption that our own religion only needed to be explained correctly to those who had not yet understood it properly. In those days, we felt that, once a person from another religion had a clear exposition of our point of view, he/she would have no further need or reason to reject it. Has such an approach yielded any fruit?

Staples made it clear that the best approach to the resolution of interfaith issues was to ask Christians and Muslims to sit down for a rational discussion or debate on our differences. He seemed to be quite unaware of the mistrust and suspicion that has resulted from the long, dark history of Muslim-Christian relations. The tensions that continue to characterize relations between Christian and Muslim societies are not the result of a simple misunderstanding that can be resolved by rational argument and discussion.

One reason for this tension is the continuing intrusion of the West into Afghanistan and Middle Eastern countries. Muslims have every reason to doubt whether the Crusades that occurred in the Middle Ages are really an issue of the past. A further source of tension is the rhetoric of some religious leaders who continue to stoke the fires of fear and retaliation. Could anyone hope for a rational discussion in such a climate of animosity and revenge?

We need to deal with these emotional issues before we can begin to clarify our theological doctrines and beliefs.

In his talk on Islam, Staples himself did not even exemplify an approach to open and fair discussion.  In fact, he caused further division between Christians and Muslims by not considering the Muslim point of view. For example, he understood the oft-quoted Qur’anic verse about men being superior to women to be a statement of universal validity in every circumstance. However, verses like this reflect the social conditions that existed during the period when the Qur’an was revealed and, therefore, need special investigation and careful interpretation.

Regarding Old Testament verses about violence, however, Staples insisted that such verses do not teach an eternal truth but only describe a particular historical event. It appeared that Staples had one approach for the Qur’an and another for the Bible. This unfair approach to Scripture enabled him to dominate the discussion.

Dominating an interfaith discussion or winning an argument between Christians and Muslims is not a recipe for dialogue. Interfaith discussion or dialogue is about trying to understand the beliefs and practices of those who follow another religion. As discussion partners, we try to accept the explanations offered by the person practicing a particular religion rather than insisting on our own assumptions and convictions. We also need to take into account the history of mistrust and misinformation that has existed for so long between Christians and Muslims. Interfaith discussion or dialogue will not go very far unless both parties trust each other enough to ask new questions and to hear unexpected and even surprising answers.

Herman Roborgh SJ (April 2010)      

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