Christians in Ghana have always lived and shared their lives together at all
levels. This shared life is both dialogical and missional. At various levels,
there is cooperation for common concerns, there is the everyday living and
sharing lives as neighbors from different faiths, there is the participation in
theological exchange for mutual enrichment, and also there is sharing of
spiritual experiences during interaction at festivals. Dialogue theologians
refer to these forms of dialogue as dialogue of social action, dialogue of
life, dialogue of mind, and dialogue of heart. Admittedly these forms of
dialogue are only possible in a pluralistic society where there is openness to
the religious other.
This article is
not just about how dialogue establishes trust, mutual respect, tolerance, and
hope, as important as these are. To some, this is the main goal of dialogue and
anything beyond it ceases to be dialogue. My interest here is how one relates
interfaith dialogue to witness (for the purpose of this discussion I prefer the
term witness to
mission). While dialogue
is an engagement intended to change the perception of and attitude towards the
religious other, witness is sharing the biblical stories with the intent of
changing belief, thus inviting the religious other into a relationship with
theologians tell us that there are four ways to relate dialogue and witness.1
There are two so-called extreme positions: in the first, dialogue replaces
witness, and in the second, dialogue is used as a means of conversion. There is
also a third, middle position, which tries to keep witness and dialogue apart.
However, the fourth option relates witness and dialogue dialectically, where
each influences the other.2 In my predominantly Muslim context this
approach is most relevant.
It is my thesis
that Christian witness and dialogue with other religions are inseparable and
that they are in essence two sides of the same coin. As a matter of fact,
witness without willingness to engage in dialogue is arrogance, while dialogue
without willingness to witness to our faith is naivety. I also believe that for
both witness and dialogue to be constructive they have to be seen through the
eyes of the religious other. In my work, for instance, I have not only been witnessing
and educating believers to witness to their faith, but I have also been engaged
with Muslims in constructive dialogue for social action. We work together to
fight malaria and malnutrition in a rehabilitation center for malnourished
children and in a school where we give Muslim children the opportunity to have
an education. This form of dialogue is not the end in itself, but a part of the
whole picture of what dialogue should be. In both these places our engagement
moves beyond mere cooperation in which we understand one another, establish
trust, mutual respect, and tolerance to witnessing to our respective faiths
with a goal to open the other to changing one’s religious position, or if I may
say, toward conversion.
A Short Autobiographical Note
can be drawn from my personal journey from Islam to Christianity and my
day-to-day living in a predominantly Muslim context. In my story dialogue and
witness coexist dialectically.
Born into a
Muslim family, I am the eldest child of my mother, who is the third of my
father’s four wives. Together with my thirteen brothers and sisters and a few
dozen relatives, we shared the same house. Everyone in the family at least
identifies with the Islamic faith and publicly professes the shahada. My mother comes from an African
Traditional Religion background and my great-grandmother was a priestess of the
village where she was born. This means that my mother has allegiance to both
Allah and the god of her village. I became a follower of Christ in my early teens.
Although disappointed at my change of allegiance, the family still loved me and
did their best to bring me back to the family faith.
Within my family
three different faiths coexist peacefully. Apart from those who strictly follow
either Islam or Christianity, there are also those who practice a hybrid of
Islam and the traditional religion. As a family, we celebrate our religious
festivals together, share family traditions, live out our faith openly, and
also each share our respective faiths with a view to possibly converting the
principles I draw from my personal story I term the incarnational
principle and the principle
The Incarnational Principle
Christian witness has always been
incarnational. In the person of Christ, God came to dwell among humans to serve
and redeem us. Incarnation is based on relationship—one based on shared lives
and traditions. Jesus’ encounters with Pharisees were both an open dialogue and
a challenge to change perceptions and outlook towards others. It seems to me
that in most of his encounters, Jesus not only listened but also challenged
people to change.
If indeed witness
is concerned with a change in belief and dialogue and is concerned with a
change in attitude,4 then in my view Jesus’ ministry was both
dialogical and missional. If this is the case, then the incarnation is a
process of both dialogue and witness, which should be exemplified in our lives
and ministry as Christians.
Principle of Reciprocity
By reciprocity I
do not mean for Christians to accept the truth claim of the religious other as
a precondition for dialogue to take place.5 Rather, I am referring
to the admonition of Jesus that we should do to others what we would have them
do to us (Matt 7:12 and Luke 6:31). These verses should serve as a guide as
Christians engage with Muslims.
