Editor’s Introduction: Spotlighting Inter-religious Dialogue & Action

1] In his study on faith and culture, German-American theologian Paul Tillich claimed that religion is the substance of culture and that culture is the concrete form in which the religious dimension of the human spirit is expressed.1 But what happens when different religions and cultures coexist in the same society, in close proximity to each other? That is the case in many places across the world today. At an intellectual level, the challenge for people who take their faith seriously is how to balance the absolute claims of their faith tradition (they are after all claims about God or ultimacy, with universal scope) with the also absolute claims of the neighbors’ faith. The peaceful coexistence of our communities depends on the success of that balancing act.

[2] We could of course create silos of religious practice where we each keep to our own and do not interact with our neighbors in matters religious. Or we could dare to step outside our comfort zones and risk being surprised by what we find. We might find startling insights about the humanity or faith of others. We might find fresh insights into our own faith. In this editor’s opinion, we might even be stunned like Peter’s friends in the book of Acts when God poured the Holy Spirit on those whom were not supposed to receive the Spirit at all, for Luke tells us that: “ The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on [uncircumcised] Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).

[3] In any case, it is also only by stepping outside our comfort zone and entering into meaningful relationships with our neighbors that we would be able to testify to the divine power that we have come to know through the gospel of the life, passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, for the sake of building wholesome communities, for the sake of being open to the freedom of the divine Spirit, and for the sake of being able to bear witness of our faith, we should find ways to engage in rich and fruitful relationships with our neighbors whose religious confessions differ from ours.

[4] The three articles in this issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics provoke us to consider thoughtful ways for Lutherans specifically to engage in fruitful dialogue and collaboration with Muslim communities. In the first article, Carol LaHurd, distinguished affiliate professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and educational outreach consultant for its Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, in collaboration with Sara Trumm, Program Coordinator for LSTC’s A Center of Christian-Muslim Relations for Peace and Justice (CCME) offers concrete examples of how some Lutherans are already building such rich relationships of mutuality and mutual learning. In the end, she concludes, “we need to provide experiential learning through direct encounters with people of other religious traditions—or at least to tell their concrete human stories” (¶ 7). In other words, there is no replacement for face to face human encounters with our neighbors where we are able to get to know each other in all the complexity of our diverse expressions of our religions and cultures.

[5] In the second and third articles, David Grafton, professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Duncan Black Macdonald Center, Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut, argues that if the church intends to be a public church then it must be aware of the fact that part of that public is constituted by practitioners of religions different than our own and which also have the experience of marginalization. However, Grafton warns against a watering down of any groups religious convictions for the sake of finding an artificial common denominator.

[6] Instead, he lifts up his experience in dialogue with Muslim believers who are committed to dialogue but are also firm in their convictions. The only way to get to know the other and for the other to get to know us as we truly are is if we are willing to go through the sometimes uncomfortable process of explicating our faith especially when it differs from the perspective of the other we are in dialogue with. This must be done, however, not in a spirit of competition but of curiosity and mutual discovery. One important consideration that Grafton calls our attention to is the need to be sensitive to the plurality of expressions and circumstances of our interlocutors. Muslims, for example, like Lutherans, are not a monolithic group. There are Muslims from the Middle East but also African immigrant Muslims, U.S. American born Muslims. As he puts it:

Congregations that wish to engage with Muslim communities must learn to let go of the need to be the host of the relationship and learn to be a guest. This means developing sensitivities and respect for Islamic prayer times and holidays (that rotate according a lunar cycle), and worship practices (taking off shoes, covering heads, segregating males and females for public prayer). It also means learning to be open to the variety of ways that different Muslim communities organize themselves and embody their faith life.

[7] Dialogue can be difficult and challenging at first, but the rewards of thoughtful and sustained dialogue and engagement are great. We stand to benefit by gaining greater understanding of our own faith by having to clarify it to ourselves so that we can explain it to our neighbors, and we might gain greater appreciation for the divine mystery that we worship as we learn of the various cultural expressions that have emerged from the encounters of different peoples with the divine Spirit. Religions are windows through which the divine light can enter into our consciousness, not museums where the divine has been once and forever captured in hieroglyphs for the exclusive benefit of those who know how to decipher them. The word of God is after all a living word according to the testimony of the Scriptures.2

[8] Finally, a word of gratitude is owed to Christopher Gregorio, whose idea it was, when he was an intern with the Theological Discernment team at the Office of the Presiding Bishop, to dedicate an issue of JLE to the question of religious pluralism and its intersection with social justice issues. He did the ground work to find potential authors for the issue and coordinated with Professor LaHurd for her contribution. Thank you Christopher.


Carmelo Santos


1 Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), especially the first chapter: Religion as a Dimension in Man’s Spiritual Life,” pp. 3-9.

Carmelo Santos

​Carmelo Santos, Ph.D., serves as associate pastor at St. Mark’s (San Marcos) Lutheran Church in Springfield, VA. He is also a lecturer at Georgetown University.