- Encounters in Faith: Christianity in Interreligious Dialogue by Peter Feldmeier
This book occupies a unique place in a big crowd. It fits neatly into the rows of textbooks weighing down the shelves marked “Introduction to World Religions,” for it admirably achieves the goal of introducing its readers to the basic beliefs and practices of humanity’s ancient and more recent religious traditions. But it does more, much more. Peter Feldmeier, professor of Christian theology at the University of St. Thomas, boldly, and I would add fittingly, commits what most scholars of religion consider a mortal sin. He not only describes objectively but engages personally the truths that these religions hold dear. He does so as a Christian primarily for Christian and/or Western readers. The book embodies something I don’t think I’ve found in any other textbook: comparative, or dialogical, theology applied to a world religions course.
Feldmeier lays out this novel approach in an introductory chapter in which he basically defines himself as a comparative theologian—a scholar of Christianity who is convinced that one of the most promising—maybe necessary—ways of understanding Christianity is to bring it into conversation with other religious traditions. So the book has a proximate and an ultimate goal: to understand other religions as accurately as possible but then “to inform, inspire, challenge, and renew one’s [own] religious sensibilities” (p. 263). As for the Christian theological resources for doing this, Feldmeier summarizes the standard, but controversial, three “models” of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, but then makes a postmodern decision not to endorse any one of them. Rather, he floats among the models and employs one or another as is “useful and appropriate” (p. 17). Hmm…
The overall structure of the book embodies its comparative methodology. Before exploring individual traditions, Feldmeier offers two somewhat surprising thematic chapters, which turn out to be foundational for his project, on mysticism and on [End Page 221] mediators. Mystics, both apophatic and kataphatic, populate all the religions; cautiously and somewhat reservedly, Feldmeier suggests that there must be one source that would explain why “the characteristics that define a mystical experience are quite stable within the broad range of mystical accounts” (p. 43). But mystics both need and become mediators or masters. Feldmeier shows that in all the traditions—whether in the form of spiritual directors, gurus, lamas, rebbes—mediators, or teachers of knowledge and experience, are necessary. These chapters illustrate what Feldmeier explicitly states at the end of the book: that of the three forms of interreligious dialogue—theological reflection, social engagement, or shared spirituality—his preference is the mystical/spiritual/experiential.
There follows the usual line-up for a world religions course: individual chapters on Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism/Confucianism, Indigenous Traditions, and (surprise!) New Age. But his treatment of each is refreshingly unusual. Feldmeier prefers representational relevance to historical or doctrinal thoroughness. He selectively but lucidly highlights key ingredients in each religion and then takes up a “Christian reflection” on each of them. He does this carefully, respectfully, considering each religion to be “sacred ground.” Yet this does not prevent him from critically setting limits; he recognizes roadblocks to his comparative project when it comes to certain forms of shamanism, voodoo, and much of the feel-good quality of New Age spiritualities.
And yes, one can quibble, as scholars are wont, about the accuracy of some of his representations or interpretations. Does Islam stand in “awe before God” while Christians “seek communion” (p. 117)? Is Buddhist meditation “mind-control” while Christian prayer is love-inspired (pp. 154–155)? Does Daoism lack an “absolute order” (p. 207) and Confucianism a “spiritual absolute” (p. 216)? But these are quibbles. For the most part, the book really works. Feldmeier offers teachers and students reliable and engaging portraits of “other” religious worldviews and then suggests how these portraits can clarify and challenge one’s own.
Such challenges can be both affirming and upsetting. Isn’t Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, Feldmeier asks, basically the same kind of intervening...