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Getting to know you… a lot better

By Jim Wiggins

A Review of The Dialogue Comes of Age: Christian Encounters with Other Traditions
Edited by John Cobb, Jr. and Ward W. McAfee (Fortress, 2010)

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come even you who have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
– Jelaluddin Rumi 1

The collaborating editors of The Dialogue Comes of Age: Christian Encounters with Other Traditions are John B. Cobb, Jr., emeritus professor of theology at the Claremont School of Theology, and Ward M. McAfee, emeritus professor of history at the California State University of San Bernardino. Both have compiled distinguished teaching and publishing records.

The title of their book catches your attention. “Dialogue” is one of the most frequently used words in considering interfaith relations. Consensus has not been reached, so far as I can discern, regarding what the idea does or should mean. A cursory exploration of “interfaith dialogue” on the web brings up thousands of items, different denotations and connotations of the term in different faith traditions and cultural settings. It is one of the richest words in the interfaith lexicon, a multi-signifying idea.

Do the words “coming of age” in the book title suggest that consensus has finally been reached regarding what interfaith dialogue is, either substantively or procedurally, that maturation has occurred, that after decades closure has been achieved? That is not to the intent of these editors. This essay will undertake to say why and to explore what, alternatively, it may mean.

Turning to a dictionary search on the web to glean the meaning of “dialogue,” the first entry in several dictionaries is: “A conversation between two or more people.” But the words conversation and dialogue are surely not synonyms! In my view a dialogue is more formalized than a conversation, which is usually more free form and open-ended. One of the pleasures of conversation is experiencing unexpected insights from exploring topics without the burden of defending positions taken before the conversation began. Listening carefully to each other is a tacit commitment made when you begin.

It is this practice of careful listening and discernment that the “coming of age” book title promotes. Another of the dictionary definitions of “dialogue” is: “an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.” That comes closer to the editors’ intention for the book.

Setting the Context

Each of the six chapters exhibits a depth of understanding that can only have been achieved through very carefully listening in dialogues/conversations between Christians and people committed to the faith traditions presented in the respective chapters. The editors and their contributing colleagues, a Christian group, are thinking through their own faith as they reflect deeply on Judaism (Eva Fleischman), Islam (Ward), Buddhism (Dickson Kazuo Yagi), and Indigenous American Religion (Ward.) One of the many strengths of this book is the choice to select but four faith traditions to engage, rather than attempting to create a compendium of traditions. They explain their choices in the introduction.

Professor Cobb introduces the book by staking out the position he and Professor Ward occupy. It is “progressive Christianity” which he characterizes as continuing and modifying their liberal heritage. What this means relative to engaging other faith communities is presented this way:

As Christians we approach other communities from our Christocentric commitment. It is our effort to be faithful to Jesus that leads us to repent of our sins against other religious commitments and to open ourselves to learning from them. In this learning our faith is changed. We believe that through this change we become more faithful.2

A recurrent theme of the volume is sounded in the sentence: We enrich one another through our differences.

The authors point out that being in the United States means acknowledging the reality of living in a multi-religious context. Of course, many citizens bemoan this fact and work fervently to overcome it. But as progressive Christians, Cobb and Ward accept the reality of religious pluralism as a given and argue that doing so is consistent with the history of Christianity. They affirm that we (Christians) now face a great new opportunity to make another faith step in that history.

One important question arises from the preceding presupposition. Is being a “progressive” Christian possible for Christians in different cultural situations and dramatically different political histories? Without living in situations in which there is de facto religious pluralism, would there be motivation, or the possibility, of embracing different faith traditions?

The respective chapters on Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and North American Indigenous religious traditions are each rich enough to merit a review and conversation. Given the opportunity to review the whole book, however, I am focusing on a single insight in each of the four as a provocative illustration of the depth these engagements.


Eva Fleischner reminds us that until the reforms of the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the words from the Roman Catholic Baltimore Catechism reflected a widespread Christian view: “The Jewish religion . . . ceased to be the true religion [after the death of Christ].” In a single sentence this captures the enduring view that has left a legacy of mistrust and hatred of Judaism for 2,000 years.

This is the shadow side of Christianity that has to be confronted and overcome. Transcending this heinous history required being reminded that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew and that Christianity began as a Jewish sect, one among several at that time. Further, Christianity enjoyed participating in the special status accorded to Jews by the Roman Empire for the several decades after the death of Jesus.

Until the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion (religio licita), the faith experienced episodic persecution at the hands of the Romans. Part of the strategy of some Christian apologists during those centuries was to insist that Christianity should not be confused with Judaism for many reasons, and therefore, should not be subject to the kinds of persecution that Romans visited upon the Jews.

From the second into the fifth century, Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible as part of a Holy Bible that also includes the New Testament deepened the schism between Jews and Christians. Coupled with that foundational issue were theological debates within Christianity, for example the decision in the fourth century to declare Jesus to have been both fully human and fully divine, necessitating seeing God as Trinitarian—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Both those central affirmations, which many Christians continue to hold as bedrock articles of faith, further distanced Christianity from Judaism, which regards the affirmation of Jesus’ divinity as an unfounded and unacceptable form of heresy.

