The globe is becoming interconnected at an increasingly quick pace. We are thinking differently about what it means to be human, individually and in community; religions are interacting more and more, and are changing because of these encounters; the reality of global Christianity is coming home to us, as Christians in Africa, India, and elsewhere critique the Euro-American vision of church. It is tempting to settle for part of the picture: just ecumenism, just liberal or conservative views, just America, just peace or environmental issues, etc.

Church and Religious “Other” urges us to look at everything together. The volume is the fruit of conversations held in 2006 under the auspices of the research network Ecclesiological Investigations. From its beginning in 2002, the network has been global and ecumenical in membership. Its goals include “a firm commitment to exploring issues pertaining to pluralism, both religious and otherwise, as well as toward ethical debates of national, international, and intercontinental relevance,” and the exploration of these issues “across a variety of disciplinary, cultural, religious, and geographical boundaries.” Three other volumes were simultaneously published: Christian Community Now; Receiving “The Nature and Mission of the Church”; and Comparative Ecclesiology.

The thread binding the essays in this fourth volume is the necessity of acknowledging and welcoming our others—those who have been perceived as alien, excluded, unrecognized, co-opted, colonized; including, in various ways, women, racial, and ethnic minorities, people of different religions, even Christians more conservative or liberal than ourselves. We need to respect the other as other, welcome her as our neighbor and teacher, and allow her contribution to unsettle our familiar conversations. The volume collects sixteen essays under three headings. Section 1, “Ecumenical and Pluralist Contexts and Questions,” deals with community formation in border realms where religions and cultures meet, ranging from the geographical boundary of India and Pakistan to feminist reflections on power and community in the church. Section 2, “Church, Inclusivity, and Diversity,” seeks models for a more inclusive church. Section 3, “Constructive Explorations for the Future,” asks how churches can accommodate change and balance the necessary elements of continuity and ongoing diversification.

Gerard Mannion sets the agenda in his introduction. First, he says, we need to take seriously the category of the “other,” since “attention to otherness in a positive, ethical sense and the affirmation of the other as other is the greatest legacy and achievement of the postmodern era.” We must not only respect individual strangers, but also critique universalist worldviews that, with good intentions, deprive others of their uniqueness by making them just like ourselves. And we need to refurbish our communities as places where these others too are at home. Finding a way to do this is difficult, because there is no single authority that all respect, nor a single standard for the good and reasonable. Mannion therefore pleads for humble, patient dialogue, an ongoing, revisable, open-ended conversation that by its process and not merely its conclusions draws us together.

Even history is not safe, since understanding others requires reconsidering old stories from fresh, disturbing angles. Paul M. Collins reminds us how Roberto de Nobili, a great missionary scholar who adapted himself brilliantly to Indian culture, is today problematic, given how he embraced the hierarchies of caste that we would consider oppressive. John O’Brien explores Christian communities in Pakistan, where cultural, political, and religious factors complicate the very idea that the church has taken root there. Jenny Daggers links feminist critiques and interreligious dialogue, arguing that our failure to treat people of other traditions with dignity matches in deed and rhetoric our inability to see that women are full and equal members of the community.

We also need to rethink debates occurring right now within our churches. The essays in section 2 remind us that when churches set boundaries too firmly to keep others outside, they end up dividing themselves again on the inside. Ecclesial conflicts are usually more than ecclesial, for the ecumenical, interreligious, and secular realms cannot be separated. Even “liberal” and “conservative” are no longer tidy categories, since we may push for progress in one area while resisting changes others find more important.

Section 3 therefore asks us to think still more broadly about how Christians imagine this necessarily ongoing, unfinishable journey. Life overflows our diagnoses and our remedies, and so we need to keep listening—to fresh, prophetic voices but also, I would add, to older voices as well. If the conversation is so very complex, no one can be left out; we need the pope and other traditional religious leaders who, if no longer controlling where things go, nevertheless articulate positions that cannot be ignored. Perhaps future volumes in the Ecclesiological Investigations series will include contributors who are not Christian.

Mannion aptly summarizes the project’s aspirations: “We see in the Other and through otherness the reflection of the wondrous ground of being that Christians acknowledge as Wholly Other, the God who is unity in diversity. Churches today must resist any renewed temptation to embrace an existence alienated from the wider societies in which they find themselves and indeed to perceive themselves in opposition to the ‘world’ in general.” Instead, he says, “We should embrace the other as other and meditate upon the parable of the sheep and the goats. In whom do we find Christ today? The gospel teaches us that we find him in the most surprising of places.”

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, and director emeritus of the Center for the Study of World Religions.

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Published in the 2009-09-11 issue: View Contents
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