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Interfaith Theology—A Reader
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand


Editor: Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Publisher: Oneworld, Oxford

Year: 2001

Pages: 257

Price: $23.95

ISBN: 1-85168-276-7


In a world where borders are rapidly collapsing, while at the same time conflicts based on culture and ethnicity continue to exact a heavy toll of innocent lives, the pressing need for people of different faiths and persuasions to dialogue with each other has perhaps never been so urgent before. Inter-religious dialogue assumes particular importance in today’s ‘post-secular’ world, which is witnessing the emergence of new conflicts between people of different religions.

This timely book makes an important contribution to the discussion on the goals and methods of inter-faith dialogue. Consisting of excerpts from the writings of over a hundred scholars of religion and theologians, it brings together perspectives from a wide range of religious traditions. Each contribution seeks to explore the possibilities that exist within each religious tradition to transcend itself and to look for areas of mutual enrichment with other faiths and their followers.

As is to be expected in such a book, the contributors see the need for dialogue as emerging from a variety of different impulses. For some, particularly Christian, writers, dialogue is simply a means for a missionary agenda. They insist that the only way in which they can effectively present their religion to others is through dialogue, which will enable the latter to be more receptive to the Christian message. In other words, this form of ‘dialogue’, in effect a monologue, is simply a means to a goal and not the goal in itself. Non-Christian religions are seen as either completely false or else lacking the same degree of absolute truth as Christianity.

On the other hand, several other Christian contributors to this volume urge the need for Christians to realize that no religion can claim a monopoly of the truth and that there may well be multiple paths to salvation, including outside the folds of the Church. They argue that each religious tradition can learn from the other, for each represents only one aspect of the total, absolute truth, which itself cannot be grasped by ordinary mortals. Some go so far as to argue that all religions are human creations, and hence must be accepted as inherently limited. They urge people of other faiths to work together with others for a this-worldly salvation, a join struggle for common goals and issues of common concern, such as social justice, peace and the protection of the environment. In short, dialogue for them is not to be restricted to mere theological debate or exchange. Rather, if it is to prove at all meaningful, it must translate itself into actual involvement, along with people of other faiths, in attempting to change the world for the better.

Although most of the contributors to this volume are Christians, a number of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish voices are represented here as well. Again, as in the Christian case, these voices are diverse and often mutually opposed to each other. Thus, for instance, while some Muslim writers insist that Islam is the only true faith, other Muslim contributors argue that the Qur’ān speaks of the universality of revelation, of the fact of God having sent prophets, teaching the same basic faith, to all peoples. Hence, they argue, all people of faith who do good can attain salvation, and not just Muslims alone. Likewise, some Jewish authors attempt to revise traditional understandings of the notion of the Jews being the ‘chosen people’ of God, to include the possibility of all true believers in God being ‘saved’.

On the whole, the book urges the reader towards a sensitive understanding of the plurality of human truths. Religious language, like all human constructs, cannot, most of the contributors argue, represent or exhaust the final, ultimate, inexpressible truth that is God. Hence, no religion can claim to have a monopoly over the truth. This recognition opens up the possibility of, and points to the need for, people of different faiths to dialogue with each other to grow in faith and mutual enrichment.

Consisting of excerpts from already published texts, particularly a couple of previously edited volumes, this book does not provide any new material, and hence is in no sense a pioneering effort. Most of the contributions suffer from the fundamentally flawed understanding of each religion being neatly a well-defined, indeed, reified system of thought and belief, neatly demarcated from other similarly constructed religious systems. It is on this premise of the radical independence of each religion that the dialogue project is sought to be constructed. Yet, this itself is a questionable assumption, especially for millions of people, especially in the non-Western world, particularly for adherents of non-monotheistic faiths. Furthermore, most of the writers assume their own religious tradition to be homogenous, and on the basis of this go on to construct a theology of pluralism from within their own tradition, in the process effectively ignoring the very contested nature and multiple interpretations of their own religion. Finally, for a layman critically examining the outpourings of professional theologians, much of their intricate theological wranglings divorced from concrete this-worldly concerns—endless war, endemic poverty and so on—strike one as pathetically irrelevant. But insofar as religion is implicated in much of the strife that we are witness to in the contemporary world, there can be no doubt that any move towards a more inclusive understanding of faith and salvation, that many voices included in this book advance, is a welcome blessing indeed.


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