Transformation by Integration: How Inter-faith Encounter Changes Christianity
Perry Schmidt-Leukel, SCM, London, 2009
Perry Schmidt-Leukel has been writing and publishing on Christian theology and inter-faith relations for many years; unfortunately most of his writing has been in German, and has not been translated into English. Scmidt-Leukel has long proposed a (broadly) pluralist understanding of inter-faith relations. This book publishes for the first time in English some recent essays of Schmidt-Leukel which have previously appeared in German theological publications, as well as some new work.
Transformation by Integration falls into two parts. In the first section Schmidt-Leukel examines recent developments in inter-faith encounter. He discusses issues including what it means to move beyond tolerance of the other towards a genuine appreciation of other religious traditions. He also looks at the relatively recent, but growing issue of multi-religious identity, and whether it is possible to belong simultaneously to multiple religious traditions with integrity toward the particularities of each. Schmidt-Leukel revisits the contentious issue of syncretism, and issues a qualified defence of syncretism – pointing out the creative transformation that may be possible, while seeking to preserve Christian identity.
Schmidt-Leukel has worked for many years in both Christian and Buddhist ‘theology.’ Author of Gott ohne Grenzen (“God without boundaries” – English translation in preparation) he is a strong advocate of a pluralist approach that can legitimately claim to be a form of Christian theology with potential to lead beyond the various impasses that result from mutual exclusivistic or inclusivistic superiority claims.
The second half of the book moves into Schmidt-Leukel’s specialist area of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Here over four chapters he looks in detail at the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity. He examines Buddha and Christ as mediators of the transcendent. He re-examines the Chalcedon Creed, proposing a pluralist reading of the two-natures doctrine with regard to Jesus. He also seeks to offer a pluralist reading of John 14:6 – one of the persistent barriers in a pluralist Christian theology of other faiths. In all of these areas he argues his point clearly, concisely and well. He makes clear his reasoning, and the thought and theology that lies behind his proposals. He argues strongly for a genuine pluralist approach, and acknowledges difficulties that this has with traditional interpretation – both from a Christian and Buddhist perspective. His arguments are refreshing, and very supportive of the further development of a Christian theology of other faiths that can be genuinely pluralistic without surrendering the particularities of each religious tradition.
Schmidt-Leukel’s writing is not always – perhaps often – easy reading. This is not a story about inter-faith encounter as much as it is a detailed theological examination of a Christian theologian seeking to understand how he can, with integrity to each faith, argue for a pluralist understanding of religions. In his language and style Schmidt-Leukel follows the tradition of German academic writing. His thoughts are clear and concise, but densely packed and often complex. This is not a book for the novice to tackle unprepared. There is much to be gained from this book, but it is not an easy read, and requires at least some background understanding of Christian theology and recent academic work in inter-faith relations. A major contribution, well worth the read – but be prepared to work for your reward.
Review by Matt Wilson