Chicago Sun-Times: 10 questions for a theologian

If you look up “theologian” in the dictionary, you might find a picture of Martin Forward.

Forward is the executive director of the Wackerlin Center for Faith and Action at Aurora University, and a full-time truth-seeker. He teaches religion at AU, which generally means he helps his students ponder the big questions of life. Originally from England, Forward is a British Methodist minister. He’s worked at prestigious universities in Cambridge, and in Hyderabad, India, teaching and studying the world’s religions.

With the Wackerlin Center, Forward puts his faith and natural curiosity into action, bringing local churches, mosques and synagogues together to explore religions and customs.

And Forward is working on a dictionary of his own. He’s been chosen to edit a new book on Christian-Muslim relations. With a team of more than 60 collaborators, Forward will put together a book of entries on topics of interest to Christians and Muslims, from both perspectives. The book is scheduled to come out in 2012.

Martin Forward is the Director of Aurora University’s Wackerlin Center for Faith and Justice

Read a full transcript of the interview with Martin Forward at www.beaconnewsonline/lifestyles

And Forward is working on a dictionary of his own. He’s been chosen to edit a new book on Christian-Muslim relations. With a team of more than 60 collaborators, Forward will put together a book of entries on topics of interest to Christians and Muslims, from both perspectives. The book is scheduled to come out in 2012.

1. Why a dictionary?

Dictionary means you get a short, relatively short response to some interesting issues. So for instance, in a dictionary of Christian/Muslim relations, an entry on Jesus, if you have a long essay, people might kind of lose the will to live. You get more information if you put it tersely. Now clearly, some entries will be longer than others. Some will be 200 words, something on Jesus is more likely to be 2,000 words, because there’s a lot more to be said. But we want to keep it relatively short so that people can use it as a reference. They can go and think, ‘Of all the millions of things that have been said about Jesus, by Christians and Muslims, what are the really important things that have been said about Jesus that are relevant to the relationship between Christians and Muslims?’

2. You have a number of people contributing to this. How does one balance out the different points of view on any given subject for a 200-word entry?

You have to get an expert. So somebody has to be really knowledgeable about that subject. Let’s say you have a dictionary entry on food. Which sounds crazy, but for instance, Christian/Muslim relations are affected by hospitality. Christians giving food to Muslims, or vice versa, is a way of leading to friendship, and that’s happened in such a way that it really improved relationships. But then you fall into the whole business of what food can you give, how does it have to be cooked? If you say to the imam of a mosque, ‘Do you have this pork chop or sausage,’ he may hit you over the head. So you have to have somebody who knows the sensitivities. Not just about food and religion, but sensitivities of both Christian and Muslim hospitality and food.

We have to do other balancing acts as well. In a dictionary like this I think it’s important to have relatively equal balance of Christians and Muslims, of men and women, of people from different parts of the world. For instance, my own background is in South Asian, sort of Indian and Pakistani Christian and Muslim relations. I could do dictionary entries off the drop of a hat. I would prefer to find a Pakistani or Indian friend to do it, because it gives it a kind of street cred. Maybe I would do it, but if I could get a Pakistani or Indian to do the entry on Britain. It doesn’t have to be precise, but it does have to be sort of fair, I think, and also give people who read the dictionary the idea that this isn’t just a white middle-class male thing. We’re writing in English, because English is the major international language, so you know, I have to say to my French and other friends, ‘Sorry. Please write for us, but write in English!’

3. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?

To get people to realize that sometimes, relations between Christians and Muslims have been really rather good. If I were to spell that out, I would say that lots of people these days think that Christians and Muslims don’t get on. Al Qaida, all that kind of stuff, Muslim revolts in southern Russia and Chechnya, all those sorts of things, suicide bombers. We tend to think that Muslims are kind of crazy people. But my own experience, having worked in India with Muslim friends, is hospitality and affection, friendship. I go into Chicago and I meet people who belong to CAIR, the Council of American Islamic Relations, and they’re good American Muslims. They want to be Americans as well as Muslims. They hate Al Qaida, and find them just as offensive as I do. In fact, more offensive, because they’re trying to hijack their religion.

