John B Cobb, Jr and Ward M Mc Afee, Eds.The Dialogue Comes Of Age, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2010,

John B Cobb, Jr and Ward M Mc Afee, Eds.The Dialogue Comes Of Age, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2010, 242pp, £16.99 (available from Alban Books)
A review by Frank Regan
Inter-Faith contact has been a reality since the beginnings of the history of Christian mission. Now we have entered into a new phase in which the world religions have been meeting no longer as rivals or hostiles, but as partners in prayer, e.g. Assisi; and in the construction of a better world. This ongoing relationship has moved to a new level where many believers of one faith feel moved to question their own traditions and start to discover that there are values and insights of great depth in the traditions of other believers.
This very fine book gives the reader an up-to-date overview of where Christian Dialogue with other faiths and religions is at this juncture. Naturally there are areas of the globe where inter-Faith dialogue is more frequent and closer than in other places. The editors point, for example, to southern California. Most US Americans associate southern California with everything “kooky” in US American culture, from redneck Minutemen guarding the Mexican border to ‘new age’ foodies to black-garbed Satanists. But behind the sensationalism and the exhibitionism there is an ordinary everydayness lived by the majority, a number of whom belong to one of nine Faith communities. Those communities have been involved in efforts to get to know each other and to learn to appreciate the contribution each has made to humankind’s search for God and the transcendent. The scope of the book will be global, but the reflection and generalisations all begin in a practical experience of Dialogue in neighbourhood and other local contexts.
One of the major challenges for Christians has been the encounter with Judaism. A long sad history of anti-Semitism and persecution forms the backdrop of encounter. Indeed, Hitler’s practice of anti-Judaism was nothing more than an elaboration of Christian practice which dated back to the ancient and the early mediaeval church (306-1434), minus the genocide.
Chapter 2 on Jews and Christians reaches back to the earliest times when the Jesus sect, or movement, was cast out of the Synagogue. Down through history there are many examples of good relations between both communities, e.g. the “Golden Age” in Spain where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side in peace. It lasted 300 years until the accession of Ferdinand and Isabel who decreed their expulsion or forced conversion. There are other examples but the great shame of the 20th century, the Shoah, rests largely on the shoulders of the Christian churches.
The same chapter 2 dedicates ample space to the history of the encounter of church and synagogue. It is a mostly sad history and will remind us contemporary Catholics what attitudes of superiority and certainty can lead to. More sadly still it shows how religion can be a source of fanatical violence and hatred. There is also an adequate account of how the church read its own Sacred Scriptures in such a way as to promote anti-Judaism.
The following chapter explores the encounter of Christianity and Islam. They have much in common and yet live in worlds apart. Both live in worlds where there is abounding wealth and where there is a grinding poverty. Both regard almsgiving as a central practice of the faith. Both have profound teachings on Peace yet both have subjugated peoples and have made difficult the survival of their cultures and religions.
The demands of an expansive global industrial capitalistic system have brought the worlds of Arabic and Iranian Islam and of Western Christianity together. Since the 1930s the Christian West has been an alien and resented presence in the Arab Muslim world. The motive has been oil and commerce. The area has been the playground and the battlefield of the world’s industrial nations in search of energy for their own use. Gradually, Modernity has seeped into the Muslim world and has provoked the forces of orthodox Islam to organise in keeping noxious Western influence at bay. The 1979 Revolution of the Ayatollahs in Iran is an example of that. The rise of Al Qaida is another. Subsequent history has unraveled in such a way that more than 800,000 people, mostly children, have died since the first Gulf War of 1990. It is not an unfair question to ask: how could 9/11 not have happened.
One effect of 9/11 has been the weakening of moderate Islamic currents of thought and action. Every atrocity committed by Muslims, be it Sarajevo, Mindanao or Baghdad must have an Islamic religious dimension even though said atrocities are condemned by mainstream Muslims. Atrocities like those of Abu Ghraib are not taken to be Christian in intent.
Chapter 3 gives an ample overview of the history of the encounter of Islam with Christianity and Judaism. The three are faiths of the ‘The Book’. The Word for them has power and gives life (Hebrews) even though Christianity has a strong reliance on creedal formulas and dogmas. The chapter gives an account of those areas of belief where there are differences as well as convergences. The contentious issues of pluralism, democracy and the rights of women are all treated in a fair way. The chapter also gives an interesting account of Sufism and its contribution to Islam.
When it comes to pluralism Islam has been more accepting of other religions. Within Islamic polities non-Muslims lived in a peaceful way but had to show deference to Muslims. During the golden age between 900 and 1200 in Spain and North Africa Jews and Christians dominated the fields of medicine, banking, trade and espionage. There were strictures on inter-marriage and a requirement to wear distinctive clothing. There was very little pressure to convert. This was because the rulers could place heavier taxes on non-Muslims. They did not want new Muslims!
The book goes on to treat of Buddhism, particularly Japanese Buddhism, and Native American religion. More than 20 years ago the then Cardinal Ratzinger said that the Buddhist practice of prayer was an exercise in autoeroticism. Hopefully his view has modified since.
The last chapter is a short theological response to what more recent experiences of inter-faith living is teaching us. Certainly as Christians we have a lot of which to repent. The second millennium has been dominated by Christianity. It has seen the rise of imperialism, colonialism and globalisation, to name but three. It has benefitted from all three and has not been able to question effectively their negative aspects; e.g. an obsession with economic growth, consumerism, environmental despoliation, militarism, nuclear menace etc. Institutional Christianity seems to have run the extent of its writ. New things need to happen, new thoughts, new ideas, and new experiments.
The book’s launching pad has been an ongoing experience of inter-faith experience in Southern California. The dialogue among the participants has gone beyond an, at first, naiveté regarding an easy confluence between the different faiths. Now people are struggling with their beliefs, with their personal and communal Faith, with their culture and its traditions in the light of the insights now assimilated. Many no longer feel themselves to be exclusively Catholic, or Buddhist, or Baha’i. The Faith of the other is no longer alien or threatening.
No one knows what sort of synthesis may result: will it be syncretic, some sort of amorphous amalgam of different faith inputs; will it be pluralistic and permit each faith be its own faith and recognise that the God each wants to see and experience is quite beyond the creedal parameters of any one Faith. God is not a Roman Catholic. For the Christian the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is a given. But does the Christian have to accept the uniqueness of the Christian religion? That is but one of many subversive thoughts that we are invited to reflect on by this challenging book.
The value of the book is enhanced by a glossary, notes and index.

John B Cobb, Jr and Ward M Mc Afee, Eds.The Dialogue Comes Of Age, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2010, 242pp, £16.99 (available from Alban Books)

Also from Amazon