Christopher Grundmann’s edited volume is a highly accessible and important primer on the contours of interreligious dialogue. It will certainly be a welcome resource for the growing number of undergraduate courses oriented around interreligious encounter. The reader can come to this anthology with little to no fluency in interreligious encounter and come away with a solid grasp of many of the main issues, themes, challenges, and solutions posed in the last half century (certainly in the West). Shortcomings of the volume, admittedly so by Gundmann, include the lack of indigenous and female voices. Overall, the text achieves what it sets out to do: “to make remarkable articles on interreligious dialogue accessible to a broad, more general audience, especially to college students” (20) with an eye “to further the cause of interreligious dialogue and encourage its pursuit on college campuses, at home, and in society at large” (21). The anthology locates each of the 14 articles in one of three parts on interreligious dialogue: (I) why does it matter?, (II) the view of different traditions, and (III) some practical samples.
Part I includes chapters from prominent leaders on such as Paul Knitter, Jonathan Sacks, Swami Tyagananda, Marcus Braybrooke, Martin Forward, and Thomas Merton. Sacks’ chapter stands out as perhaps one of the most appealing to undergraduates, for in it he provides a much needed counter-narrative to Huntington’s thesis on the “clash of civilizations.” Sacks profoundly challenges the reader to get beyond mere toleration of the other and see “God or good or dignity in those unlike ourselves” (51) as means towards avoiding the so-called clash of civilizations. Equally important stands Knitter’s chapter which comes first in the volume. In it, Knitter provides a well-written and accessible introduction to interreligious dialogue, what it is, and why differences, trust, witnessing, and learning matter in the process. Knitter is quick to recognize the limits of pluralism and the danger of it lapsing into its own form of imposed exclusivism. Importantly, he also introduces the student to simple ways to engage in dialogue and proper conditions for constructive dialogue to take place. Finally, Knitter offers his patented “liberation-centered model” for interreligious dialogue in which he proposes that the starting point for dialogue ought to lie in “conversion to the suffering and commitment to liberation” (41). This, he believes, is something all religious traditions have accepted or will accept. Thomas Merton’s chapter, “Apologies to an Unbeliever” concludes part I by offering indeed an apology to those outside his faith that have been verbally assaulted by a deluge of attempts to convert them. Merton publically renounces all attempts to do so and, in a display of courage and vulnerability, declares that “a faith that is afraid of other people is no faith at all” (91).
Part II shifts to views from different religious traditions. In particular, they come from Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian perspectives. Contributors are Vernerable Havanpola Ratanasara, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, K.L. Seshagiri Rao, George Gispert-Sauch, SJ, and Auxiliary Bishop Barry C. Knestout. Nasr’s chapter stands out which, while clearly delineating similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity, urges Muslim-Christian relations to “turn a new page and seek to come together in the bosom of Divine Love” by breaking from the historical norm of “forgetting and casting aside [their] remarkable accord on so many basic doctrines and values, and exaggerating differences” (112). Gispert-Sauch’s chapter on the “Spirituality of Hinduism and Christianity” usefully shows how various modes might bring Christians into “symbiosis” (not syncretism) with Indian spirituality. These include meditation, political activism, and intertextual scripture reading to name a few. Concluding the section, Bishop Knestout suggests that true dialogue “involves the prior disposition of listening, which leads to trust, which matures in friendship” (144).
Part III concludes the book by emphasizing practical samples of interreligious dialogue. They dwell on a Buddhist monk as a member of a Christian college by Andrew Wingate, youth in interfaith dialogue by Jayeel S. Cornelio and Timothy Andrew E. Salera, scriptural reasoning (“Sacred Book Club”) by Jeffrey Bailey, and a concluding epilogue by Grundmann. These three final samples serve well the task of applied interreligious dialogue and might successfully be employed as reference or case-study readings for college courses or community reading groups. Further, they demonstrate models of interreligiously engaging one’s community and neighbor and thus serve as models to be adapted to one’s local context.
There is a growing number of edited volumes in the field of interreligious studies, which is appropriate given the tendency to always seek to provide as many diverse voices as possible. Often these collections fail as a whole but succeed in that each chapter stands on its own apart from the others. This can be a particular challenge for the college instructor or reading group that is reluctant to assign a text from which only a small percentage might be useful or accessible at the same level. Grundmann has done his due diligence in this volume by bringing together a fairly diverse range of voices on a number of issues on interreligious dialogue, all of which speak at the same level of accessibility to the undergraduate and lay reader. The college-level instructor can assign this text confidently knowing that the majority of it will be applicable to the course and written at the level of the students.
Christopher H. Grundmann, editor. Interreligious Dialogue: An Anthology of Voices Bridging Cultural and Religious Divides. Anselm Academic, 2015. 209 pages. $23.95.
This review was first published on July 12, 2016 on catholicbooksreview.org.