Who should read this lengthy volume? That question often preoccupied the mind of this reviewer while working through the text. At various points different possible audiences came to mind. Some possibilities received nothing more than a passing consideration before being eliminated. The answer to the vexing question should wait, however, until after a necessarily sketchy overview as well as some indication of the text’s strengths and limitations.
The editors along with their colleagues seek to carefully consider the specific nature and limits of interreligious dialogue and a theology of religions. And, as they make clear by both title and introduction, they seek to examine the topic from the vantage point of Catholic scholarship. They achieve their aims quite well.
The increasing pluralism of religion in cultures throughout the world points to the importance of the topic. The identification of a specifically “Catholic” approach, that is one faithful to the magisterial teachings of the Roman Church, proves most helpful for scholars who wish to appreciate the tensions of current theological explorations. The editors correctly note that their perspective might appear “out of step” with the publisher. However, the commitment to honesty in dialogue, as well as the serious work to move the topic forward, speaks most positively of the text and the publisher, Orbis Books.
After a concise, but sufficiently detailed overview on the nature of religion, the text offers four parts, each with a distinct topic explored at great length. Part I takes up the destiny of the Non-Christian from the earliest days of Christianity to the present. The title for Part II is, “Framing a Theological Consideration of the Religions.” The third part examines the theology of religions after the Second Vatican Council, while Part IV examines five religions and their relation to the Catholic faith.
The backgrounds and accomplishments of the twenty-five contributors to the text, and the quality of their research (more than 85 pages of endnotes!) attest to the need to give their work careful consideration. The frequent inclusion of Patristic theology in the various essays presents a contribution to the topic generally not evident in other current works. The commitment to present and explain the official Catholic magisterium proves quite helpful for better understanding what the Roman Church teaches, why some current theologies present themselves as unsatisfactory to Rome, and give a solid foundation to further one’s own scholarly understanding.
Part IV contains the most serious limitations of the text. As in each of the other parts, the authors take on an ambitious task. They seek to provide an overview of a major world religion, in its own terms, and then to explore its relationship to Catholicism. In the presentation of each specific religion, the various authors all seem to capture the core beliefs, dynamics and issues. However, unless one has at least some preliminary understanding of the religion, the reader might well miss the significance of particular points, or feel overwhelmed by detail. Secondly, when exploring a “Catholic Appraisal” not every author follows the same precise outline. The essays that avoided a point for point comparison offer a more valuable contribution.
Another, often distracting limitation, concerns the inconsistent use of inclusive language. Similar to the use of Patristic theology, a good portion of the text, especially Part II, employs a biblical theology that echoes early monastic and medieval methodologies. The other side of this strength bears the limitation of an understanding of the biblical text without recognition of the historical-critical method.
So, who should read the text? The authors propose three distinct audiences. The first would be Catholics not familiar with the theology of religions. The second group includes Catholics who live in countries largely populated by non-Christians. Finally, they seek to address followers of “other” religions who would like to know more about what Catholics think about the “other.” The text offers something helpful for each of these intended groups. But, the list needs further refinement.
In an educational setting, the text might well serve as an outline and resource for a doctoral seminar. Other graduate students could use the text as a foundation for more detailed research on interreligious dialogue from a Catholic perspective, in general, or in reference to a specific non-Christian religion.
Possibly one of the most engaging uses of the text would be with an undergraduate theology or religion faculty at a Catholic university. Often these departments offer a course that introduces the fundamental dynamics of religion employing a comparative methodology. The first and third parts of this text provide rich material for a departmental discussion. The faculty could take up the question of what it means to teach this kind of course at a Catholic institution.
Scholars whose faith conviction lies outside Catholicism can find a very well-written overview of the Catholic faith. These individuals might do well to begin with Part II and then take up the sections of the book treating interreligious dialogue and a theology of religion from a Catholic perspective. Scholars deeply engaged with interreligious dialogue might employ the essays in Part IV if they need a mechanism to move their dialogue onto what Catholics might refer to as “specifically theological ground.”
The text belongs in the library of Catholic colleges and universities, as well as on the shelf of every professor who seeks to engage his or her students with the topic of Catholicism and “the other.”