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It’s good to talk

06 March 2015

Alan Race on a three-sided conversation between believers

Why Can't They Get Along? A conversation between a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian
Dawoud El-Alami, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, and George D. Chryssides
Lion £9.99 (978-0-7459-5605-3)
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT656 )

IS "GETTING ALONG" all that we can expect from the dialogue between religions, as is implied by this book's title? If so, it would be a reductionist account of dialogue - sufficient, perhaps, for a government department promoting community cohesion, but inadequate for believing people. Given Jewish, Christian, and Muslim affirmation of the presence of God in the whole of life, committed dialogue assumes that we might learn something of that presence from one another.

This book is designed as a conversation, and it fulfils this aim very well: the exchanges come across genuinely as though between three friends. They are not afraid to disagree, though it is generally genial disagreement. Apart from the observation that all three share a basic sense of Abrahamic ethical monotheism, how that sense is expressed in terms of beliefs, practices, and social impact varies widely. Occasionally the impression is given that the main agreement between the authors (all religious-studies teachers located in Aca- demia) is that the conversation itself is worth persisting with.

There are 17 chapters arranged in four sections, under the titles Teachings, Religious Practice, Ethics and Lifestyle, and Societal Issues; and the authors respond to one another in as lively a way as print permits. The whole represents a first-level entry into Abrahamic comparative religion, and will help generate informed grass-roots interfaith encounters.

But there's a question: is comparative religion the same as dialogue? I noticed some interesting features as the conversation developed. One was a tension between the conversationalists speaking first for themselves and then feeling obliged to reiterate tradition. The most creative moments were when they made clear their own positions on a topic.

A second feature concerned the extent to which critical thought was allowed to make its impact on the discussion. On the whole, this was limited.

Religious-studies teachers tend to be suspicious of interfaith dialogue, fearing it might involve an illegitimate mixing up of religions. Theologians, on the other hand, are meant to face the implications of critical thought on developing tradition, and this leaves them being challenged by the impact of interfaith dialogue as such. This Abrahamic conversation hovers between the two methodologies. But it is good to see religious studies making forays into the dialogical world.

The Revd Dr Alan Race is Rector of St Margaret's, Lee, in south London.

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