Monday, April 25, 2005

Book Review: 'Christianity at the Religious Roundtable'

Christians have been involved for centuries in evangelising other religions of the world. As Timothy Tennent points out in his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, however, things are not the same as they used to be. We live in a 'postmodern' world where pluralism is the dominant philosophical context. It is no longer acceptable that Christians approach other religions in the way we have previously done -- dogmatically asserting our rightness and exclusivity without genuine dialogue with other points of view. Tennant engages with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in conversations modeled on Luther's table talks where, instead of Christians taking a position at the head of the table, we are one member of a group at a round table. King Arthur is well known for his round table which equalised all those present. Tennant's round table is intended to be a symbol of the way we need to engage in conversation with others as we discuss the competing claims made by the major religions. Tennant is not suggesting, however, that those who come from a definite religious conviction need to water down that conviction. He is arguing for a dialogue where each party genuinely listens to the other in an attempt to come to a deep understanding of each other's points of view. This process is essential if Christians wish to be heard and understood by others. Tennant begins the book with an evangelical perspective on interreligious dialogue. After surveying the perspective of conservative and liberal Christians, he describes a spectrum of views regarding Christianity and non-Christian religions: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. He criticises the pluralist position whose God, he argues, 'is so vague it cannot be known' and 'ultimately based on the subjectivity of human experience, not on any objective truth claims.' Tennant acknowledges the 'strong affirmation of the centrality of Jesus Christ, the indispensable nature of his death and resurrection for salvation' and it's discernment of how 'God has worked in the lives of those outside the boundaries of the covenant such as Rahab and Naaman.' It also promotes a 'more positive view of the relationship between general and special revelation.' However, the inclusivists, according to Tennant, have attempted to 'drive a wedge between the ontological necessity of Christ's work and the epistemological response of repentance and faith' which, he believes, cannot be sustained. He also suggests that the inclusivist position has shifted the emphasis away from Christ to the 'experience of faith regardless of its object.' The inclusivist also tends to describe Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists as 'anonymous Christians' -- a term that people in those religions find insulting and patronising. Finally, the exclusivist position is praised for its affirmation of 'the authority of Scripture, the unique centrality of Jesus Christ, and the indispensability of his death and resurrection.' Exclusivism also 'takes seriously the call to repentance and the need to turn to Jesus Christ as the object of explicity faith.' Tennant criticises the exclusivist position, however, for its failure to fully appreciate God's work of grace in the 'pre-Christian heart' and for claiming that the only revelation of God is to be found in Jesus Christ. He also suggests that the exclusivist frequently adopts a defensive posture with others who believe differently and been 'unwilling to honestly engage with the questions and objections of those from non-Christian religions. Tennant describes himself as belonging to an 'engaged exclusivist' position. After clarifying what that means for him, he turns to the main activity of the book -- Christian dialogue with other faiths. In the rest of the book, he engages in a fictitious dialogue (constructed from his wide experience) with a member of the religion under consideration. For each one he takes the doctrine of God and one other significant doctrine for that religion - Hinduism on creation, Buddhism on ethics, Islam on Christ and the incarnation - and constructs a dialogue that teases apart the respective understanding of the doctrine and the main Christian objections to them along with responses from an imagined representative of that religion. The book is finished with three case studies and conclusion. The three case studies are: Was Socrates a Christian before Christ? A Study of Justin Martyr's Use of Logos Spermatikos; Can the Hindu Upanishads Help Us Explain the Trinity? A Study of Brahmabandhav Upadhyay's Use of Saccidānanda; and Can Sola Fide be Understood Apart from the Specific, Historic Revelation of Jesus Christ? A Study of A. G. Hogg's Distinction between Faith and Faiths. As you can probably tell, by now, this is meaty stuff. But Tennant writes in a fairly simple and straightforward manner. There is a wealth of information about the faiths he explores and excellent advice about engaging in conversation with other belief systems. In his closing thoughts, Tennant states that '[t]he world we live in no longer allows us to isolate our faith from those who belong to the other major world religions.' This is so true. In my own city I cannot walk the streets or work without meeting people who are open believers in Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism or some other faith. For Tennant, there are three fundamental commitments Christians need to make in this world. Firstly, we need to say no to pluralism which, in his view, brings to the table a distorted version of Christianity and deliberately seeks to jettison distinctive Christian doctrines. Secondly, Christians need to see dialogue as 'persuasive witness'. We can no longer afford to see evangelism as a 'monologue of proclamation'. And, thirdly, we need to accept that dialogue 'stimulates our own understanding of truth'. Christians have much to learn about their own faith and dialogue can further that process. Rather than seeing postmodernism as a threat to Christian belief, Tennant describes it as 'the opportunity of the present'. It's an interesting book rich in ideas and insights. The reader may not agree with all of the author's characterisation of Christian doctrine. But that is not the purpose of the book. If it leads to more respectful dialogue of Christians with others then it will have, I believe, accomplished it's intentions. The one disappointing aspect of the book is that the dialogue did not take place with actual adherents of each of the religions. The dialogues are constructed from the experience of the author. This gave the dialogues an artifical feel. I would have liked to see an actual dialogue on these issues. That aside, it is an important and timely read. Related Topic Links (please note: the providing of a link does not imply endorsement of the contents)

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