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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22.1 (2002) 251-254

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James Fredericks Interview

The 2002 winner of the Frederick J.Streng Book Award is James Fredericks, professor ofTheological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Professor Fredericks received the award for his book, Faith Among Faiths: Christian Theology and the Non-Christian Religions, published by Paulist Press (New York) in 2001. Buddhist-Christian Studies asked James about his writing of the volume.

Buddhist-Christian Studies: Why did you write Faith Among Faiths ?

James Fredericks: I wanted to help Christians think about the problems that the "pluralist" view of religious diversity poses for inter-religious dialogue.

How does the book do that?

By making a sustained criticism of the claim that religions are differing interpretations of the same transcendent "Reality." This notion is a problem for a religion of revelation, like Christianity, but also for a religion like Buddhism that has a sophisticated critique of metaphysics. Pluralist thinkers impose a meta-religious grand narrative on all the religions and demand that the religions conform to this grand narrative in the name of "tolerance."This kind of thinking has roots in the European Enlightenment and has affinities with some strands of Hindu thought, especially the "neo-Hindu" thinkers. I do not think that this approach fosters dialogue in depth. If Buddhism and Christianity are varying interpretations of the same ultimate "Reality," then what does Buddhism have to teach Christians that is of genuine theological importance? The obvious differences that distinguish Buddhism from Christianity are of little theological interest to Christians because they are of no soteriological consequence. The pluralist approach is a dead end for dialogue.

And the way forward?

What I call "comparative theology." I think of this as an alternative to what Christians call the "theology of religions."

What's the difference?

Theologies of religion interpret the meaning of other religious traditions from within the perspective of Christian tradition. Karl Rahner's theology of the anonymous Christian and Karl Barth's rejection of all religions as "unbelief" are both examples of a theology of religion. John Hick's pluralist model of religions is also a kind of theology of religions. This entire project has reached an impasse within Christianity. As an alternative, I propose that Christians recognize that Buddhism and Christianity [End Page 251] are linked by some significant similarities and distinguished from each other by significant differences.

How does that break the impasse?

Christians have something of genuine value to learn by entering humbly into dialogue with Buddhists. By taking differences seriously, dialogue becomes a way for Christians to do their own theology collaboratively with Buddhists. In the medieval period, Christians did theology in dialogue with Aristotle and Plato. Today, I want Christians to do theology in dialogue with Nagarjuna and Dogen. Therefore doing theology comparatively is to step beyond the notion of a theology of religions. Comparative theology does not begin with the assumption that Buddhism is a relatively obscured form of the same truth Christians affirm (Rahner) or that Buddhism and Christianity are relatively equal expressions of a truth that transcends them both (Hick). The purpose of dialogue is not to show how we are all really trying to say the same thing. ForChristians, at least, dialogue with Buddhists is a genuinely demanding way of doing theology.

Any other reasons for the book?

Yes. To promote friendships among Buddhists and Christians. These "inter-religious friendships" are a good way for Christians to practice their faith. My own friendships with Buddhists, both here in the USA and in Asia, are central to my spirituality and my work as a theologian. In a sense, I have never been in dialogue with "Buddhism." All my dialogues have been with actual Buddhists, with all their personal strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. I am happy to say that, over the years, I have had some skillful teachers who have taught me not only the Dharma, but also taught me new ways to think about Christianity.

Was it a difficult book to write?

My book was written after years of dialogue with Buddhists and much research and...