Christians and atheists and Buddhists, oh my!

Peter_SteinfelsCan followers of one faith tradition benefit from learning about teachings and techniques that derive from other faith traditions? If so, how much time and energy should they devote to such ecumenical studies? And how much should they allow insights from other faiths to inform and even shape their spiritual lives? Such questions have been occupying New York Times "Belief" columnist Peter Steinfels, who has devoted two recent columns to provocative new books exploring what Christians (variously defined) can learn from Buddhists, atheists and others.

OK. Let's stop here for a moment and consider all the various forms such articles could have taken. Some religion writers might lose readers in the theological stratosphere, hopping from concept to concept without any grounding in faith practice. Others might create a journalistic mishmash that blurs the edges between traditions.

But Steinfels doesn't get lost in these weeds. He explores both theology and practice of varied faith traditions, and he pays proper respect to the significant theological differences between these traditions, even while showing how some believers seek to transcend these differences.

See for your self in these two recent articles: "Looking to Other Religions, and to Atheism, for Clarity in Faith" from November 7 and "A Look at Christianity, Through a Buddhist Lens" from October 9.

Steinfels, a Catholic who strives to be faithful to Vatican II directives on ecumenism, describes the possible benefits of interfaith interaction more enthusiastically than some of his evangelical brethren might, but his articles also do justice to important "boundaries" and "particularity," as these closing paragraphs from his November column quoting author Samir Selmanovic:

But Mr. Selmanovic sympathizes with everyone who ever puzzled at Christians "so bent on denying grace outside the boundaries of Christianity"; and he asks whether boundaries need to be walls. "Why not windows? Why not doors?"

Metaphors like walls and windows only go so far, however, in addressing how individuals will actually form religious identities more meaningful than the spiritual-but-not-religious cliche that Mr. Selmanovic writes "can be frighteningly undemanding."

About this process Mr. Selmanovic, even more in person than in his book, does not claim to have the answers. On the one hand, "particularity matters," he said, and it is "no good to go two inches deep into 10 different wells." On the other hand, he said, "religion is going to adjust to an interdependent world" where no faith can exist in isolation. That adjustment will take time and be painful, he said, but "life itself will find a way."

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