A Socratic Interfaith Dialogue: a book review.

It had been a while since I picked up a book by Peter Kreeft. I do have an electronic version of his Handbook of Christian Apologetics (IVP, 1994), which I still refer to from time to time and a dozen years ago I read his How to Win A Culture War (IVP, 2002), but I don’t remember it well enough to tell you if anyone followed his advice (or if we won). Beyond that, I’ve read a couple of his 80’s era apologetic Socratic-style dialogues (Between Heaven and Hell, and Socrates Meets Jesus) and listened to a Barnes & Noble audio book on the history of moral thought and ethics (What Would Socrates Do? 2004). Kreeft is professor of philosophy at Boston College, and a Catholic, Christian apologist.

4510In Between One Faith and Another (IVP, 2017), Kreeft invites us to consider the similarities and differences between the world’s great religious traditions. He presents a fictitious dialogue between two students in a college comparative religious course and their professor.  There is the atheist/agnostic student, Thomas Keptic, and Bea Leaver, an open-hearted religious believer, and Professor Fesser, their objective and even-handed professor.

Beyond their religious affiliation (or the lack thereof), the three interlocutors also represent three approaches to interfaith dialogue. Thomas Keptic, the skeptic, is the exclusivist. He is suspicious of all religions and has some hard-nosed evidentialist assumptions. However, he also loves logic and clings to ‘the law of non-contradiction.’ Any difference between faith means, for Thomas, that both (or either) faiths cannot be true. Bea Leaver on the other hand, is an inclusivist. She will admit with Thomas, that there are differences between the world’s faiths, though she disagrees that these differences are necessarily contradictory. She believes the different religions are all paths up the same mountain and tends to emphasize what different faiths have in common. Professor Fesser is a pluralist, describing each faith tradition in an evenhanded, objective way. He acknowledge’s differences and similarities in the religious traditions, but neither attempts to synthesize or exclude the various faiths.

Their discussion ranges from definitions about religion to explorations of each of the various religious traditions in turn: primitive religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The final chapter, on comparative religion, discusses how to handle religious contradictions and draws together some of the various threads of the conversation they’ve been having.  Because the discussion is premised on the inclusivist/exclusivist/pluralist approaches and pits believer versus skeptic (in respectful dialogue), each chapter explores what we can say and know about the nature of religious truth. The contours of each religious tradition are mentioned and discussed, but Kreeft is more interested in the larger truth question behind religious approaches. If you are looking for an overview of various faiths, this book would need to be supplemented with other resources which presents the World Religions in a more substantive way.

These conversations do not quite read as riveting fiction. This is an academic dialogue about two students and a professor, written by a philosophy professor for the purpose of posing particular questions about religious faith. To that end, it succeeds rather well and has enough good humor to be an enjoyable read. And Kreeft doesn’t have his narrative culminate in some contrived conversion of the pluralist or the atheist, as though this were God Is Not Dead 3. The positions held by Thomas, Bea and Professor Fesser are designed to help readers explore the questions that arise when we put various religious traditions in conversation.  While there is movement in each character, as they think through their positions, none of the characters capitulates to another’s view.

Kreeft is a Christian philosopher and an exclusivist. However, as a believer in Christ (who never spoke of comparative religion) and in the Socratic method, he advocates honest use of reason, intellectual humility and ‘maximally charitable interpretations’ (6). As such, he sees the exclusivism of Thomas, Bea’s open-hearted love of wisdom and Professor Fesser’s objectivity in himself (5).

Personally, Kreeft’s book helped me both appreciate other religious perspectives and articulate some of the differences between them and my own Christian faith. I give this book four stars and recommend it those interested in interfaith dialogue, comparative religion and the nature of religious truth. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

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