The Past, Present, and Future of Theologies of Interreligious Dialogue

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Terrence Merrigan, John Friday
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Past, Present, and Future of Theologies of Interreligious Dialogue is a collection of essays that aims to supply fresh resources for thinking about how—in faithfulness to Scripture and tradition—Christian theology might conduct new encounters with other religious perspectives, for the sake of its own internal development as much as its external communication of divine revelation. As editor Terrence Merrigan explains, “dialogue” might be a frustratingly-ambiguous word to use for such a venture, but it would seem that such ambiguity is partly the point: the rewards of interreligious encounter tend to follow from an honest pursuit of mutual discovery, such that we cannot say in advance where the “dialogue” with religious others may take us. Methodologically then, Merrigan explains that the “theology of interreligious dialogue” is “a discipline in the making” (13), which for this reviewer, means that this “discipline” is a self-conscious pursuit of a more open-ended approach to universal religious questions. This is in contrast to its methodological uncle, the theology of religions, to say nothing of the older, one-way style of cross-cultural evangelism. Given the present realities of life in the “global village,” the scholars represented here are concerned with tough questions about how to foster interreligious encounters in the future, but in such a way that bears continuity with the past.

Merrigan and co-editor John Friday do a nice job arranging the thirteen essays into a three-part structure. Part 1, “The Reappropriation of the Christian Doctrinal Tradition,” explores how particular historical exemplars such as Ramon Llul as well as theologically accepted paradigms such as John Henry Newman’s theory of doctrinal development provide lessons to be carried forward today for the sake of creative forays in interreligious conversations. Part 2 focuses attention on how we should assess the phenomena of religious experience, as a universal category of religious knowledge shared across communities of faith. Wouter Biesbrouck supplies a noteworthy piece here in which he studies how evangelical theology, with its appreciation of spiritual warfare, is amenable to dialogue with other religions that also share an “enchanted cosmology.” Part 3, “The Acknowledgment of Otherness,” ventures farther into the world of the religious “other,” leading us to consider non-Christian religious practices and doctrines in terms of what they positively contribute to our own faith commitments about the transcendent God.

The authors represent a spectrum of mostly Catholic—with a few Protestant—opinions. They summarily point to the Christian obligation, in a post-modern age, to engage religious diversity with discernment, wisdom, and proper humility. But beyond this basic assumption, the various practical conclusions supplied in this volume are diverse enough as to, at times, flatly conflict with each other. On the one hand, such contrasts make for a provocative treatment of perennial questions that lead the reader to conduct their own reflection, beyond the pages of the book.

On the other hand, a book like this may have been better served if the authors had each attended, at least in some way, to one of the major questions that so manifestly divides them, namely, the question of how we should account for religious particularity vis-à-vis universality. For instance, Ilaria Morali argues that Catholic theology needs to take a rather ambivalent attitude towards the methodological acrobatics that animates religious studies—from “theology of religions to comparative theology to theology of interreligious dialogue”—for in all these cases, she writes, “the object of theology remains the same” (86). Morali means that an intrinsic distinction exists between “theology,” as a doctrinal discipline of the Catholic Church that focuses on what has been revealed for all of humanity by the one God, and “missions,” or the process of translating our grasp of revelation into the language of every respective culture (90). As should be obvious, “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” will remain an operative question with which global Christians will continue to wrestle. However that may be, other perspectives in this volume seem to be convinced that the Christian account of divine revelation is simply not expansive enough to be compelling to a global population. Michelle Voss Roberts takes an approach that is directly concerned to “decolonize Christian theology” (140), so as to underwrite the theological necessity of religious pluralism, allowing other religions’ experiences of the divine to deconstruct—rather than “reappropriate”—Christian doctrinal traditions.

Provided the reader can appreciate each essay strictly on its own terms rather than hope for a comprehensive vision of what the “theology of interreligious dialogue” really means, the book satisfies its stated intention. It supplies historical case studies from the past, assesses our context of religious dialogue in the present, and projects a number of future possibilities for engaging religious otherness with mutual respect and admiration. This book will appeal to Catholic Christians in particular, since at least four of the thirteen essays explicitly focus on Catholic history and theology of interreligious engagement, especially in light of the Second Vatican Council. More generally, this book will be helpful for those who are willing to consider the necessity for a healthy dialogue among differing religious adherents, and who are equally convinced that a one-size-fits-all approach is, indeed, practically impossible. In that regard, the diverse opinions of this book provide much food for thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alec Arnold is a doctoral student in modern theology at Saint Louis University.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Terrence Merrigan is professor of systematic theology in the department of theology and religious studies at the University of Leuven.

John Friday is a postdoctoral researcher in theology and religious studies at the University of Leuven.



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