A lesson for Thwackum

Religion and Community

May 18, 2001

In our post-cold-war world, conflicts based on class, ideology and political systems have receded. In their place, divisions based on group identities - religious, cultural, ethnic and national - have assumed a new salience. Religion is back in public life, as evidenced by a spate of social science monographs with "religious nationalism" or "fundamentalism" in the title. But such works can pathologise the phenomenon. There is a shortage of books that contribute to religious literacy among policy-makers and academics by neither demonising nor sentimentalising religion.

Keith Ward's final volume of comparative theology is one of a handful of such works. The book is divided into three substantial sections. The first is a tour d'horizon of the distinct social embodiments of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism and how each envisages its interaction with wider society. Also included is a nuanced analysis of the emergence of the secular state. Ward neither essentialises religious traditions nor the secular.

The second part focuses on the church as a teaching, charismatic, sacramental and moral community. The final part explores the social embodiments of the church in historical perspective with discrete chapters devoted to "Orthodox and Catholic traditions", the "Reformed tradition", the "Post-Enlightenment tradition". The way into these subjects is through a formative thinker, whether Aquinas, Calvin or Schleiermacher.

Two chapters conclude this final section and study, one with the intriguing title "The meaning of history" that uses Tillich as the point of entry. The book closes with a rehearsal of the argument of this and Ward's three previous studies on revelation, creation and human nature under the rubric "Christian theology in a comparative context". This may well prove an appetiser to read these other works but the present monograph stands on its own.

We are a world away from Henry Fielding's Parson Thwackum who in discussion with the deist Mr Square on the relationship of honour and religion expostulates: "When I mention Religion, I mean the Christian Religion; and not only the Christian Religion, but the Protestant Religion; and not only the Protestant Religion, but the Church of England." For Thwackum, Jews and Muslims are summarily dismissed as infidels and Catholics as heretics.

When Ward mentions that he is an Anglican priest of liberal Protestant convictions, this is not a piece of religious triumphalism but an acknowledgement that there is no view from nowhere. Yet in speaking from this viewpoint, he engages the issues in critical and comparative perspective.

His method is illuminating. He considers each religious tradition in turn, reviewing the arguments of leading exponents within that religion, as well as the debates and diversity within the tradition. He poses sharp questions about the resources the religion contains for coping with religious diversity and internal pluralism. His guiding metaphor is conversation.

This is an informed, engaged, illuminating and at times passionate conversation. One attractive feature of his method is his ability to adopt a number of voices. In the chapter "Buddhism and the Sangha", he has a fascinating section on "Buddhism and the Abrahamic traditions" in which Jewish and Muslim perspectives question the viability of renunciation as a religious option in the modern world. In "Hinduism and the Sampradaya", he inserts a discussion of idolatry.

The book is, of course, also a constructive and creative contribution to theology and it seeks to commend a particular understanding of Christianity and its social embodiment. This involves not only attentive listening to what the Buddhist or Muslim says about Christianity but also an ongoing argument with his co-religionists in other Christian traditions. Ward has listened to members of other world faiths and his discussion of Christianity has been enriched. He shares many of their worries about the darker side of the Christian tradition with its hetero-phobia. He has a fine discussion on authority and freedom in which he probes "how the church can avoid the tyranny of moralism and the arrogance of spiritual elitism".

Ward refuses to be satisfied with a widely held assumption that religions are simply incommensurable phenomena. In a world where different religious communities have to learn to share public space, the conversation that Ward's method embodies seems vital for the health of society. He has shown how the distinctive nature of each tradition also becomes apparent through the conversation, as well as the commonalities that emerge. Specialists in each tradition will doubtless find grounds for questioning some of Ward's judgements. This should not detract from the importance of this volume.

The question I am left with is where do such important "conversations" take place? Clearly, they can sometimes happen in the university or in inter-faith meetings. Wherever else they are to happen, they need to take place where religious leaders are trained. My fear is that, in all religions, religious formation today is more likely to produce a Thwackum than a Ward. And, I suspect, the regius professor of divinity at the University of Oxford probably agrees.

Philip Lewis is lecturer in theology and religious studies, University of Leeds.

Religion and Community

Author - Keith Ward
ISBN - 0 19 875258 X and 875259 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £48
Pages - 366

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