Saturday, May 31, 2014

What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions (Philip Wogaman) -- Review

By J. Philip Wogaman.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiv + 135 pages.

            We live in a world in which it is increasingly likely that we will encounter someone of another faith tradition.  In the community in which I live, in Metro-Detroit, there are large numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians (of several varieties and ethnic backgrounds), along with the usual complement of Protestants and Catholics.  If you’re a student at a local school, the person sitting next to you quite possibly follows one of these “other” religions.  If you’re a Christian – as am I – is it possible to learn something from another religious tradition that can enhance your own faith?  That is the question posed by Philip Wogaman in this book. 

Philip Wogaman once served as senior minister at Washington D.C.'s Foundry United Methodist Church, a congregation whose members included Bill and Hillary Clinton along with Bob and Elizabeth Dole.  He also served as President of the Interfaith Alliance.  He has also served as a professor of Christian ethics at a number of seminaries, including Wesley Theological Seminary.  As one might expect he brings each of these experiences into this book.  It is pastoral, theological, and sensitive to interfaith concerns. 

In the course of ten chapters, which began life as a sermon series delivered at Foundry United Methodist Church before his retirement from that ministry, he invites us to reflect on the question posed by the title of the book.  He focuses his attention on primal religions, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions (Taoism and Confucianism), and atheism. He adds another chapter that asks similar questions of several religions he is unable to address more broadly -- Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and the Baha'i movement.  He writes the book as a Christian – noting where he, as a Christian, is of a different viewpoint or where beliefs such as reincarnation differ from Christian teachings.  But even while reincarnation is not ultimately reconcilable with Christian understandings of human destiny, the idea of karma reminds us that there are consequences to our actions.

Many readers may find it odd that Wogaman includes atheism in his discussion.  As he himself notes, most atheists reject the idea that they are part of a religion – defining religion as belief in God.  If that is what one means by religion then this might be true, but if we follow Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as ultimate concern, then surely atheists have some sense of ultimate concern.  In his presentation of atheism, he discusses two forms – Marxist atheism and Bertrand Russellish atheism, which is what we see in contemporary neo-atheism.  Including atheism allows for a contrast between belief and non-belief. 

          As you read the book you get the sense that he sought to give each religion a fair hearing – trying to describe the beliefs and practices of Hinduism or Islam in a way that adherents of those religions would recognize themselves.  He works with the principle that in the course of interfaith dialogue, we must compare the best of the other with the best in one's own tradition.  This is an important point to highlight.  Too often people get into trouble by focusing either on extremists or on negative stereotypes.  For instance – many Western Christians critique Islamic treatment of women, forgetting that in a majority of Christian traditions women have similar limitations.  On the other hand, he notes the many similarities that faith traditions share – including moral imperatives concerning the common good.  This sensitivity to the way others understand themselves is also seen in his decision to invite members of the faith communities he discusses to read and critique the presentation. 

Interfaith conversations require true dialogue for them to be successful.  All participants need to feel free to teach and to learn.  So, if Christians have something to learn from other faith traditions, then surely others have something to learn from Christians.  Thus, in his concluding chapter, he shares some of the concepts that he thinks Christianity embodies that can be shared with others.  These include the significance of Jesus to the religious discussion.  Besides this, he suggests Christian efforts to pursue the critical interpretation of Scripture, ethical thinking, learning from the secular enlightenment, engagement with political life, and ecumenism.  The book closes with fifty points to consider.  Each of these points picks up on something that was discussed earlier in the book – forty-seven from faith traditions other than Christianity and three from Christianity.  Number 47, which he derives from atheism, is important to the conversation – “Religion must not be promulgated by compulsion.”

Because this book began as a sermon series, it is quite accessible and readable.  As one involved in interfaith work, I found this to be quite useful.  He also demonstrated the difficulties that we encounter when we try to make sense of our own beliefs in conversation with others.  In the discussions of Judaism and Islam, both of which have close ties to Christianity, he attempts to reconcile the Christian teaching on the Trinity with the stricter definition of monotheism present in Islam and Judaism.  Thus, in the chapter on Islam he tries to demonstrate that Christians aren’t tri-theists or polytheists, but in doing so he seemed to move to the opposite view, which is modalism (Father, Son, and Spirit end up being masks or functions rather than persons).  Of course, that is my own issue – others might not be so discomforted by the presentation. 

Whatever qualms I might have with a point of doctrine here or there, I believe this is an excellent resource for helping Christian communities understand themselves in relationship to their neighbors whose faith is different, but who share the same humanity.  Each chapter has a series of discussion questions, making this an excellent resource for an adult or even youth study group.  

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