This book is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on interreligious dialogue. What is distinctive about this particular contribution is the deep spirituality and rich theology that permeates every page. The book is full of nuggets of wisdom emerging from reflective dialogue with some of the major religions of the world. Understanding Differently is an inspiring and outstanding achievement. I recommend it strongly.
- Dr Dermot A. Lane, author of Stepping Stones to Other Religions: A Christian Theology of Inter-Religious Dialogue
Writing on comparative religion is a tricky business. One writer might fall into the trap of applying to other religions structures which are really unique to her own. So we find Christian theologians attempting to engage with Hindu theology, when no such stand-alone academic practice is native to that faith. Another might address the conflicts between various items in each religions catalogues of belief: Islamic monotheism vs. Christian trinitarianism, Hindu vs. Jewish concepts of the soul, and so on. Such tracts rarely make for pleasant reading, leaving out, as they do, the vast ocean of practices that support and shape the beliefs in question, thus dissolving the particularity of the religions. Even less satisfactory are the works which assume a relativistic position, and allow for no conflict between opposing beliefs, resorting to mere description.
It was with all these pitfalls in mind that I approached Sr Jo ODonovans book, and it was with great pleasure that I found she avoided them all. She compares her approach to entering houses through their doors, and the chapters on Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism do precisely that. ODonovan has taken great care to understand each of the religions on their own terms, to read their scriptures, to view their religious practices through the eyes of practitioners. Reading each of these chapters is like being given a tour of a strangers house, admiring its decoration and arrangement, noticing both the familiar and the exotic. The key teachings and prayers of each faith are explained, with ancient and contemporary comment, always with an eye on how each tradition of faith can be transformative of believers. The chapter on Islam, for example, takes various Arabic words – islam, shirk, tawhid, iman, ishan – as the basis for sections which explore their technical meaning, their development in the tradition, and their working out in the life of ordinary Muslims. ODonovan has an eye for the picturesque, describing beautifully, for example, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, in which temporary fragile structures are built next to houses and briefly inhabited:
the airy roof of the sukkah reminds us [that] this is a life that
does not depend on the solid security of buildings and
permanent structures. It is life that receives itself daily as
gift, from the sheltering Divine Presence (57-8).
Full weight is given in each of these sections to the particularity of each of the religions examined and it is quite a shock to move from one chapter to another, like being transported to an entirely different environment, with different sights, sounds and smells.
Following each of these chapters is a section examining the relations between Christianity and the previously outlined faith. Here, ODonovan shows her own unwavering commitment to Gods revelation in Christ. Time and again in these dialogue chapters, one is struck by the mid-century seismic shift in interreligious dialogue, for which the Second Vatican Council was an obvious catalyst. John Paul II also emerges as something of a champion of inter-religious dialogue, deeply respectful of other traditions. Pope Benedict is represented as more cautious, sometimes modifying the policies of his predecessor - in regard to Islam ODonovan points to a substantive difference between the two - but always motivated by a concern for the rationality of discourse, in opposition to relativism which would set Truth aside. Difficult questions are raised and addressed in these chapters, including the question of religious freedom in Islamic countries, the status of Gods covenant with the Jews, and the fatalism which some discern in Hinduism.
In her conclusion, ODonovan turns to the question of the mediation of Christ in relation to other religions. This essay is fair even towards controversial documents – Dominus Iesus, for example – and proposes that Christians should remain committed to Christ as the Way, and opposed to relativism, but should also engage respectfully with adherents of other religions, being ready to give account of the hope... given to us, and to do so with gentleness and love (347).
This book is much to be recommended. For student and general reader it is informative and enjoyable, and for this reader it sparked further questions. Yes, the structure of the book is somewhat higgledy-piggledy in style, but this apparent lack is in fact a necessary feature of the non-systematic, particularistic approach to other religions taken by ODonovan.
Conor McDonough OP, Religious Life Review, March/April 2013