Side by Side (Richard P. Olson) -- A Review
SIDE BY SIDE: Being Christian in a Multifaith World. By Richard P. Olson. Foreword by Charles Kimball. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2018. Xvii + 172 pages.
I do believe that world peace will require peace among the various world religions. Religion can be a partner for good or for evil, the choice is ours. Often religions, including Christianity, are co-opted for nationalistic or political purposes. This is when they become dangerous. They can, however, become bridges to peace and understanding. This can happen without faith traditions giving up what they hold most dear. This is the conclusion I’ve come to after nearly twenty years engaged in interfaith conversations and work. With that in mind, I’m always on the lookout for books and resources that speak to my journey. Richard Olson’s book Side by Side fulfills this requirement.
Olson is an American Baptist pastor and educator who has taken a very similar journey. He is a retired professor of pastoral theology at Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas. Like me he started out with the assumption of Christian superiority and engaged other faiths from an exclusivist position. Over time, as he came into relationships with people of other faith traditions and began to examine their beliefs and practices, he discovered that life is more complex than previously thought. We see this complexity expressed in this book, which affirms his Christian faith while allowing for God to work through and in other traditions. The emphasis of the book is helping Christians navigate this multifaith world we live in so as to live in peace and understanding, while remaining faithful to the Christian faith.
Although Olson is aware of the breadth of interfaith opportunities, he focuses on the relationships between the three Abrahamic faith traditions, as these are the traditions he is most familiar with. Much of what we learn in the book, however, does translate to relating to other faith traditions. At the very least we’re invited to engage each other respectfully. Olson reminds us that interreligious encounters are often lacking. We’re often not able to have those encounters, because of religious isolation (I grew up in a community that offered few opportunities for engagement), but when they come, as they did for him, they can be transformative. This book is rooted in invitations to join in conversation first with Jews and then with Muslims. These were, for him, formal invitations, as he represented Baptists in interfaith conversations. As he did, he found his own faith enriched, much as has been true for me and many others. So, we could look at this book as a means of preparing for these conversations. What is perhaps most beneficial here, is that the book reflects his own personal journey. This isn’t simply an academic exercise, which should make this book more engaging for the general Christian audience.
His first chapter carries an interesting title: "Moving Beyond Boredom to Encounter." They are boring, Olson writes, because too often we don't wish to offend anyone, so we refrain from engaging in anything other than generalities. It becomes interesting when we're willing to dive deeper. That has been my experience as well. It is in working with and through our differences that true enlightenment and relationship emerges. Dialogue becomes exciting when we put ourselves in a position to be changed by the dialogue. Am I more deeply rooted in my faith due to this encounter? Has my understanding of the world and the divine been enriched and even transformed as a result?
When we're willing to dive deep we can explore each other’s sacred texts and spiritual practices. This is easier within the Abrahamic context as there are shared stories and figures and practices. These are explored in chapter two. And any conversation within this orbit leads to the question of whether we worship the same God. All three affirm the oneness of God (though Christians tend to be Trinitarian in their monotheism). An interesting case study is the way we name God, and how language and culture inform that conversation. Thus, the Muslim name for God—Allah—can be translated into English simply as God, and it is a word that Arab-speaking Christians and Jews use for God. So, is it a Muslim word or an Arabic word? Does it make a difference? These are important questions.
One of the big issues facing those who enter this kind of encounter is the difference between conversion and conversation. If we go into the encounter intent on converting the other, the conversation will likely be short. However, if we don't put ourselves in the position of being converted, the conversation might not lead very far. In the Abrahamic conversations, the Jewish partner is not missionary by design. They receive converts but don't seek them. Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, are missionary religions. Navigating these realities poses a challenge and offers opportunities. Olson writes of the relationship this way: "In any conversation of this sort, there will be mutual witness and enrichment. And any witness hoping for conversion must begin with respectful conversation." (p. 49). Ultimately in either case respect for the other is required.
In any conversation like this, we must deal with questions of whether religion can be a source of evil. Many Christians view Islam as an evil religion that sponsors terrorism. They point to ISIS or al Qaeda and suggest that these represent Islam. Muslims can point to Christian forms of terrorism, including the historical accounts of the Crusades. One can also point to texts in the Qur'an that warn against killing innocent people or against suicide, to give but two examples. The same can be said for the Bible. The question of when religions become evil is an important one. Olson points to the work of Charles Kimball who notes five factors, beginning with making "absolute truth claims." Added to this are blind obedience, belief in a divinely ordered state coming into existence, the ends justifying the means (oh how dangerous this is!), and the declaration of holy war. Both Islam and Christianity have their expressions -- often defined in terms of the Crusades and jihad. Sacralizing war is always dangerous. This chapter leads to one inviting repentance, for we all have reason to repent. History is replete with unfortunate events that have led to death and destruction.
Chapter seven of the book invites us to address "questions, critiques, and misunderstandings." In other words, this involves asking hard questions, so we can find necessary answers. One of the questions has to do with what we mean by religious freedom, another has to do with the role of women. There are terms like Jihad and Sharia that need to be defined for Christians, for they carry negative connotations. In Abrahamic conversations, the person of Jesus will by necessity be a topic to be addressed. Both Christians and Muslims honor Jesus, though the see him differently. Jews on the other hand find it difficult to find a place for Jesus, in large part due to a history of anti-Semitism.
So how do we move forward? One way is to engage together in service projects. That is the foundation of Interfaith Youth Core, founded by Eboo Patel. Working together in service projects we build friendships, which provide a strong foundation for later conversation. Service leads back to conversation about challenging topics, like the presence of revelation in other religions or exclusive claims of salvation. In other words, are we pursing this from an exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist perspective (or some other paradigm)? Any conversation about interfaith conversation in our day can't forget the "nones," and Olson addresses them as well. I found this interesting because they are not usually brought into a conversation like this. Writing to Christians, he suggests a path of Christlike Presence in relationship to those who have chosen to remain separate from religious communities. Having explored these interfaith relationships, Olson takes these sources and returns to finding better ways of relating to Christians who disagree with him. I will admit that I often find it easier to have serious conversations with partners outside the Christian faith than with Christians who differ from me. But this is a conversation that needs to be had as well. Finally, Olson asks -- Where does this lead? He suggests building relationships, working together, joining in advocacy, standing with others when threatened. It means being a good neighbor.
Olson closes each chapter with a set of discussion questions, along with a suggested activity, suggesting that he (and the publisher) intends for the book to be used by congregations as a study guide in preparation for future engagement. I believe that this is an important task for our times, and the book should serve this purpose quite well. This would be especially helpful for congregations who are just getting their feet wet in developing such relationships. If we are to navigate the times we live in, we must let go of the idea that we are engaged in a “clash of civilizations” and instead pursue relationships that lead to peace. With that in mind, Olson offers us a readable, thoughtful, and engaging guide that is the fruit of a career spent in ministry, which led in time to deep interfaith relationships. With the book he shares his story, and as I read Side by Side, I felt like he was reading my own story. That's always a good recommendation.