Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Write-Up: Many Mansions, by Harvey Cox

Harvey Cox.  Many Mansions: A Christian’s Encounter with Other Faiths.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1988, 1992.

I first saw this book over ten years ago, when I was shelving books at Harvard Divinity School’s library.  I was a conservative Christian at the time, and, upon seeing the book’s cover, I immediately dismissed it as one of these pluralistic sorts of works that claim there are many roads to God or heaven, whereas I believed that the Scriptures were clear that there is only one path to God and the good afterlife: belief in Jesus Christ.  I did not read this book back then, but, after reading it now, I wonder how I would have responded to it had I read it back then.  Surprisingly, even from my conservative Christian perspective at the time, I probably would have appreciated a lot of what Harvey Cox had to say.

This is particularly the case on the issue of interfaith dialogue.  Cox laments that formal interfaith dialogue is often rather stale and boring.  It usually includes the liberal adherents to religions while the more conservative voices are left out.  It focuses on doctrines and rituals rather than people’s testimonies and stories.  Moreover, according to Cox, Christian participants in the dialogue are often reluctant to bring up or to stress Jesus, fearing that would set up barriers, when the irony is that many people in non-Christian religions (including the Ayatollah Khomeini—-does that name ring any bells?) actually want to talk about Jesus.  Cox also states that it is simplistic to construct interfaith dialogue in such a manner that it places Christians in one category and Hindus in another, for the fact is that there is diversity within Hinduism: some branches are intellectual, whereas others are more emotional, and a Hindu from a more emotional branch may identify more with a charismatic Christian than with a Hindu from a more intellectual branch.  That would have intrigued my conservative Christian self, for I was interested in emotion and intellect in the area of religion: I looked to conservative Christianity to feed both my emotions and my intellect.

Cox tells a lot of interesting stories and offers a number of profound insights, as he thoughtfully engages Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Liberation Theology, Marxism, Freud, and the list goes on.  I do not think that Cox successfully explains how one could bring conservative Christian voices into a constructive interfaith dialogue, however, but he does profile Christians who are rather conservative, ranging from a dispensationalist fundamentalist in Israel who baffled him immensely, to a well-read man in the Soviet Union who was very familiar with philosophy and finally settled on Russian Orthodoxy as the answer he was seeking.  The latter may be open to dialogue, whereas the former may not be, at least not the constructive sort of dialogue that Harvey Cox probably promotes!  Moreover, in the chapter on Judaism, Cox affirms his belief that Gentile Christians have been included in the commonwealth of Israel: Cox does not seem to think that Jews need to believe in Jesus to be saved, holding instead that Christianity is about the inclusion of Gentiles, not the exclusion of non-Christian Jews.  I am rather skeptical about this being Paul’s position, but, whether it is or not, I still have a question: Can a Christian who believes that Jews need to believe in Jesus to be saved participate in a constructive dialogue with a non-Christian Jew, without sacrificing his or her beliefs?  If so, how?

Good book!

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