From April 23 through June 25, Christ Presbyterian Church is hosting a free interactive series "Co-Exist: Is it Possible?"

CANTON  Is it possible for Christians and Muslims to have conversations about their differences without it becoming a debate?

From April 23 through June 25, Christ Presbyterian Church is hosting a free interactive series "Co-Exist: Is it Possible?" from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m. Sundays.

The featured speakers include Zev Rosenberg, retired pastor and a scholar of Jewish and Christian traditions and history; John D. Geib, an author, retired Malone University theology professor and founder of the Logos Institute; Ramez Islambouli, an adjunct professor of Islamic law at Case Western University School of Law and an instructor on Islam at Cleveland State and John Carroll universities; and Imam Jaffa Juma, director of education and principal at the Islamic Society of North Eastern Ohio in Jackson Township.

"The seed of the idea was born in the last class that Zev and I taught here, on Peter," Geib said. "And Zev was sharing his experiences in his journey of faith as a Jewish person and one who had considered Christianity, and was now a believer in Christ. Judge (John) Milligan said, 'You should have a course on Christianity and Islam so we can learn to look at it the way you have learned, to look at both sides.'

"Given the climate that we live in, we think it's a good time to have an open, honest exploration, discussion, friendly chat to learn from each other. Yes, is it possible to co-exist?"

The series, Geib said, will look at history and theology but also will examine practical ways local faith communities can co-exist.

The Rev. Dave DeVries, the host pastor, said the series is in keeping with Christian tenets.

Dialogue follows Christ 

"The question always becomes, what are the alternatives?" he said. "And if I look at Christ, I see first and foremost, a man who lived outside the expectations of his culture, whose actions, even unto death, spoke of peace. The reality of our culture is that ignorance isn't bliss; ignorance is death. If we want to follow Christ in the way of peace, what alternatives are there? Dialogue seems to be the most Christ-like. It is certainly faithful to the Christian tradition."

DeVries said he understands that some outsiders may take issue with them having the program.

"It's not our job to make everybody happy, it's my job to be a disciple of Christ, who speaks constantly of a peace that is not of this world," he said.

"To me, the essence of dialogue is I should be able to state the other person's position to their satisfaction whether or I agree with it or not," Rosenberg said. 

Rosenberg said he has been involved in interfaith dialogue for years, starting when he was rector of St. Paul Episcopal Church. He also served on a diocesan interfaith task force and helped with the annual Interfaith Week event in Cleveland where he befriended Islambouli.

"This is something I've been interested in a long time, going back as far as the first Gulf War," he said.

"Even before the shooting broke out, when it was still Operation Desert Shield, I said to myself, 'I have never learned about Islam.' When I began studying about Islam, one of the things I came to a conclusion about even before the attack that turned Desert Shield into Desert Storm, I started asking anyone who would listen, 'Has anyone thought about the implications of putting American Christian soldiers in a 'line in the sand' between Baghdad and Mecca?'

"And so, I was not at all surprised that the upshot of that operation, was in fact, the formation of al-Qaeda."

"Only one planet"

Geib said Christianity was born in a religiously diverse world, and that members of the early church were not afraid to talk to and interact with people who held different beliefs.

"There are many times in history where interfaith communities lived in harmony," he said. "If they did it, can we do it again? Who's to say we can't? We have a number of positive examples from history."

One such period, Rosenberg added, was known as the "Convivencia" in 10th and 11th century Spain. However, some scholars argue that the period has been idealized, particularly when it comes to how Jews were treated.

Rosenberg said not enough people understand the difference between dialogue and debate.

"In debate, I'm trying to get the other person to change to my point of view. In dialogue, I have to enter the process with an open-enough mind that I can be changed by the process. Unfortunately, a lot of people these days do not have the kind of the openness of mind, I think, is absolutely essential to Muslim- Christian co-existence, but the alternative (to existence) is bloodshed." 

Rosenberg noted that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world and in the U.S.

"We only have one planet," he said. "We either learn to live together peacefully or we will destroy civilization as we know it. I would go beyond the question, 'What is the alternative?' I think there is no alternative."

"It's really intended to be a conversational course rather than somebody dictating answers," Geib said. "We're not trying to tell anybody what to do, but maybe exhibit and exemplify what it's like to have conversations among people of good will, and hopefully some cool will happen."

For a schedule of speakers and presentations, visit www.cantoncpc.org.

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @cgoshayREP