Faith, Hope and Love

Interfaith Engagement as Practical Theology

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Ray Gaston
  • London, UK: 
    Hymns Ancient and Modern
    , September
     2017.
     160 pages.
     £19.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780334054597.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ray Gaston’s Faith, Hope and Love: Interfaith Engagement as Practical Theology argues prophetically for the titular “faith, hope, and love” as a pedagogy for interfaith engagement. He seeks to respond to pressing concerns, four in particular: the new multifaith reality; new directions in Christian interfaith reflection; changing forms of civic interfaith engagement (particularly within his own English context); and lastly, the “War on Terror” and its resultant Islamophobia (vii-x). Connecting theological analysis of interfaith engagement with examples of those who have put interfaith commitment into practice, part I addresses the theological method and practice of a practical theology of interfaith engagement, and part II explores contemporary questions related to Islamophobia and multiculturalism. 

In part 1, Gaston deftly steers through complex academic theological debates, shifting readers into more practical and active theological frameworks in order to promote interfaith engagement. Gaston connects theological methods and practical, political activism, his writing clearly informed by his prior work first, as a theological educator for the Church of England and the Methodist Church, and then as an Anglican parish priest engaging with the local Muslim population at the time of 9/11 and the London bombings. Exploring the theoretical framework behind different forms of interfaith engagement, Gaston takes the simple comparison often used to frame interfaith discussions as either “exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist,” and exposes the biases that often run behind different presentations of this typology (biases that typically privilege one of the three positions). Reframing the classic positions as complementary not opposing, Gaston instead argues for a theology of dialogue, developed by Michael Barnes, . Using the language of faith, hope, and love, he describes exclusivism as faith through a specific tradition, inclusivism as a hope for the fulfilment of all authentic religious truths and values, and pluralism as a love that wants to affirms those values in the present (9). He argues that thinking of interfaith engagement in terms of a dialogue model helps us to see that the subject of interfaith engagement is no longer “the other,” as it was in earlier forms of interfaith engagement; rather, the subject is “ourselves,” as we come to know our own traditions differently by engaging with the traditions of others (23).

Gaston expertly navigates through debates between pluralist or particularist approaches, and engages critiques of language like modernism or postmodernism for their Eurocentrism. First, Gaston uses David Tracy’s three-part division of the discipline of theology to identify pluralist theology as a form of fundamental theology (seeking to connect theology to the non-religious world), and particularist theology as a form of systematic theology (focused within a specific religious tradition) (28-29). He then argues instead for the third form of theology, practical theology, which sees engaging faith within contemporary multifaith culture as the primary concern. Then, recognizing the dangers of Eurocentrism and “the myth of emancipative reason” within discussions of modernity and postmodernity, Gaston uses the thought of Raimon Panikkar to argue for a “transmodern” theology (35). Panikkar’s river metaphor describes the changing frameworks of Christian self-consciousness without Eurocentrism, by linking its beginnings with the Jewish faith of the Jordan, flowing into the orthodoxy of the imperial Tiber, then flowing into the post-colonial and multireligious spirituality of the Ganges (40). Gaston offers examples from his own engagement with Islam to show how engaging with a different faith community and its practices can lead to a different way of living in community. Chapter 3 concludes part I with a focused discussion of faith-based political activism as a praxis of non-violence and peace-building, including some particularly intriguing examples such as “The Walk of Reconciliation,” in which an evangelical church walked the route of the First Crusade to apologize for the Crusades. However, because of the chapter’s breadth, I found the interweaving between theory and practice harder to follow, as Gaston explored “case studies” of repentance, conversion, and sanctification by discussing theological debates between Paul Knitter and John Howard Yoder, St. Francis’s peaceful visit with the sultan during the time of the Fifth Crusade, and Martha Fredericks’s theology of kenosis.

In part 2, Gaston reflects on practical efforts to challenge Islamophobia and affirm multiculturalism. I appreciated the way he described the process of local action and community response. As a North American reader, I was less familiar with specifically British forms of Islamophobia (like the English Defamation Movement) though well aware of similar hostility towards Islam from various American right-wing groups. I agree with Gaston that the local, specific interfaith stories of encounter are significant, and I appreciate his strong presentation of a practical interfaith theology. However, I would have also appreciated concrete suggestions for religious leaders on how to move from theory into action as a helpful complement to his notes on theology.

As a teacher, I found the methodological discussions of part I helpful to my work of encouraging students to engage seriously with those of other faiths. In particular, I admired the examples of faith-based political activism that different clergy were able to promote. I would hope that clergy, even in small American communities like mine, might find inspiration in some of Gaston’s examples to develop more interfaith activism of their own.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Janice A. Thompson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Theology at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ray Gaston is Team Vicar of St Chad & St Marks in the Parish of Central Wolverhampton and Inter Faith Enabler for the Wolverhampton Episcopal Area and Advisor on Inter Faith relations to the Bishops of Wolverhampton and Lichfield. He is an Associate Tutor in Inter Faith Engagement at the Queens Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham and has served in parish ministry in multi faith areas in Leeds, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. He is author of A Heart Broken Open - Radical Faith in an Age of Fear (2010) and a member of CTBI's Inter Faith Theological Advisory Group.

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