The next sixteen centuries provide horrible stories of Jewish suffering at the hands of Christians,  or at least of politicians claiming to act out of Christian principles. The Holocaust of the 20th century, now frequently identified by Jews as the Shoah, meaning catastrophe, was justified in part by its perpetrators through appealing to “Christian” theology and history. The collective conscience of many Christians has been so moved by the murder of millions of Jews that an honest recognition and assessment of the guilt has begun, acknowledging the indescribable suffering imposed on Jews over millennia. Fleischner reminds readers of how recent this repentance comes after the sinful persecution of centuries. Little surprise then that many Jews remain suspicious and dubious about the honesty and integrity of Christians attempting to seek reconciliation with Jews.

Fleischner concludes by calling attention to hopeful signs occurring today to give hope that a truly edifying relationship between Jews and Christians may be emerging.


The volume’s co-editor Ward M. McAfee explores the relationship between Islam and Christianity, quantitatively the world’s two largest faith traditions. He offers this challenge: “We must develop the wisdom to see both what Christianity and Islam share in common and areas where we must agree to disagree.”3 Another principle for McAfee is that throughout their long histories Christianity and Islam have often affected the development of each other, often unintentionally.

Stories from these two faith traditions exhibit some striking similarities. This chapter could serve as an excellent stand-alone primer for non-Muslims learning about Islam and it history. “Islam” and “Christianity” are both umbrella terms. With Islam, Ward has done a very credible job selecting information from the tradition’s riches to prepare anyone open to engaging Muslims in interfaith conversation. His selections demonstrate how this theologically monotheistic tradition is far from uniform in its various expressions. Distinctions between Sunni, Shia, and Sufi forms of the faith are generally known, but the variations within each of those communities provide the best evidence of the diversity within Muslim thought and practice. Similar observations apply to Christianity (think Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism). Within each tradition and its subsets we find more diversity, so that one name can be used to describe many different kinds of faith community.

Many calling themselves Christian think the ultimate way to differentiate Muslims and Christians is that Muslims do not accept Jesus as the Christ. Although this distinction may be based on pouring over the Qur’an, it fails to acknowledge the very high regard that Muslims have for Jesus as the greatest Prophet to have been sent by Allah before the coming of Mohammed. Mohammed is typically regarded as the last of the prophets, after whom no other prophet would ever be needed. To be sure, mainline Islam does not accept the view that Jesus was fully God, in addition to being fully human. This may, finally, be one of the theological affirmations about which Christians and Muslim will agree to disagree.

A central theme in Ward’s presentation is his discussion of the role of sacred writings in each tradition. The Qur’an in Islam and the Holy Bible in Christianity on the surface play similar roles within these faith traditions. In the phrase often attributed to Muslims, giving special status to Judaism and Christianity in the Middle Ages, they called the followers of these faith traditions “people of the Book.”

However, even a superficial understanding of the role “the Book” actually plays in these communities immediately demonstrates how lumping the three together can cause greater misunderstanding than clarification, actually becoming an impediment to interfaith engagement. Muslims largely regard the Qur’an as having been given once and for all through Mohammed. In contrast, Jews acknowledge that the Hebrew Bible is a compilation of writings that were generated and finally accorded canonical status over a centuries-long process. It is the product of many different authors who spoke and wrote with distinctive purposes—prophets, historians, writings that recorded wisdom traditions, poetry and many other perspectives.

Christians did not gain even a tentative agreement as to what constitutes the Holy Bible in a canonical way until the fifth century. To this day, Christians disagree on the matter. So, the category of “the Book” is not a very instructive way to winnow three faith traditions from the rest.

What may open the door to deepen conversation between Muslims and others for whom sacred writings are important is a renewed attention to important oral traditions and commentaries they each have. Talmud is one form of this within Judaism. Biblical commentaries abound within Christianity. Hadith, the collection of sayings attributed to Mohammed but not included in the Qur’an, is vital to Muslims.

Ward remarks that Muslims and Christians will continue to think and act out of the resources of their respective traditions. “The goal is not unity. Diversity, rather than leading to opposition and antagonism, can be experienced as an enrichment of both parties.” 4 Embracing that possibility in the conversations between people from different faith orientations is a major hope conveyed by this book.


The author of this essay, Dickson Kazuo Yagi, is a Protestant Christian minister and a missionary born in Hawaii. After theological training in a Japanese seminary, he was commissioned to serve in Japan. Eventually he joined the faculty of a University in Japan. It was primarily during these years that he became well acquainted with Buddhism. He emphasizes that, as Christianity rose out of Judaism, so Buddhism grew out of another faith tradition—Hinduism.

There is a more personal tone in this chapter, a more experientially focused perspective. Kazuo sat Zazen for many decades as he worked in Japan and Hawaii. And he does not hide a decided disappointment and near disdain for western missionaries and scholars who know little about eastern faith traditions, especially Buddhism.

