Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 1

I’ve been meaning to blog through a book for a while now, but of course my procrastinating habits get in the way. So, without further ado...

I’ve chosen a book on what I think is a timely, and indeed timeless, topic. The Bible and Other Faiths by Ida Glaser is part of the Global Christian Library series, a brainchild of John Stott. This series aims to birth more books with an international authorship, recognising the need for more biblically faithful and contextually relevant books from a non-Western perspective, for both Western and non-Western audiences alike.

From the blurb at the back: “In today’s world, when Christians think about other religions, numerous questions and issues arise – and their convictions about Christ and about other religions can have a significant influence on their understanding of how God relates to people, and what their own conduct towards them should be. From her wealth of inter-cultural and inter-faith experience, Ida Glaser believes that the most urgent questions for Christians focus on their own responsibilities and other people’s welfare...[she] explores biblical perspectives on other faiths and their adherents, with clarity, sensitivity and challenging insights for all Christians.”

The book itself is split into 4 parts: Setting the Scene, Reading the Old Testament, Reading the New Testament, and Seeing Ourselves. There're 15 chapters altogether, and I’m going to dive straight into Chapter 1: People and Places, because Ida herself explains both her background and her hopes for the book in it.

“Every sentence written in this book is written in acute awareness of blood and tears being shed as human beings, made in the image of God, show the effects of the ‘fall’ in the contexts of their religions. It is also written in belief that Jesus Christ is God’s gift to his fallen world”.

So begins Ida. In the face of 9/11, Muslim-Christian clashes in Nigeria,, civil war in Sri Lanka and so on, what should Christians think about it? Ida, upon being invited to write this book, ponders on the popular questions Christians ask about other religions. Is Christ the only way? Is there any truth in religion? What about conversion? Yet Ida, from her time spent both in the Bible and amongst various peoples think that there are even more urgent questions: How can we understand religions and the way they affect human beings? What is God doing amongst people of other religions? How do the great commandments and the Great Commission relate to people of other religions, especially in places of interreligious conflict?

Of course, both set of questions are interrelated, nevertheless, the second set of questions puts the focus both on other people’s welfare and our own responsibility, and so she finds these set of questions much better to ask. For her, a key text that has governed her thinking is Micah 6:8:

"And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Her stress is on our responsibility as Christians: “As we read the Bible we might not find answers to all our questions about other people. But if the Bible is God’s word to human beings, we can expect the answer to ‘What does the Lord require of us’”.

She tells her own story briefly. Born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, she committed her life to Jesus at 14. Not long after, her parents died in a car accident, and her Jewish aunt, her new caretaker, wept as she couldn’t comprehend how she could be a Christian when she believed that it was Christians who put Jews in the gas chamber. Ida’s awareness of the effects of religion, the question of identity and the possibility of prejudice were all sharply honed from a young age.

At university she encountered people of different faiths, including Muslims and Hindus. From her various friendships she was able to recognise how difficult is was for someone who had turned to Christ from another faith background to deal with their respective families and cultural tensions. She has also welcomed international students to London, taught Physics in Malaysia and the Maldives, and worked in the inner city. I should also say, by way of an aside, having attended a talk by her last year, that she is also no longer Ida Glaser but Ida Coffey, having married late in life! (She must have been at least in her 50s). She is currently Senior Teaching Fellow at the Edinburgh Centre for Muslim-Christian studies and is also looking to set up a similar initiative in Oxford. She also serves the mission agency Crosslinks and lectures at various Christian colleges both in and out of the UK. She tells us all this because she believes her experiences will inevitably affect her writing, and that theology can never remain at a theoretical level.

She concludes this chapter with a brief note on the usage of the words “religion” and “faith”. People tend to prefer to use the latter word than the former to describe their way of life, their duty of God. So she will use the word “faith” to refer to how people describe themselves. However, there are times she will use the word “religion”, in the usual sense Western academics use it to describe people’s beliefs, practices and way of life. She will also sometimes use the word “religion” to describe human efforts to reach God, following Karl Barth, who argued that religion does not start with God’s self-revelation and therefore actually leads us away from him.

There will also be callouts or sidebars sprinkled throughout the book which act as reflection questions of sort. As I blog my way through this book I’ll also highlight those.

The next chapter is The Academic Scene.

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