During lunch 18 months ago, Dr. Ben Johnson had an epiphany as Dr. Aisha Jumaan, a Muslim, spoke to him about her faith and her experience of God.
"It came to me that this woman loves and worships the same God I do," says Johnson, a Christian. "I had this sharpened awareness that in that moment she was in touch with God, just as I was. It was a dawning and an awakening, and it was liberating because it liberates you from standing on a pedestal and looking down on someone else."
It also inspired Johnson to take on a life-changing mission.
At a time when many Christians, including some in his own church, were openly hostile towards a religion they believed advocated terrorism and was at war with the United States, Johnson initiated a dialog aimed at bringing Christians and Muslims together.
He has conducted a series of lectures and small-group gatherings at which more than 500 Muslims and Christians have shared their faith with each other. Not, Johnson hastens to point out, to convert anyone: "Just to understand each other."
Sunday Johnson will present another lecture, "Beyond 9/11: Christians and Muslims Together — A New World Vision" at Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta with a vision clear in his mind.
"The dream," he says, "is that we can find a way to bridge the chasm between Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists and make Atlanta a model city. That over the next year or two, we can develop an interfaith immersion program."
Johnson is a former minister who retired in 2000 after nearly 20 years as professor of Christian spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur. A towering man from southern Alabama, he calls himself "a soft evangelical. I ask questions and listen rather than telling people what they ought to do or believe."
He adds, "I'm the most unlikely candidate for becoming a spokesperson about Islam."
But after several months of retirement, Johnson realized he was depressed. "Life had a dull edge," he says. "I wondered who I was now that I wasn't a teacher, preacher, traveler or speaker."
The depression was about dying. "I had started life well," he says. "Now I wanted to finish it well."
Contemplative prayer and the works of Trappist monk Thomas Merton revived him. "When you listen to God," Johnson says, "you get beneath the dogma and creeds to the essence of what religion is about. It's about God in human beings in human consciousness."
Among his insights was that the 21st century would be a religious century, and the key would be relationships between two-thirds of the world's population: 2.5 billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims.
"A voice in my head said, 'And you don't know anything about Islam.' Which was true. I have five degrees, four of them theological, and other religions had never been taught seriously to me."
He began reading Islamic texts and works on comparative religion, and he asked to meet a Muslim. A church friend introduced him to Dr. Jumaan, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control who is from Yemen.
While there are differences in their faiths — Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet, for example, but not divine — Johnson found that they nevertheless arrived at the same conclusions: God is compassionate, omniscient and ubiquitous. (MORE)