Friendship Across Religions

Theological Perspectives on Interreligious Friendship

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Editor(s): 
Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Interreligious Reflections
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf and Stock
    , August
     2018.
     234 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498526357.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s edited volume Friendship Across Religions: Theological Perspectives on Interreligious Friendship is the product of the fifth meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders in Oxford in October 2012. Its nine essays reflect on the challenge and promise posed by spiritual friendship practiced across religions, considered from the perspectives of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. The questions these essays consider include: “What do such friendships mean for the participants? How do friends draw from and impact their own religious practice and that of their communities? What is their theoretical justification and what are their practical limits?” (xii). 

Although essays vary in format and scope, a number of them share several common elements. Many explain how the author’s life has been enriched by interreligious friendships. Most offer a doctrinal or theoretical argument to justify interreligious friendships from the perspective of the religion in question. Some present examples of prominent interreligious friendships in which one party was a member of the religion in question, mining them for insights into how interreligious friendships should ideally function. 

The essays unanimously concur that, in spite of some apparent theoretical and interpersonal challenges, for each of the religions considered, interreligious friendships are ultimately socially beneficial and theoretically justified. Socially, such friendships reap overwhelmingly positive benefits for those who partake in them. They routinely enhance participants’ understanding of their own faith—as well as that of their friends—and deepen their appreciation for spiritual things. 

The question of theoretical justification is more fraught, at least for the Abrahamic traditions. Goshen-Gottstein attributes the fact that interreligious friendship poses a “far greater challenge, even a problem, for the Abrahamic traditions” to their concern with affirming their identity in relation to other religions (xl). Other religions, in contrast, have much more fluid identity boundaries. He not-so-subtly presents the latter as preferable to the former when he insists that individuals must curb missionary impulses in order to appropriately engage in interreligious friendships (e.g., xxxvii, 170). Such insistence leaves one unsure of the prospects for interreligious friendships for followers of religions to which missionary impulses are central. Only Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz’s chapter on Christianity engages with this issue; in general, the book does not adequately address it at a theoretical or religion-specific level. 

Nevertheless, each of the essays about the Abrahamic religions confidently asserts that potentially problematic authoritative texts and traditions can be overcome without endangering theological orthodoxy or orthopraxy. Such is to be expected in a volume written by members of an interfaith organization. Yet, while I have no reason to doubt their sincerity, I was left wondering if there was more to the story. Hearing that there are significant obstacles, to then be relatively quickly assured that they have all been satisfactorily addressed feels a bit like a summary dismissal. It leaves an inquisitive readers wondering what—if anything—they havenot been told, and hesitant to fully endorse the authors’ conclusion. Such concerns could have been addressed by soliciting essays from opposing perspectives for each of the religions discussed, and facilitating a dialogue among these authors about the challenges and prospects of interreligious friendship. 

Some of the volume’s essays do dialogue with each other in a limited fashion: the second of the two pieces on both Judaism and Christianity position themselves as a continuation of the conversation initiated by the first. However, both do so as a supplement rather than as a critique. The volume’s case for interreligious friendship could be strengthened if it featured pieces that dialogued with and responded to each other more directly. 

Furthermore, it would be advantageous to feature an equal number of essays about each religion. There are two essays each for Judaism, Christianity, and Sikhism, but only one each for Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Devoting space to some religions more than others may give the untoward impression that some are more interesting or worthy of consideration. 

Relatedly, it would be preferable to feature only essays written by followers of the religion in question. While most of the volume’s authors do follow the religions they write about, including pieces about Sikhism and Buddhism by a Quaker and a Catholic (albeit co-authored with a Buddhist) respectively, threatens to do a disservice to those religions. Featuring authors who practice the religion they write about has the dual advantage of giving each religion the opportunity to speak—so to speak—for itself, from both interpersonal and theoretical vantage points. 

Some of these weaknesses may be the inevitable result of producing a volume from conference proceedings, but insufficient engagement with how to navigate interreligious friendships as a follower of a religion to which a missionary impulse is central, inadequate consideration of opposing perspectives, limited dialogue among pieces, unequal number of essays about each religion, and essays by authors who are not followers of the religion they wrote about remain overall limitations of the book. Addressing these concerns would generate a volume which arguably did a better job of engaging with issues related to the theoretical justification of and interpersonal experience of interreligious friendship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Rupprecht is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
March 27, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. A noted scholar of Jewish studies, he has held academic posts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University and has served as director of the Center for the Study of Rabbinic Thought, Beit Morasha College, Jerusalem.

Comments

Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Dear Rachel

Thanks so much for taking the time to think through the issues related to the book. Just a couple of factual clarifications. The essays were written in preparation for a meeting of religious leaders and are not like conference papers. Actually, the dialogue between the pieces is embedded in the structure and commonality that is evident in the format of the essays and the common issues they address. Because they were prepared by a think tank that worked in dialogue, they have actually benefited from a lot of mutual interaction. I also would like to clarify that with the exception of one Sikh scholar who is not herself Sikh, all authors are also insiders, some of whom practice mutliple religious identities, but nevertheless speak from within. This is precisely why we felt the need to add a second Sikh paper, in order to ensure an insider's perspective. Thanks again for your engagement. 

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