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Christian Identity and Religious Pluralism: Religions in Conversation.

"Conversation is what happens when people meet and talk, listen and learn" (p.x). Michael Barnes, an English Jesuit who lectures in religious studies at Heythrop College in the University of London, uses the term "conversation" as a guiding metaphor to draw attention to "the process by which theology of religions is to be done".

The first part of the book is concerned with the debate about other religions and takes us with a remarkably light touch through Exclusivism (represented by Barth and Kraemer), Inclusivism (Rahner), and Pluralism (Hick). The survey of Exclusivism highlights the negative view of other faiths that it tends to produce and ends by asking whether this kind of theology is "capable of sustaining a genuine acceptance of other religions on their terms rather than on ours". Inclusivism finds ways of "including the religions" within the providence of God and leads to the conclusion that people of other faiths can be saved through the practice and belief of their own tradition.

The problem with these first two paradigms, however, says Barnes, is that they are too preoccupied with traditional issues, namely, the "salvation problem" and the "truth problem." He suggests that the Pluralism of Hick points to a way forward, by demanding a "complete re-orientation of one's theology," which starts not with a given revelation or salvation but with our experience of other faiths. But Hick's reductionism is hardly satisfactory, because it "ends up with an experience which is vague and a concept of God which is, to say the least, rather empty".

The second part of the book goes on to outline a theology of interfaith relationships that avoids the extremes of Exclusivism and Pluralism and that takes us "beyond Inclusivism." It begins by exploring the nature of all religion(s) and then describes what actually happens when genuine dialogue takes place: "Dialogue is that inter-action between persons where both seek to give themselves to each other and to know each other as they really are. Communication is borne of self-understanding and vice-versa". Thus, instead of following the traditional method of working out a theology and then applying it to interfaith conversation, Barnes begins with interfaith conversation and then proceeds to theology.

The basic concept in this theology comes from Raimundo Panikkar's concept of interpenetration (i.e., the interpenetration of one religion by another). This means, for example, that both partners in any dialogue need to acknowledge that what the other takes to be true is indeed truth: "From what I experience of the faith of the other, I can trust that what Christ does for me Krishna does for the other".

What is new in this book? In exposing the problems and limitations of Exclusivism and Pluralism, Barnes arouses expectations that he can lead us through and beyond the old, painful dilemmas. He feels more at home with Catholic versions of Inclusivism, but even here he is ultimately dissatisfied, because he sees it as being imprisoned within traditional assumptions about truth and salvation that include other faiths, but on our terms.

Where does he try to lead us? Having started the journey with high hopes, I found myself putting down the book with a sense of disappointment. The revelation of God in Christ is not to be thought of as definitive in any sense but simply as "the mystery which Christians find expressed in the language and symbolism of Christ". Moreover, this mystery "is revealed in very different ways and very different languages in other religions". At the end of the road, therefore, what we find is something rather pedestrian: "We are talking about a process of mutual transformation in which two or more persons, from very different traditions and backgrounds, attempt to come to terms with their respective identities". If this is the "liberation of theology" that is promised through the practice of dialogue and Panikkar's interpenetration, I feel compelled to return to the threefold paradigm, in spite of all its limitations, to see if there are not other ways of working through the dilemmas posed by Pluralism.

Barnes may think he has escaped from questions about truth and the incarnation. But when he asks, "Why should not the Word of God be spoken other than in historical Christianity--and even elsewhere than in the historical Jesus of Nazareth?", he shows that he cannot avoid basic epistemological questions. The difficulties raised by his exploration into new territory may turn out to be just as enormous as the difficulties he has exposed in the other positions.

Colin Chapman is Principal of Crowther Hall, the CMS training college at Selly Oak, Birmingham, England. Earlier he served with CMS in Egypt and Lebanon for thirteen years and then was lecturer in mission and religion at Trinity College, Bristol, 1983-90.
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Author:Chapman, Colin
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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