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Where pluralism’s writ runs

10 January 2014

Philip Lewis considers the achievements and limits of dialogue

Jews, Christians and Muslims in Encounter
Edward Kessler
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50 (Use code CT604 )

Making Sense of Religious Pluralism: Shaping theology of religions for our times
Alan Race
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT604 )

AS A specialist on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, I came to these books hoping to learn something from fellow academics or practitioners working in related but different fields.

Kessler, a Jewish scholar, has worked tirelessly to improve Jewish-Christian relations, and has made his own scholarly contribution in uncovering the surprising extent to which Jewish and Christian medieval biblical exegetes influenced each other - as exemplified in his articles in this volume on the binding of Isaac.

Jewish-Christian relations and the ways both traditions have interpreted the Bible provide the two main organising themes for this impressive collection. Two have particular contemporary resonance: one on history and memory in the Israeli conflict, and the other on how to deal with violent biblical texts. Three essays also touch on Jewish-Muslim relations, but have the character of preliminary probes in a new field.

Race's work is a robust but courteously argued apologia for "religious pluralism" against its rivals - inclusivism and exclusivism - the position that he pioneered and popularised more than 30 years ago. In this update, he engages with what is fast becoming the new consensus, namely, the position that argues that there is no view from nowhere, and that our access to religious truth is irreducibly "particular", mediated by distinct religions, often carriers of incommensurable visions, theologies, and anthropologies.

Kessler's study is an indispensable guide to the unimaginable shifts in mutual understanding by Jews and Christians since Nostra Aetate some fifty years ago. He carefully documents how the Churches, especially Western Protestant and Roman Catholic - but not the Orthodox - have distanced themselves from much of the historic legacy of toxic and degrading interpretations of Judaism, and what tasks still remain.

Inevitably, Kessler's focus on the West means that little light is shed on Orthodox Jewish attitudes to Christianity in Israel, where pre-modern Jewish halachic definitions of Christianity as "foreign worship" often deemed "idolatrous" persist, and can justify "distance and disdain" (see Alon Goshen-Gottstein's essay in Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians and Muslims in dialogue, edited by Miroslav Volf, Eerdmans, 2012).

One of the most interesting chapters in Race's volume explores the growing sophistication of, and measure of convergence between, such categories as "mission" and "interfaith dialogue". For Race, however, interfaith dialogue should be undergirded by a theology of religious pluralism which "affirms the other major religions as valid and equally salvific paths in relation both to ultimate transcendent reality and to the journey towards mutual critical acceptance of one another". Needless to say, there is no exploration in this work of so troubling a phenomenon for such pluralists as "conversion".

Race's defence of pluralism has little traction in the field of Christian-Muslim relations. If interfaith dialogue was to be underwritten by Race's view of pluralism, this would probably discount the participation of the majority of Muslim scholars. For example, the Cambridge academic Tim Winter, who often appears on Radio 4's Thought for the Day as Abdal Hakim Murad, clearly situates himself at the heart of the Sunni Islamic tradition when he rehearses the main Muslim attitude to Judaism and Christianity as supersessionist. With regard to Christianity, Winter can cite approvingly a Qur'anic scholar: "In no way, then, does biblical Christianity remain a fully valid 'way of salvation' after the advent of Muhammad" (see Abraham's Children, edited by Norman Solomon, Richard Harries, and Tim Winter, T & T Clark, 2005).

It is unclear to me how Race would respond to Winter. Islam, after all, denies the crucifixion. One aim of Christian-Muslim dialogue is to explore patiently the origins, meaning, history, and significance of such differences rather than speculate that such differences can be encompassed within an "unknowable" transcendent reality behind all particular religions. The irony of Race's stance is that it, too, can become exclusivist: Buddhists can be embraced, but Muslims . . . ? Indeed, most of the examples in Race's book are drawn from Hinduism and Buddhism, with only a couple of perfunctory references to Islam.

Both books convince me that insights won through improved Jewish-Christian relations do not necessarily transfer to Christian-Muslim relations. The hard work of encounter and questioning must continue, and may well yield some provisional conclusions that may contribute to Race's ambition for a theology of religions, but not yet.

Dr Philip Lewis is Interfaith Adviser to the Bishop of Bradford, and is lecturer in Peace Studies at Bradford University.

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