Inter-Religious Dialogue: a short introduction

David Hart, Lecturer in Religious Studies at Derby University and a member of the Steering Committee, reviews a new book by Martin Forward. Published by One World Oxford, 2001, pp.168, 9.99. ISBN 1-85168-275-9

The author of this stimulating account is an ordained Methodist minister who was the first secretary in the 1980s of the (now model) Leicester Council of Faiths. He is currently Helena Wackerlin Professor of Religious Studies at Aurora University Illinois. This recent career shift is not irrelevant to his story, as within the volume he sketches what he sees as something of a rise and fall in inter-faith concerns within the mainstream UK ecumenical scene. He laments how little support churches now give to this comparatively new area of concern, which he holds (pre-September 11th as well!) to be vital to the future health of global religions: he laments that today there is only one half-time Anglican post dedicated to this area and that scholars are increasingly driven to cross the Atlantic to find any real funding for their study. I think this is increasingly so in the academic world also. Many of our new universities that flourish in multi-cultural settings (Middlesex, Derby) take up innovative work in this area which they then find difficulty in funding because of the 'minority status' of religious studies as an academic discipline.

But to this book. Forward was born into an RAF family and was schooled in Singapore. His earliest religious influences were as much Muslim as Christian and he could never have believed them to be 'wrong'. His experience has affected his inclusive theological viewpoint, from which he accepts a variety of descriptions of transcendent reality. But Forward does not rest with a Hickian pluralist interpretation of religion. He pushes the argument in a more non-realist or humanistic direction by suggesting that contemporary global conditions demand from us a response that will 'mend the world'.

In my experience of actual inter-faith dialogue, the awkward questions are often 'glossed over' in the interests of theological diplomacy. But Forward pushes us to ask the awkward questions. On the role of women, therefore, he cites the work of the Moroccan sociologist, Fatima Mernissi, who argues that Mohammed acknowledged the importance of affection and sex in life. And, during expeditions, his wives were not just background figures, but shared with him his strategic concerns (p.134). The reader receives this as a gust of fresh revelation, awakening Muslims to gender issues within their own scriptures. In a similar, provocative fashion, Forward identifies clear and positive homosexual images in the gnostic gospels and in Rumi's poetry. A dialogic position today will wish to engage with, not marginalize, gay people and their stories. On the basis of dialogue, 'alternative lifestyles' will not be dismissed as wicked perversities but will be evaluated as responsible committed life-choices. His last chapter sums this up by appealing to a fresh engagement between 'spirituality and truth'.

This book is a lively resource for both teachers and students of religion. It has a comprehensive six-page bibliography but also some memorable stories of household names as varied as Akbar, Hendrick Kraemer, Kenneth Cracknell, Beverley Clack and Diana Eck.

This book is refreshed by a global religious vision that remains clearly rooted in a specifically Methodist vocabulary and vision of God. It challenged me to participate in a new way of speaking across not just within our all so very human religious boundaries. I recommend it as a vacation read.

The July magazine (No.54) was admirably dedicated to 'Interfaith Dialogue' and I believe this book will help focus our real and non-real questions in this field.