- In the Company of Friends: Exploring Faith and Understanding with Buddhists and Christians by John Ross Carter
When (and if) at last we make contact with or even become aware of extraterrestrial beings, our perspectives will likely change dramatically. It’s easy to imagine that among many other things, contact with beings from another world will have a pro-found [End Page 221] effect on how we regard human religious life and traditions. Perhaps for some people at least, there will be a realization that despite differences in language, doctrines, and imageries, we earthlings in our different religious paths are, in a broader sense, really following a common path along which we are fellow-travelers.
There is no need to wait for extraterrestrial contact in order to find an example of a global sense of partnership in the religious life. It comes to expression insightfully, and in places movingly, in John Ross Carter’s book, In the Company of Friends: Exploring Faith and Understanding with Buddhists and Christians (SUNY, 2012). A collection of essays, the book focuses on Buddhist/Christian interreligious understanding from the perspectives of the two Buddhist traditions that the author has studied in depth, namely the Theravada of Southeast Asia and the Japanese Jodo Shinshu, or Pure Land school, within Mahayana Buddhism. In regard to Christianity, it is Protestant Christianity that Carter dwells upon in his essays, and more specifically, his own Southern Baptist affiliation.
As the title of the book suggests, and as Charles Hallisey emphasizes in his helpful foreword to the book (pp. xi–xxi), friendship is the heart and soul of this interreligious exploration of faith and understanding. Indeed, for Carter, friendship is something like a hermeneutical principle—a basis for interpretation and understanding between and among persons of different religious faiths.
As with any other hermeneutic, the hermeneutic of friendship functions at several levels. First of all, Carter’s way of understanding means that the grasp of and commitment to one’s own faith can be enhanced and deepened when one is fortunate enough to form personal bonds with people committed to other religious traditions. Offering a personal example of such bonding, Carter tells of his professional and religious friendship with Professor Wijesekera, a Buddhist scholar with whom Carter studied in Sri Lanka. Carter recalls how Wijesekera welcomed him into his home where they spent many hours working through classic Pali texts—“a Buddhist and a Baptist were working together in an old Indian language studying ancient words of wisdom, ever new and refreshing” (p. 200). What becomes clear in Carter’s account is that his scholarly work with ancient Pali texts took place within the framework of a rich and deepening friendship that was not only rigorously academic but also personal and religious, a friendship that enhanced the Buddhist and Christian faith commitment of each person respectively. Carter’s way of interreligious understanding is rooted within the tradition of Anselm’s circle of “faith seeking understanding.” For Anselm in Proslogion, the search takes place within an act of prayer; for Carter, however, the search, while not excluding prayer, is carried on within the interactive circle of conversation between and among persons who are well schooled in and also committed to their own religious tradition but are nonetheless receptive to and grateful for insights offered by followers of other traditions.
Such a notion of faith seeking understanding through interreligious friendship suggests a broad and open sense of religious truth or validity. The view that comes across in Carter’s book is that there are many religions; they are truly distinctive and valid within their own context. But at the same time, all of these distinctive traditions are expressions of “our one global religious history” (p. xxxii). Being part of this [End Page 222] “global religious history,” religions are connected—distinctive and yet connected—very much like the relationship between and among friends, as a matter of fact. In the “Introductory Note,” Carter reflects on the imagery of the path or the way; an...