- Dialogue Comes of Age: Christian Encounters with Other Traditions
My good colleague at Boston University, Peter Berger, often tells the following story about his long life work as a sociologist of religion. As a recently arrived young man from Vienna working on his doctorate at the New School he assumed that modernization meant radical secularization. The general secularization theories of the 1950s inevitably held that modernity meant the weakening or even the demise of the world's religions. As Berger now points out, not only do we encounter many forms of modernity in the contemporary world, but also the early secularization thesis has proved to be generally false. While it is true that, again as Berger ironically notes, secularism in the sense of the decline of organized religion has happened in northern, and to a lesser extent, central Europe and university faculty clubs around the world, religion has not only survived but is flourishing and is growing around the globe in a plethora of old and new forms. But Berger then notes that we can say one thing about modernity and its offspring of globalization: awareness of religious diversity is growing on every continent. Actually, modernity seems to mean a general awareness of diversity of which the growth of religions is only one facet.
Books like the one ably edited by John B. Cobb Jr. and Ward M. McAfee help to substantiate Berger's insight into the role of religion in the modern world. Of course such a growing awareness of the diversity of religions brings new challenges, seen sometimes as a positive blessing and in other cases as something to cause anxiety. Among the variety of tasks a book about interreligious dialogue can achieve, the editors write that they have one special objective in mind: "We are asking a limited question. What can we, as progressive Christians, learn from our study of the history of the relations of Christianity with other traditions and from their unique wisdom? How can we help to reformulate the Christian faith in light of what we learn?" (p. 5). This seemingly simple question is actually much more complicated that it appears on a first reading. While limited, it is wonderfully expansive in its implications.
First, it is doubtful that a book like this could have been written in the 1950s or even the 1970s for that matter. That it can be written now depends on a number of [End Page 143] features, both internal to the history of Christian theology and external factors having to do with global political, social, cultural, and economic transformations. For instance, there is a great deal of debate on how to mark the beginning of the contemporary Christian theological engagement in what is called interfaith or interreligious dialogue. In North America some scholars would suggest we look as far back as the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and its World's Parliament of Religions. For many Americans this was their first chance to meet articulate representatives of a number of world religions. Or moving into the twentieth century, other scholars will point to the theological breakthrough represented by the documents of Vatican II. For the first time in the modern world the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged that interfaith dialogue was a worthy task for the Christian community. The World Council of Churches did not lag far behind in establishing an office for interfaith dialogue in Geneva.
Second, and even more specific to North America, great political changes helped to transform the religious landscape of Canada and the United States. In both countries exclusionary immigration laws were dramatically revised in the 1960s. Suddenly immigration from the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia recommenced after a long hiatus. The new immigrants brought with them their religions, and North America has become the home of a plethora of the religions of the world that simply were not present in any significant numbers prior to the 1970s. Of course, the major exception to this was and is the Jewish community, which...