Peter Feldmeier’s recent book, Encounters in Faith: Christianity in Interreligious Dialogue, meets a real need for undergraduate courses. Religious studies texts are typically the only option for faculty at Catholic institutions tasked to teach “World Religions”, an odd fit for the agenda and goals of theology departments. Supplementing the purely descriptive methodology of religious studies with Church documents on other religions, systematic theologies of religions, and examples in what is now called comparative theology becomes awkward and unwieldy. Feldmeier’s text eliminates the need for such strained attempts. He accessibly integrates the requisite components of a scholarly Christian engagement with other religions; scripture, papal teaching, theological models, and comparative methodology. Undergraduates impacted by the frustrating but pervasive “spiritual but not religious” culture will appreciate Feldmeier’s emphasis on spirituality and spiritual practices and his exploration of such topics as multiple religious belonging.
Feldmeier’s book is structured for pedagogical use. He asserts from the outset that the conventional way of studying religions is too abstract and vulnerable to eisegesis. Rather than insisting on more historical context, Feldmeier surprisingly turns to spirituality as the proper locus for understanding religion and religious questing. Each chapter follows the format of contextualizing the tenets of the particular religion within spirituality and ending with a comparative, Christian reflection. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, two forms of Buddhism, Chinese traditions, tribal religion and the New Age movement are covered in that sequence. Feldmeier, consistent with his stated objectives, wisely avoids a comprehensive indexing of the history of these traditions. He instead organizes his reflections around mystical spirituality and spiritual exemplars/masters, themes that he prepared the reader for in chapters two and three. His final chapter complexifies issues already discussed, thus providing motivation for further inquiry.
The book comes alive in the chapters on Buddhism. Feldmeier is an accomplished scholar in the Christian-Buddhist encounter and it brilliantly shines through. Unfortunately, the chapters on Judaism and Islam drop off from this high standard. In general, the comparative, Christian reflections suffer from predictability and the religious studies methodology he criticized in his introduction proved to be a difficult opponent. Still, these are critiques that only a peer would find impactful. The book’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Encounters in Faith should come in handy for any undergraduate course on the world’s religious traditions in a Catholic, Christian setting.