My seat-mate on a recent flight looked over at the book I was reading and said, "That must be very interesting." I was a bit startled, as this is the first time I can recall my academic reading material eliciting any comment whatsoever. I looked more carefully at my companion: he seemed to be a thirty-something business man, perhaps of Arab or Indian descent, or perhaps Italian, or Hispanic—in other words a typical American. I answered him, "Yes, it is an interesting book," and indeed it is. Judith Berling has clearly fastened onto a topic which is not only of great interest to a broad spectrum of our world, but one of crucial importance as well. Berling, a former dean and currently professor of Chinese and Comparative Religions at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, has devoted a good deal of her recent teaching and research to the theme of trying to bring the academic Christian theological community into more effective engagement with the reality of increasing cultural and religious pluralism in the American context. In her latest work Berling proposes learning theories that work to stimulate students both to speak from their own experiences and to build the skills necessary to listen to and seek to understand others coming out of different backgrounds and perspectives. Chapter 1 looks at Christians and religious diversity in the context of contemporary American religious pluralism. Chapters 2-4 look at learning theory, the study of other religions, and theological learning. Chapter 5 then turns to the process for a Christian learning of another religion. The final two chapters consider the practical aspects of teaching and learning other religions. Two appendices give an annotated bibliography for teaching other religions and a guideline checklist for Christians learning other religions.
Berling names one of the biggest elephants lounging in the living room, namely the long history of Christian exclusivism. While she hardly argues against Jesus Christ as either God's definitive revelation of God's self and/or our universal Savior, Berling observes that these claims have made it difficult historically for Christians to enter seriously into study and dialogue with other religions. What Berling does assert is that in our contemporary context "learning other religions is a requirement for living as Christians in a religious diverse world." The learning models she proposes and develops aim to help in this crucial process. Berling builds on insights from cultural anthropology that looks at the process of cross-cultural understanding not by trying to see myself as the other (an impossible task), but rather to "attend to the particular words, images, and behaviors through which the other represents himself. How is meaning expressed, lived out, understood, and articulated in the context I am seeking to understand?" (p. 39). Berling notes that seminaries and theology centers have concentrated on dealing with the appropriation of Christian theology as the primary object of the learning and teaching process, but this emphasis makes it increasingly difficult for our graduates to relate themselves and their theological understanding in a religiously pluralistic and complex setting. Berling argues that "learning other religions is not a finite task that can be put behind one (been there, done that!), but is part of the formation of Christian character and preparation for Christian life. The pastor will likely need to counsel interfaith marriages, to assist Christians whose sisters or sons are practicing another religion, to counsel the teenage communicant who is drawn to Buddhism or Taichi. The layperson is likely to have a son who is dating a Hindu, or may need to communicate with an Islamic doctor or collaborate with a Buddhist coworker. Learning another religion should address some of these issues for interreligious living" (pp. 77-78).
Her penultimate chapter considers problems endemic to traditional learning, such as the objectification and superficialization of world religion survey courses which aim to impart information rather than work towards understanding (and much less, cross-religious communication!). Of course one initially must respond from one's own religious location, as Berling observes, but too often that response "is the only and final response of the learning process; instead of providing a framework for conversation, it cuts it short" (p. 116). Ultimately we have to move to trying to live out what we have learned "by developing new relationships or new patterns of thought or forms of action" (p. 120). Knowledge, therefore, is best seen in relational terms, and Berling has given us an excellent roadmap for the building and strengthening of those relationships with other religious worlds.