According to the
principle of reciprocity, dialogue needs the open space for authentic witness
to take place, and conversely, witness needs the open space for honest
dialogue. This implies understanding the other in a way that he/she can
recognize him/herself in my perception. Second, it signals bearing witness and
sharing the best of one’s faith with one another. This double commandment of
interreligious dialogue6 is very relevant to the way Christians
relate witness and dialogue in their daily lives. We become vulnerable both
towards the other’s faith as well as our own faith community. This is a
necessary component because both vulnerability and conviction are part of
dialogue and of Christian witness. We will only be taken seriously when we
share our faith convictions and yet allow ourselves to be questioned in the
same way we question the other. Both Christians and Muslims should have the
right to persuade and be persuaded in dialogue while maintaining the freedom to
remain firm in their religion or to change.7
In my context of
living and sharing life with my Muslim family and neighbors (i.e., dialogue of
life), Muslims are always zealous to call Christians and Traditional
Religionists to embrace Islam. They integrate Islamic dawa
(the preaching of
and invitation to accept the message of Islam) in sharing their daily lives
with them. This is also the case in all other forms of dialogue. For fear of
causing offense, sometimes Christians fail to witness during dialogue. However,
since both Muslims and Christians zealously believe in their God-given mandate
to witness to their respective faith (Qur’ān 5:48; Matt 28:19–20), it is
therefore inconsistent—from the perspective of both faiths— to avoid witness in
the name of dialogue. In my context, for example, when Christians and Muslims
meet at ceremonies such as naming ceremonies and funerals, Muslims are usually
the first to call Christians to embrace Islam. If they are so quick to do so
without seeing it as offensive, it seems to me that inviting them to follow
Christ (witness) in dialogue is both incarnational and reciprocal.
this point, I recently was invited to participate at our local District
Assembly (or town council). The imam was asked to open with prayer, and as a
pastor I was supposed to close the meeting with prayer. After my prayer the
imam felt the need to speak again but instead of praying he began to preach.
His sermon was actually geared towards Christians in the gathering, evidenced
by the fact that during his concluding remarks he said that Christians are
trying to find God, but do not know the way to God. Since it was during
Ramadan, he invited Christians to say the shahada
and to accept
Islam. As readers will determine, this particular setting was not necessarily
meant as an occasion for either Christians or Muslims to share their faith. Yet
the imam did not consider it offensive to invite Christians to Islam, and thus
his call to accept the faith.
Christians need to see dialogue and witness through the eye of the religious
other, not in its content, but in its method: there need be no dichotomy
between witness and dialogue. Indeed, the two are mutually inclusive.
Christians and Muslims need to be engaged holistically by moving beyond
understanding and appreciation of the religious other and proceed to
questioning. It is only in questioning that genuine witness can take place.
After all, if our dialogue partners do not separate dawa
and dialogue, why
Kuester, “Towards an Intercultural Theology: Paradigm Shifts in Missiology,
Ecumenics, and Comparative Religion,” in Theology
and the Religions: A Dialogue, ed.
Viggo Mortensen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 179.
3This is a very
common reality in sub-Saharan Africa. Cf. Lamin Sanneh, West African Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis: 1983), 221; and J. Osei Bonsu, ed.,
Ecclesia in Ghana: On the
Church and Its Evangelising Mission in the Third Millennium, Intrumentum Laboris, First National Catholic Pastoral
Congress (Accra: Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ghana, 1997), 157.
4Cf. Notto R.
Thelle, “Interreligious Dialogue: Theory and Experience,” in Theology and the Religions: a Dialogue, ed. Viggo Mortensen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 130.
“Issues in Christian-Muslim Relations and Their
Implications for Theological Formation in Africa,” Journal of African Christian Thoughts 7, no. 2, ed. Gillian M. Bediako (Accra: Type Company
Limited, 2004), 31.
an Intercultural Theology,” 179.
Yakubu, “Christian-Muslim Relations in Ghana: A Reflection on the Documents of
Christian Council of Ghana and Catholic Bishop’s Conference,” Master of
Theology Thesis, Kampen University, The Netherlands, 2005, 75.
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Rahman Yakubu holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Tyndale Theological Seminary in Amsterdam, as well as a Master of Inter-cultural Theology from Kampen University (the Netherlands).