If you look back at various things, you can see all sorts of times when Christians and Muslims have been at each other’s throats. And we don’t want to underplay it, we’re not doing a whitewash. But we are wanting to get people to see a more rounded picture, and to pick out those moments in time, those kind of areas like food and hospitality, where we can say there’s really scope for us to work together, and to like each other.

4. Is it possible to separate the faith from the politics, and is that even a good idea in a project like this?

Difficult one to answer, so I’ll do the academic thing and say yes and no. The no is that theoretically in Islam, there is no separation of church and state, or of Mosque and state, if you like. Just as in certain branches of Christianity that’s true, though not in others. The Christian faith has been more mixed as to whether it has to be political. There’s the medieval Christendom, and then there’s the American experience of separation of church and state, and so on. But in practice, there is some kind of a distinction in both religions between the equivalent of church and state, between politics and religion. In medieval times, some of the great medieval Muslim holy men used to tell the ?? and the ?? off when they abused their power. Somebody like Queen Elizabeth I, in Britain, when she negotiated the Elizabethan Settlement, about Protestantism and Catholicism and all the rest of it. She said she did not want to make a window into men’s souls, which I think is a wonderful expression. There’s a Christian example of someone who was trying to sort out religious conflict because she needed a country that was stable, but she didn’t want to do it in a way which didn’t give religion its own sort of dignified place, in principle separate from the political process.

So it’s a funny mixture. I think part of the problem is that many Christians think that Muslims can’t distinguish between the two, and therefore nasty politicians always run Islam. Many Muslims have other caricatures about Christians, but they’re all caricatures. On the ground, it’s all a bit more flexible.

5. Give me an example of how, in this book, you would show people that a lot of the preconceived notions are caricatures.

If you have an article on the Convivencia, a period in medieval Spain, roughly between 700 and 1150, when Muslims ruled much of Spain, but when Christians and Jews, for the most part, were treated well. Many were involved in government. There was an influence of theology and moral behavior and culture and so on. If we did an article on the Convivencia, we could deal with a number of the issues we’ve already talked about. Politics, for example. A relatively liberal rule enabled tolerance between the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to flourish, but there was a separation between the political and the religious. It illustrates the fact that sometimes relations between the three major religions have been very good indeed, as well as horrible, and it also illustrates, sadly, how some of these periods are brought to an end by nasty, intolerant people taking over the political process. I think that could be a very good article to illustrate what the dictionary’s all about: being fair-minded about what the relationships are really like and giving us an idea of what it could be for the future.

One of the intriguing things about choosing contributors is who you choose. For an article like that, do you get a Christian or a Muslim to do it? And I rather hope we can choose the best person and trust them to be fair. If we do an article on Jesus or Mohammad, the easy and probably the best way, and I would put money on us going down this route, is to have a Muslim do Mohammad and a Christian do Jesus. But in principle it would be really interesting to do it the other way round, if people were fair-minded. But one of the constraints on us doing a dictionary is those people who read it as well. If a Christian picks it up and sees that Jesus has been written by a person with a Muslim name, and the other way round, they may just put the book down, and that would be sad. So it’s a really interesting balancing act.

We could have two people doing the same article from a different perspective. We might do that occasionally. I wouldn’t want to do that for everything, though, because I think one of the deals about interfaith dialogue is the willingness to trust someone to speak on your behalf and to do it fairly.

6. How do you see that dialogue playing out locally? Is it a microcosm of how it is everywhere?

Yes, to some extent. There’s this rather splendid Mosque just off Indian Trail, and we have some dealings with the community there. (We take) student groups up there, and the various leaders of the community do some teaching for us there. We’ve run Iftar meals – the meal that breaks the fast at the end of the day in the month of Ramadan. Clearly that’s done jointly between Muslims and Christians here, and we’ve done that at one of the churches on Galena (Boulevard) with Muslim friends.

So things happen, but it would be nice if more things happened. I hope the relationships will grow and develop.

