It was 1973 when I first read Kenneth Cragg's The Call of the Minaret, while writing an essay on the Christian and Islamic conception of God. To say it was mind opening is understatement. Reading it represented a loss of innocence for a young Scottish Baptist evengelical, ignorant of the sophisticated theology and cultural depth of Islam, and guilty of narrow-minded caricature. For two years I had been reading Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, and was now in a second year reading Principles of Religion, a cutting edge course early in that decade of the 70's when growing cultural diversity in Glasgow was forcing the recognition that Christianity was no longer the only game in town. It was during that course that I first encountered the notion of inter-faith dialogue. And by being compelled to write an essay comparing two historic, related but highly differentiated monotheistic faiths, I found myself engaged in my own head experiencing a radical makeover of ideas, and persuaded in my soul where convictions strike deep roots, of the significance of dialogue in Christian relations with people of other faiths.
I discovered that dialogue need not be compromise, concession, or tame conversation in search of the lowest common denominator. Rather dialogue is conversation in which listening is as important as speaking, it concerns beliefs held with integrity and deep conviction, it requires respect, humility, and willingness to learn as well as teach; it is founded on the assumption of friendship and shared commitment in the search for truth, and as its beating heart, it recognises without demur the Other's right to hold to and practice their faith with the same freedom as I enjoy, and with an agreed covenant of faithfulness in our witness to, and practice of, our own faith.
There have been many significant formative moments in my life as a minister and theologian. There's little point in grading them in degrees of significance; indeed the importance we attribute to events, circumstances, encounters, experiences, thoughts, memories, conversations, books, are likely to depend on which stage of the journey we look back from. But I do know, that from the time I wrote that essay and read Cragg's great book, I moved from Christian mission as declaratory theological monologue to Christian witness as Holy Spirit enabled hospitable dialogue. If I haven't always lived up to that key principle of Christian witness in a pluralist world, then that is my own failure to live out of what remains a central Christian conviction: namely, bearing witness to Jesus requires us to relinquish the places of theological, intellectual and cultural power, and to sit down next to those who share our world and our lives. In that disposition of recognition and accompaniment as a faithful follower of Jesus, I am free to bear witness in a conversation which is a sharing and searching for the truth that sets free. And to do so as one who seeks to live under the rule of Christ, in the power of the Spirit, and in the love of God.
All of which brings me to a book I've been asked to review for the Regent's Reviews online Journal. Christ and Reconciliation. A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, Veli-Matti Karkkainen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). This is one of the most promising theological projects to come along for some time. It is one desperately needed by a Western-Northern Post Most Things Christianity in danger of recycling its own in-house theological discourse and history, talking its own talk to an increasingly disinterested culture, and in a linguistic currency increasingly distorted and devalued by the absence of defining voices from other cultures and contexts of globalChristianity.
Karkkainen has for years been writing theology from global and contextual perspectives. He is unafraid of the clumsy, even ugly term "glocal", because it's very awkwardness highlights the need to recognise the complex interaction of local and global perspectives which now impimge on Christian theologies. Here is a brief paragraph which makes a very obvious connection between my earlier encounter with Bishop Kenneth Cragg's plea for dialogue, and this major new theological project.
"Theology, robustly inclusivistic in its orientation, welcoming testimonies, insights, and interpretations from different traditions and contexts, can also be a truly dialogical enterprise. It honors the otherness of the other. It also makes space for an honest, genuine, authentic sharing of one's convictions. In pursuing the question of truth as revealed in the triune God, constructive theology also seeks to persuade and convince with the power of dialogical, humable and respectful argumentation. Theology then becomes an act of hospitality, giving and receiving gifts." (page 29)