By way of introducing basic Buddhist teachings, Kazuo presents The Four Noble Truths that identify desire as the chief cause of human suffering. It must be excised through meditation and following The Eight-fold Path, which disciplines the mind, action, and meditation. The Three Marks of Existence are the emphases upon which all else hinge: Annica—Impermanence; Anatta—No self; and Dukkha—Suffering.

The biography of Gautama Buddha, often referred to as Siddhartha, provides the master narrative of the pattern that Buddhist monks follow. As the Mahayana School has it, as one advances through the cycles of discipline, sometimes achieving the status of a Bodhisattva, the last step before becoming a Buddha. This view of Buddhism arose out of the older Theravada School which is more rigid in its separation of monks from lay people. The latter have no possibility of attaining a state of non-attachment and passing off of the wheel of samsara, nor any women. Any hope of escaping the life-death-rebirth cycle comes through the quality of life a person experiences. He or she, in the course of many lifetimes, ultimately may achieve enlightenment. Monks may also go through numerous lifetimes before receiving enlightenment.

Subsequent Mahayana teaching opened the path of enlightenment to anyone and everyone, to be achieved through gaining enlightenment through compassion for all forms of life. The last stage before becoming a Buddha is to be a Bodhisattva. Such persons often refused to take the passage to Buddha-hood out of their compassion for all who have not yet achieved the status of Bodhisattva.

The succession of Buddhist schools is lengthy—Zen, Pure Land, Madhyamaka, Yogachara and a series of other forms are succinctly introduced here. Yagi’s typology of distinctive expressions is instructive. It is followed with a brief tracing of Buddhism in different geographical settings—Japan, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Thailand. Each place offers distinctive ways of expressing the tradition. We are reminded how widespread and diverse Buddhism has become in the world.

Indigenous Traditions

Ward McAfee, American historian, writes this section of the book, provocatively titled “Indigenous American Religious Advice for Our Troubled Age.” The presentation focuses on the American scene while acknowledging that indigenous peoples in other parts of the world might have similar insights.

Native Americans were the first victims of the “original sin of racism” imposed by European invaders. After devastating diseases previously unknown in North America were introduced came the forced migration of tribal peoples away from their homelands. This was particularly destructive because the faith orientation of native peoples is spatial, not historical, the perspective which dominates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and contemporary secular culture. To many readers, this distinction may not be obvious at first, so it merits some unpacking.

Indigenous people typically affirm a profound sense of belonging to the actual place in the natural world to which they are inseparably connected. Ward gives extensive attention to the thinking of Vine Deloria, Jr., born into a Christian family from the Sioux tribe and very involved with Christianity early in his life. In his radical book God is Red, Ward observes that Deloria’s harshest critique of the religious sensibility of all the western religions is their inability to respect or tolerate others who are religiously different from themselves. In contrast to Native American religious sensibility, Deloria particularly critiques Western religious traditions in which “Religious experiences are not nearly as important as … creeds, theologies, and speculations—all of which are products of the intellect and not based on experience.” 5

That distinction—experience versus intellect--is at the heart of the difference between spatial and historical orientations. Experience occurs in the here and now and in the place where it happens! And then Deloria’s stringent judgment:

It is the non-philosophical quality of tribal religions that makes them important for this day and age… Modern society has foreclosed the possibility of experiencing life in favor of explaining it. Even in explaining the world, however, Western people have misunderstood it.6

From that perspective Ward moves to a consideration of Native American Christian theology and particularly George Tinker, American Indian theologian, who comes to a conclusion that could well be the signature observation in this entire book. Tinker writes:

The colonizer churches will necessarily have to rethink their notion of Christian exclusivity and make room for American Indian religious traditions as being potentially as powerful and salvific as the best vision well-intentioned peoples have for Christianity.7

Ward is realistic in observing that people committed to their own particular faith cannot simply adopt another perspective as their own. But we can learn certain sensibilities and understand those indigenous perspectives far more deeply and appreciatively than we have heretofore. Those are aspirations to maintain in interfaith dialogue.

John Cobb writes a concluding chapter, a “theological response” to the orientations and perspectives presented in these chapters on Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Native American spirituality. One of the motifs in these final pages is the strong affirmation that western religion, particularly Christianity, is historically oriented through and through. As one explores the history of Christianity both institutionally and theologically, honesty requires painfully acknowledging that there is much for which repentance is required. Cobb writes that “this book is chiefly about repentance for our long history of exclusivism in the sense of absolutizing our own position and judging all others inferior insofar as they differ from ours.” There is the theme that serves as the open sesame to the book. It is the basis for the affirmation that appeared in the beginning of the book: We enrich one another through our differences.

Cobb’s specific responses to the many issues raised in the book are engaging and insightful, indicating ways in which progressive Christians can repent and be enriched in relation to Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Native American indigenous religions. Interfaith dialogue offers each of us the possibility of “getting to know you a lot better.” Professors Cobb and Ward have provided great assistance in moving us toward that goal through this very good book. May their tribe increase!


1 Quoted on the website of the Interfaith Dialogue Center in New Jersey.
2 The Dialogue Comes of Age, p. 2.
3 Ibid., p. 89.
4 Ibid., p. 126.
5 Quoted by Ward, p. 174.
6 Op. cit.
7 Op. cit.