7. How does someone encourage those relationships to happen?

In one sense, I always like to encourage people who live next door to a neighbor of another faith just to say hello. I think it’s often at that kind of hospitable and friendly level that all the really important stuff happens. I’m not the only one doing things, obviously, but my own contribution would be to organize these Iftar meals and take our students up there. This sort of natural thing of speaking to your next-door neighbors is in some ways, I think, far better than these rather formal and organized events, though I don’t want to underplay the formal and organized events.

And certainly it’s kind of interesting to see our kids go over to the Mosques, some of them very much like, ‘Can I do this? Am I going to a place where demons dwell?’ Some of them, frankly, can’t get through that mindset, and are really very uncomfortable, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. But many of them are actually quite pleased by the hospitality they get, and ask all sorts of interesting questions in class after they’ve been.

It can be quite difficult for some of them, particularly women, because in the Mosque, the men and the women are separated, as they are in the Synagogue, and many of our Christian kids go assuming that that’s all about inferior status for women. And when women who are there talk to them, they may actually get a different story from those Muslims, who say it’s not about inferiority, it’s about different roles. I’m not suggesting that our kids should believe that without question, but the fact that they’re told by a Muslim woman that we don’t see ourselves as inferior often does make them think again, and ask all sorts of interesting questions. It’s quite nice when one or two of them go back a second time, to ask questions, and that does occasionally happen.

8. How did your own journey of faith start?

I was brought up, like most English kids of my generation, to be nominally Christian and non-churchgoing. I was, I suppose, functionally a Christian atheist. I inherited a Christian culture, but had no real belief. I read a child’s book called Jesus when I was five years old, and thought, ‘This is a very interesting person.’ The stories about him made me think about religion. My dad was in the Royal Air Force, so we traveled the world. I lived in places like Aden, at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula, and Singapore. One of my earliest memories, when I was about four or five, was of a Chinese New Year festival. That was one of my earliest religious memories. And I thought, ‘Everywhere, people are religious, except in England. How do I make sense of this?’

So, being a nosy kid, I read a bit, and I used to speak to friends who were Confucionists or Muslims in Aden, and whatnot. And I just got hooked. I thought religion was a very interesting phenomenon. And in my teens, I thought, ‘Well, I ought to see what the Christian faith is really like, since it’s the one I inherited.” I went to the local church, which happened to be a Methodist church, and just stuck.

9. Do you find a conflict between the academic and faith-based approaches to religion?

Less so now. I used to worry a bit when I was in my 20s, and in my first parish or church. I’d learned all this information about the New Testament, I picked up Greek, and then I learned about Islam and picked up a little Arabic. And I thought, ‘Clearly, when I’m preaching a sermon, I won’t use the Arabic. But how can I put all this knowledge into a form in which they can hear it and understand it?’ And I’m sure some of my sermons were the dullest kind of lectures, which people forgave me for.

And then as I got older, I came to realize that you don’t have to force the knowledge down people’s throats. What you have to do is integrate that knowledge into your own life, so that the way in which you try to explain faith to people is part of a vision that you yourself have. To try to share that vision is more important than splitting the vision down into great details. And I think I also learned that Christianity is such a variety of related, interdependent things. In sharing vision with people in sermons or what have you, you need to give them space to argue with you, and disagree, and frame it in their own way.

My job is not to say, ‘Here are the 25 things you must tell me in your essay, and if you don’t, you’ll get an F.’ I’m putting it very crudely, but we should be saying, ‘Here are 25 things that it would be interesting for you to know and interpret to me in a way that makes sense to you.’ And if I don’t agree with it, but there’s a kind of logic and rationality, a vision and a passion to it, then that’s fine. Have an A. But if you tell me what I want to hear just because you think I would like it, then I’ll have the A and you can have an F, because it’s my vision. (Laughs.)

10. What do you find most fulfilling about your job at Aurora University?

Working with students, I think. It’s fun to talk with students, and get their take on things, and to remind myself how old I am, and how I see the world in quite a different way than they do. And how I have no idea how to use an iPod, and a computer is a glorified typewriter to me, and all these kinds of differences are nice and humbling. It is fun to teach and to see them think, ‘Hey, that’s interesting,’ and to get them to ask questions, and to get them to ask questions of each other, as well as of me.

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