Tuesday, June 13, 2006

a brief review of
The View from Mars Hill

A few days ago, I finished The View from Mars Hill: Christianity in the Landscape of World Religions by Dr. Charles B. Jones. The book was, in many ways, a throwback to the classes I took at Catholic U. with Dr. Jones, especially to his class titled Issues in Interreligious Encounter. I found myself reading and smiling as the book covered points I remember hearing in both lecture and discussion.

Jones's book is divided into two parts. Riffing off terminology from David Hume, Jones writes that the first part deals with the "is" of religious diversity. The reader is treated to a sweeping historical survey of the history of Christianity, with special focus on Christianty's encounters with other religions. Jones highlights crucial moments in Church history-- the formulation of the ancient creeds, the Age of Discovery, Immanuel Kant's "turn to the self," the role of immigration in modern times, etc.-- to give the reader an idea of how the Church's attitude toward world religions has evolved over the centuries.

Jones describes the second part of his book as an overview of the "oughts" of religious diversity. This part surveys the various attitudes Christians (and their churches) bring to interreligious encounter; it also talks about different types of encounter and dialogue, and includes a lengthy discussion of how to reconcile the apparent contradictions between, as the Catholic Church phrases it, dialogue and proclamation.

I suspect that readers interested in history, especially Church history, might take issue with some of Jones's claims in the first half of his book, perhaps feeling that he glosses over far too many important events in the Church's long history. I would argue that Mars Hill is not meant to be a detailed examination of the minutiae of that history; its target audience is the lay Christian looking for a bit of perspective on why the current situation is what it is. For those needing more depth, Jones provides a selected bibliography at the back of the book.

One thing I found interesting about Jones's book was his introduction of a fourth member to the typological schema of attitudes toward other religions. Most people in the field are aware of the threefold typology developed by Alan Race and John Hick in the late 70s and early 80s: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism (see my posts here, here, here, and here for an explanation of frequently-appearing terms in interreligious discussion). To these three terms, Jones adds a fourth: parallelism.

The term itself isn't new: you can find it in Raimondo Panikkar's The Intrareligious Dialogue. By parallelism, Jones seems to mean nonconvergent pluralism: a given religious practice conduces to a given religious end. Buddhist practice doesn't lead to Christian heaven, for instance. Parallelism, a stance Jones attributes to such thinkers as S. Mark Heim, attempts to accord all religions proper respect by acknowledging the deep, even fundamental, differences between them. It is, as I noted long ago, a sort of "live and let live" approach to interreligious encounter.

Personally, I see no need to make parallelism a category outside of pluralism. To me, it's merely another subtype of pluralism. Kate McCarthy's division of pluralism into two major subtypes-- convergent and nonconvergent (also called divergent)-- has been good enough for me. Parallelism is one form of nonconvergent pluralism.

The only real disappointment I'll register about Jones's book is his avoidance of any discussion of both the nondualistic, "model-less" pluralism of Raimondo Panikkar (to whom Jones devotes only a single paragraph, pp. 106-107), and the holographic pluralism of Stephen Kaplan (who receives only an endnote on pp. 199-200).

I was happy to see that Jones has expanded on a concept he'd taught in class: the sliding scale between "openness" and "integrity," an issue I have never properly dealt with on this blog. The terms have a sociological valence. The basic idea is that communities (and individuals) exhibit varying degrees of openness and integrity in the way they approach something new. An attitude of openness, for a religious community, might mean a willingness to take on new concepts from another religion and to communicate in depth with the Other. Openness is about forming connections. The attitude of integrity will, by contrast, focus on those things that define a community (loyalty, articles of belief, etc.) and reinforce that community's self-conception. Integrity is about maintaining boundaries.

Openness and integrity aren't meant to be seen merely as diametrical opposites: "they form the two ends of a continuum," Jones writes. They are also not meant to be seen as analogous to the terms "liberal" and "conservative," because most people, whether they know it or not, tend to operate according to a set of deeply held values, even those who proclaim themselves the most "liberal" or "pluralist."

Jones also makes a very interesting historical observation: for most of history, religions have tended toward three strategies in dealing with other religions. These strategies are elimination, containment, and expulsion. The history of religions offers plenty of evidence for Jones's observation, I think: there has certainly been plenty of death, oppression, and displacement in the name of what is holy.

In all, the book was a welcome return to my recent, grad school past. It also offered some new information and challenging insights. While the book was obviously written with Christians in mind, I would encourage non-Christians interested in interreligious dialogue to pick up a copy: it's important to know what your interlocutor's self-understanding is before you attempt to make pronouncements about his or her religion. A classic Christian dialogical mistake is to meet, say, a Buddhist and declare something "tolerant" like, "Buddhism is simply a Buddhist's way of worshipping God"-- this being uttered in near-total ignorance of what Buddhism actually teaches.

At the same time, I've taken the position, on this blog, that dialogue should also be about the willingness to be reinterpreted by the Other. People from other traditions will view my own tradition from their angle; in so doing, they might get some facts wrong, but there's also the possibility that they will offer an insight heretofore unavailable to me, simply because they have the advantage of a different perspective. Jones actually covers this in Mars Hill, and notes that the results of such interchanges are not always detrimental.

If you can, and if you're interested, pick yourself up a copy of my favorite prof's book. Jones is a clear and eloquent writer; you might not agree with him in the end, but you'll know where he stands, and I suspect you'll learn something along the way, too.

NB: Mars Hill is a reference to Acts 17:16-33, Paul's speech at the Areopagus on Mars Hill in Athens:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be present.

And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, "What would this idle babbler wish to say?" Others, "He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,"--because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.

And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean."

(Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

"The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.'

"Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead."

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, "We shall hear you again concerning this."

So Paul went out of their midst.


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