Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Christian Study of Religions: Moving Beyond Dismissal and "Gotcha"

I recently engaged the thinking of two scholars with similar ideas as to how Christians ought to approach other religions. I pass along my brief comments on their thinking through this post.

The first scholar is the late Eric J. Sharpe who was professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. I was reminded of his work and its importance to developing a theology of interreligious dialogue in an interview I did a while back with Harold Taylor who recommended one of Sharpe's books, Faith Meets Faith: Some Christian Attitudes to Hinduism in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries (SCM Press, 1977). Although I've only managed to get through the introduction so far due to my backlog in my reading list, one comment struck me. In referring to Christian attitudes of dismissal of non-Christian religions Sharpe wrote, "It was all very well for the Christian to have a biblical theology of devilry in high places with which to account for such intransigence, but the missionary (particularly if he or she happened to be a scholar) could not always rest content with such an abrupt dismissal."

Sharpe's comments overlapped with a statement made by Gordon Melton recently during his visit to Salt Lake City where we had an opportunity to have lunch. Melton commented in essence that when you study religions with the goal of only or largely learning where you disagree with them then you come away with a very limited understanding of them.

I find it interesting that two scholars coming at the study of religions from different academic perspectives and different locations internationally nevertheless find common ground in recognizing the need for a broader research agenda and understanding by Christians as they learn about other religions.


Morning Angel said...

Good thought. We pagans do the same toward Christianity, that is, focus on the points of contention. We're no less prone to "demonize" the differences than the Christians, I'd bet.

John W. Morehead said...

Angel, thanks for a refreshing posture of self-criticism. Perhaps if more representatives of our religious communities were able to do this we'd be less likely to dismiss and demonize each other and more likely to try to develop broader and more sympathetic understandings of our practices, beliefs, and adherents.