Interfaith Debates: Examples and Perspectives

Interfaith Debates: Examples and Perspectives

In his paper authored and released on the occasion of the 2016 UN Global Interfaith Harmony Week, EUCLID’s faculty member Pr L Cleenewerck wrote the following regarding debates as a means of interfaith dialogue:

Since the publication of A Common Word in 2007, an interesting phenomenon has been the development and popularization of public debates as a form of contribution to Muslim – Christian dialogue. As a point of reference, one particular Christian apologist, James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries, has participated in several moderated public debates in such visible locations as London’s and Johannesburg’s largest mosques.

However, this development is probably not what the authors of A Common Word had in mind, and the debate form was not proposed as an adequate means to achieve dialogue by the Christian leaders who had replied to the letter. We should, nevertheless, begin with a positive assessment of this phenomenon: these personal encounters seem to have fostered genuine respect between many of the participants. On his popular webcast, Dr James White was bluntly vocal in his criticism of Christian preachers who, following the Paris attacks, has lumped Islam and violent Islamic extremism together, without distinction.[1] These debates also have the merit to channel youthful energies (including in the audience) towards an intellectual pursuit, which is extremely positive in itself. Last but not least, it showed that frank Muslim – Christian encounters could take place in churches and mosques, without provoking any disturbance. On the other hand, such debates have tended to be apologies of one’s entrenched position, without any effort of convergence. Closing statements were about winning the argument rather than finding common words. And sadly, I do not recall A Common Word ever being cited in the course of these often two-long conversations.

As a Christian theologian belonging the Eastern (also called Greek) Orthodox Church, I often wondered why the Muslim debaters would have so often chosen a Reformed (Calvinist) apologist as a partner in the dialogue. After all, the Muslim scholars who had authored the landmark document A Common Word had addressed it to the Pope first, then to the Eastern and Orthodox patriarchs, and only last to a short list of Protestant leaders. This is of significance because I had once noticed how John Zizioulas, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Pergamon and a leading theologian, pointed out that the Eastern Christian doctrine of God was more apt to enter into dialogue with Islam than its Latin-West counterpart.[2] Indeed, listening to these Muslim-Christian debates, I often found myself agreeing with the Muslim arguments taken from the Christian New Testament, and finding the Christian response, offered from a Western perspective, less than convincing. The lack of willingness, on both sides, to seek convergence through better terminology was sorely lacking, which lead me to think that the debate format, when the participants are apologists whose goal is to win a contest, has done little to answer the call for A Common Word.

[1] For instance, on the December 22, 2015 webcast, accessed at

[2] John Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, 151


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