For the sake of interreligious encounters, David Cheetham’s Creation and Religious Pluralism: A Christian Theology “seeks to bring the doctrine of creation and the theology of religions into dialogue” (11). Working both philosophically and theologically, Cheetham attempts to provoke scholars from other traditions to dwell in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls the “penultimate.” What if, the author queries, our shared attention in interreligious dialogue is dedicated less to questions of ultimacy and more concerned with mundane matters such as humanity’s sense of creaturehood? Put another way, would we not learn more from one another by focusing on the deep significance of our embodied and finite existence?
In the first of the book’snine chapters, Cheetham reflects on the problem of religious diversity, while differentiating his approach from British philosopher of religion John Hick’s influential pluralistic hypothesis. For Hick, all religious truth claims point toward a transcendent mystery (“the Real”) that is basically ineffable. However, Cheetham supposes ineffability more suitably underscores the rich sense of mystery in encounters, asking, “can the ground-up interreligious engagements between traditions also generate what is ineffable about their meetings—a ground-up Real?” (21). Whereas Hick’s use of ineffability suggests the impossibility of fully experiencing the world of others, Cheetham invites us to acknowledge and appreciate how truth can be revealed in and through interfaith encounters. In chapter 2, from a Christian viewpoint, Cheetham emphasizes the goodness of the created order. “The doctrine of creation does not just address the questions of origins or ecological activism,” he writes, “it also serves to affirm the finite or immanent aspects of life as places to inhabit rather than to escape from” (40). On this affirming basis, he seeks to redirect our attention to the “middle,” the relations in which we discover transcendence.
In chapter 3, drawing from Creation and Fall (Fortress Press, 1997), Cheetham argues that Bonhoeffer conceives of transcendence as the ineffable in the middle of life (in medias res), found especially in our relational sense of being human, and not in an obscure, inaccessible transcendence. Following Bonhoeffer’s insight, Cheatham explains how humanity gets in touch with transcendence because it “is found in our relations with and being-for others” (65). When engaged in dialogue In this way, Cheetham imagines an interreligious response to the “call to creaturehood—to be homo creates” (75). In short, he asserts: “We should learn to inhabit the penultimate as a religious space” (75).More plainly, he is suggesting how we should honor being in relation with one another.
In the next three chapters, Cheetham examines how the doctrine of creation relatedly elucidates the sabbath (chapter 4), wisdom/sophia (chapter 5), and sacramentality (chapter 6). Chapter 7 probes the shared creation of powerful gestures, that is, how public rituals make the commitments of interreligious engagement vivid and enable (despite differences) the “exhibition of truth” (139). Cheetham then suggests that the arts are a potentially powerful way to bring diverse peoples together spiritually. In the eighth and penultimate chapter, Cheetham sketches a “creational politics,” arguing for the need of classic figures, who exemplify what it means to be finite human beings, and not moral saints, so that Christians, together with adherents of other religious traditions, may “bear witness to the gifted-ness that creation signals” (172). In the concluding chapter, his creational theology of religions outlines the possibility of living together “sabbatically.” In other words, awakened anew to the presence of others, the “sabbatical” mood according to Cheetham allows us to embrace others as gifts and in these relationships to recognize them as good. Ultimately, in this sense, Cheetham writes, “The Sabbath rest at the heart of creation is an invitation to stand back” (182).
There are problems that persistently crop up in the book. For instance, it is surprising that a perspective so committed to the mundane offers so few concrete examples. For instance, who are the classic figures that can guide us in this creational direction? Cheetham offers none. Cheetham does, on occasion, provide glimpses of personal experience that may provide untapped insights. For example, he remembers a morning years ago when he and his wife, Naina, who is Hindu by background, led an interfaith service at Selly Oak College in Birmingham, UK. From their differing Christian and Hindu viewpoints, they both offered their audience scriptural passages on the theme of the human yearning for God (126–7). His example, however, is too fleeting. What he could from his own experience as a case study, he instead becomes mired in discussions of secular theory.
His writing is mostly conceptual, even if he pitches his work as a “practical topography.” Just as this interfaith service, with its music and candles, provided a kind of liturgy, civic events according to Cheetham may likewise become imbued with a sense of “public ritual.” Readers also consider possible lessons in the 2015–16 “Soul Boat” installation at the Birmingham Cathedral as part of the city’s “Something Good” initiative (143–4). Participants in this public art initiative did not explicitly affiliate with any religious tradition, and yet this public ritual “nonetheless represented the values and deeper affectations of the Birmingham community” (144). In a spiritual sense, this aesthetic experience enabled both religious and non-religious to dwell together. For Cheetham, the art installation event suggests how “the Real” can be generated. Together, amidst their differences, some spiritual sense of communion is available. Cheetham claims that, in the middle of life, a living account of actual encounters may emerge, but it is a problem that his own theological account does not offer more of a basis with examples such as these.
Comparison never takes central stage, possibly casting doubt about the prospects of this pathway. Twice, Cheetham ventures to suggest that “something of the sabbatical spirit even has affinities with the Buddha’s middle way” (182, see also 91–3). But an elaboration is never forthcoming. Readers should judge whether this is a misrecognition. Here, as elsewhere, I think the author should have reflected more on parallels, and potential interconnections. Similarly noteworthy is the author’s recurring interest in the theological anthropology of the Muslim thinker Muhammad Iqbal, but he never highlights the relation between Iqbal’s anthropology and his sense of creaturehood. Despite Cheetham’s best intentions, he runs the risk of trying to improve interreligious relations without actually engaging them. There is clearly need for further work in this area.
The unfinished nature of creation, nevertheless, is part of the doctrine’s appeal. Serious readers will do well to pick up this work with curiosity and wonder—ready to learn about others simply as they are.
Michael VanZandt Collins is an instructor of comparative theology at Boston College.
Michael VanZandt Collins
Date Of Review:
October 31, 2023
David Cheetham is reader in philosophical theology at the University of Birmingham, UK. He has published widely in the field of religion and aesthetics, contemporary theology and interreligious relations.
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