Review of “Understanding Interreligious Relations,” ed. Cheetham, Pratt, and Thomas (Oxford UP, 2013)

This book review was cross-published on CatholicBooksReview in September, 2015.

Review of Understanding Interreligious Relations. Edited by David Cheetham, Douglas Pratt, and David Thomas. Oxford University Press, 2013. 448 pages. $35.00

With the increasing number of edited volumes in the area of interreligious and interfaith studies, this particular edited volume rises above the rest both in its presentation and its impressive collection of contributors. Though the authorship is mostly European, it demonstrates global awareness and attention to the uniqueness of all contexts. Instead of focusing on simply “interreligious relations” broadly, the editors of this volume wisely directed the overall thrust of the volume, in part I, to focus on “the ways in which ‘the [religious] other’ has been construed, addressed, and related to in the major religious traditions” (2), which here include Hinduism by Jeffery D. Long, Judaism by Ed Kessler, Buddhism by Elizabeth J. Harris, Christianity by Perry Schmidt-Leukel, and Islam by David Thomas. Part II shifts to “analyses of select key issues and debates in which interreligious relations are seen to be an integral constituent” (2). These issues include conversion by Andrew Wingate, dialogue by Marianne Moyaert, majority-minority dynamics by Peter C. Phan and Jonathan Y. Tan, fundamentalism and extremism by Douglas Pratt, conflict and peace-building by Anna Halafoff, engagement in the public by Nicholas Adams, liberation and justice by Mario I. Aguilar, multiple religious belonging by Catherine Cornille, boundaries by David R. Vishanoff, cooperation by Paul Weller, and emerging contexts and trends by the three editors.

The volume functions well as a whole, with each chapter making a strong contribution to its various niche within the broad field of interreligious studies. Given the sheer size of this collection and the brevity of this review, here I highlight only a few chapters (though each chapter probably deserves to be recognized at greater length). David Cheetham’s on the religious other sets the tone early for part I by delineating the parameters of the approach and for reminding the reader that in the “focus on ‘religion and the religious other,’ the meeting with the religious other ought to be a profoundly intra-religious discussion” since the encounter decenters the self and prompts us to (re)construct an experience of the other within myself” (32).

Ed Kessler offers a Jewish approach to the religious other. He admirably laments that a concern among some Jewish thinkers is that “the Holocaust has become the touchstone of Jewish identity and has inculturated Jews to think of themselves as ‘victims,’ and much of the world as ‘perpetrators’ or ‘bystanders’” (74). Such “a preoccupation (some might call it an obsession) with the past may be harmful,” since “for example “the legacy of being a victim has left an enduring mark on the Jewish psyche and impacts the Jewish encounter with others” (79).

David Thomas’ chapter on Islam dwells on the two primarily authoritative sources Muslims have drawn from for their thinking about other religions, the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad. In his examination of “the key ideas and motifs Muslims derive from these sources,” Thomas asserts that “as long as Muslim approaches to them remain unchanged, it is unlikely that the attitudes that were first formulated in early Islamic times will alter very much or that any innovative suggestions will find widespread acceptance” (148).  Of course, Thomas does go on to provide examples of innovative contemporary Muslim approaches to other religions that get beyond the thinking of “early Islamic times.”

Douglas Pratt contributes a much-needed chapter on fundamentalism, exclusivism, and religious extremism. His assertion that “interreligious understanding needs to deal with the dark side of religion and so too the negative dimensions of interreligious engagement” (242) is welcome. His chapter provides a rather useful paradigm of the various types of religious exclusivism: open, closed, and extreme/rejectionist. Importantly, Pratt highlights a common problem that arises, especially in Christianity and Islam: “a position of naïve rejection that construes the extremist as not part of the tradition, and so not representing it” (250). The sooner Christians and Muslims acknowledge that the extremist wings of their traditions are also inspired by the same religious texts and traditions, the sooner their relationship with the religious other will be strengthened and grow in trust of the other’s ability to be constructively self-critical for the purposes of peace, harmony, and intellectual honesty. Pratt closes the chapter with a useful typology of fundamentalisms and shows the various links between them.

Catherine Cornille extends her already vast contribution to studies about the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging (MRB). To help clarify the seemingly muddy waters of MRB, she proposes the most useful typology on MRB that I am aware of. It makes the needed distinctions between cultural belonging, family belonging, occasional belonging, asymmetrical belonging, and ‘believing without belonging.’ Cornille acknowledges the term MRB is “something of a misnomer” and argues “that such equal belonging [to two or more religious traditions] is both theoretically impossible and concretely impracticable” (328). She spends much of her chapter then clarifying this statement in a reasoned and nuanced manner recognizing the challenges, obstacles, and opportunities MRB presents.

David Vishanoff’s chapter on boundaries is refreshing to a volume such as this, for sometimes the concept and category of religion goes naïvely unproblematized in interreligious studies. His chapter satisfies this issue by successfully showing, through various case studies, how “the many ways in which religious people construct their identities, maintain their boundaries, and then proceed to cross those boundaries to interact and communicate with others” (341) can lead scholars of religion to pitfalls when they assume “that there are natural, intrinsic boundaries between religious groups” (363). Vishanoff raises the epistemological and moral ambivalence of such categories and shows they can “obscure as much as they reveal” (363). He concludes that “scholars, therefore, have a moral obligation to consider how the boundaries they assume or create compare with the boundaries imagined by the people they study” (363).

Any short list on interreligious and interfaith studies is incomplete without this volume. It’s probably most effective as a reference text with many of the chapters standing on their own. While it is mainly suitable for a graduate and scholarly audience, many of the chapters are written to the accessible level of the undergraduate and non-scholarly community. Featuring an impressive collection of leading scholars, it is a most welcome contribution to the field.

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