Well written guide to world’s major religions

Published September 1, 2000

THESE THREE books each describe world religions and an approach to interfaith dialogue. The first two are more scholarly, while the third is a collection of personal stories. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Families of Faith is my favorite of the three. Author Paul Varo Martinson gives us a well-written, readable introduction to the major religious traditions of the world. An excellent college-level introduction to the subject, it is also suitable for church groups. Martinson, a Lutheran former missionary and seminary professor, lived for extended periods among people of other faiths. His long experience in dialogue gives this work real credibility. His attention to detail, and accurate descriptions of world religions are exemplary.

Martinson is clear that holding a position is not inimical to interfaith dialogue. His approach makes good sense at the practical level. People who have spent more than just a few months in the field working among people of other faiths will respond to his claim that honesty about the reasons for dialogue is essential. There is a sensitively written 50-page section which emphasizes that Judaism is a special case.

Martinson is not an exclusivist. He stresses that Christians must be both culturally and spiritually sensitive to adherents of other religions. But for him, the goal of dialogue is “to make a convincing witness and to heed a convincing witness. Anything less that this would not be honest.” We would not be impressed if a Muslim were ashamed of the message of the Qur’an, or if a Buddhist were ashamed of the Buddha’s teachings. Christians do not earn other’s respect if they shy away from the person of Christ. Martinson concludes that dialogue and evangelism can never really be separated from each other. If the message of the cross rules us, he says, then we will seek to share the good news with everyone.

[pullquote]People looking for an introduction to world religions that is readable, accurate, and fair in its descriptions will not find any work better than this one. Those looking for a sensitive approach to interfaith dialogue will find this book more carefully written than, for example, Michael Ingham’s Mansions of the Spirit, and ultimately more workable.

A Dome of Many Colors is a collection of essays edited by two leading scholars in the field of religious studies. Arvind Sharma is one of the world’s leading authorities on Hinduism. Like Families of Faith, this work describes several religious traditions with accuracy and clarity. The approach here is marked by the scholarly detachment that is found in university religious studies departments: balanced appraisal together with the attempt to understand the phenomenon of religion. An open-ended religious pluralism is the goal of the authors.

The reading level is the most advanced of the three books reviewed here: this is not for the beginner, and some previous reading in religious pluralism would be helpful. The diligent student can learn much from this book.

Stories in My Neighbour’s Faith The primary strength of this third book is its easily accessible style. Stories usually are. It is a collection of personal stories of individual pilgrimage, all from non-western and minority traditions.

However, as can often happen with personal stories, these seem to be not very representative even of their own traditions, let alone others. The inclusion of Wicca and several other minority traditions will make many people wonder whether the United Church Publishing House has succumbed to trendy agendas against balanced representation of truly global religions. In several places misleading impressions are created, leaving one wondering whether the author(s) had an axe to grind against Christianity.

The most serious objection to books such as this one is that a person could read hundreds like them and still learn little or nothing about the teachings of the various religions they claim to represent. For people with limited time, this would be a critical factor. Readers who want to learn more about the teachings of our neighbour’s faith will be better served by either of the first two books in this review. Dr. Ian Ritchie is a teacher and columnist in Winnipeg who also taught in Nigeria for five years. His doctoral dissertation at McGill University was on African Theology. He writes on pluralism, interfaith issues and ethics.


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