Over the last nine years, Dubuque, Iowa has become a hotbed of interfaith dialogue, thanks to Children of Abraham. The group holds monthly public lectures, Bible, Torah and Qur’an study, and interfaith discussions, where hundreds of people have come to broaden their understanding and promote peace. It started when a Catholic history professor, a Muslim psychiatrist and Jewish computer professor decided to open their unique conversation to the larger community. LightWorkers spoke with co-founder John Eby, a professor at Loras College, about how loving one’s neighbor starts with listening. Here are the edited highlights of our conversation.
LW: How did Children of Abraham start?
Eby: At a conference, I introduced myself to Adib Kassas, the imam in Dubuque, and asked if he would be willing to come to Loras and talk about the Qur’an. I had studied Islam quite a bit but recognized that because I’m not Muslim, there would be things I would be missing. He came, and then a group of four or five of us started meeting weekly, including Adib and my friend Alan Garfield, who was president at Temple Bethel. We realized we had an amazing conversation and sharing of ideas. We all liked the idea of a public, monthly community conversation. We started up the next year.
There are differences in the way we express our understanding of God. And we’ve come to understand those differences as shedding new light to our understanding.
LW: What was your initial goal?
Eby: To learn about other traditions from the perspective of people in those traditions. We wanted to build a healthy environment for civil discourse across boundaries that were seen as difficult or unbridgeable. Ultimately this is about relationship-building. The most important thing we are doing is building trusting and loving friendships in places that wouldn’t otherwise happen.
LW: What do you share in common?
Eby: The importance of humanitarian justice. That God commands us to love other people, including those who are different than us. And that we are a whole lot closer to having a similar concept of God than most of us would have expected at the beginning of this journey. There are differences in the way we express our understanding of God. But we’ve come to understand those differences as shedding new light or nuances to our understanding—as opposed to representing a different God.
LW: What have been some of the more memorable conversations?
Eby: We recently discussed the parable of the Good Samaritan. A Mennonite saw the parable as a prescription for what we must do to be good. An Orthodox priest said he sees an allegory of Christ—that the man who was beaten and left on the road was Christ sacrificing himself for us. A Lutheran emphasized the significance of grace; that the story was about the action of God towards us—we are the man beaten on the road and God is the one who ministers to us. My perspective was that it’s a story about interfaith engagement: The Samaritan is from a group of people considered to be an enemy, and yet that’s the man who chose to be a neighbor. The Muslim perspective was very close to the Mennonite; and the Jewish view was close to my Catholic perspective.
We also recently talked about the ethic of the value of life. It was a stunning conversation, and we had over 150 people. It had the potential to become political and rancorous, but it never did. People asked good questions, made good comments and respected each other, even when there were differences of opinion.
LW: What’s been most surprising?
Eby: How much learning from other traditions has enriched our own theological perspectives. I’m a lifelong Christian but I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the Muslim notion of “Ihsan.” It means “to beautify,” and is the highest level of religious observance. The basic level is Islam—to obey God; the second level is to go out and do justice in the world. The third level is “Ihsan”—where instead of just making sure justice is done, you transform it into something beautiful. It’s a powerful concept. It transformed the way I understand the Sermon on the Mount. I saw it as an impossible set of laws which I would do my best to follow, but was always failing. I no longer see it as a way of measuring ourselves, but of transforming the world into a better place.
LW: How have you seen perspectives change among the participants?
Eby: I was talking with one of my Muslim friends who participates regularly and he said, ‘a few years ago, I never would have imagined this. Here I am sharing my views with Christians and listening to Christians and I never did that in the Middle East, even though they were my neighbors.’
LW: What would you advise Christians looking to engage in interfaith conversations?
Eby: There’s a scriptural basis for this that is very important to me. The principle of loving your neighbor as yourself is a core of the Gospel and Ten Commandments. If I want to be a witness for Jesus and reflect Christ to other people, it starts by listening to them, respecting them, walking with them, working with them and having them over to my house. And not insisting they think my way. And then seeing how we grow together.
Secondly, don’t be afraid. Years ago when I was talking to other Christians or people of other religions, I was afraid they might say something that would challenge me or put me on the spot, or say something I couldn’t answer. That they would say something that might disrupt my theology or my doctrine. And I’ve come to discover that sometimes they do—and it’s always good. It’s always a beautiful thing because it’s God calling me to a deeper understanding of himself, and a deeper relationship with Him through these very human relationships.