When Faiths Collide by Martin E. Marty

Eras Journal – Droogan, J: Review of “When Faiths Collide”, Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty,When Faiths Collide,

Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Isbn 1 4051 1223 9

Martin E. Marty’s latest book is a self conscious attempt to counter what he sees as a global climate characterised by increasing levels of religious intolerance, suspicion and fear.

Through contrasting what he calls ‘belongers’, those people long established in a community and who claim to represent its privileged religious identity, and ‘strangers’, those who are new to a community and may bring challenging religious beliefs, customs and identities with them, Marty charts a path through the myriad difficulties inherent when members of more than one religious faith come to inhabit the same space.

At the outset it is acknowledged that clashes between differing faiths occur at a number of levels, from the international scale where religious conflict is often played out by national politicians and armies (think Israel/Palestine, India/Pakistan), to the local, where tensions are felt within single communities and dealt with by the individuals on the ground. Stating the near impossibility of establishing open religious dialogue and resolving clashes of religious faith at the level of macro-conflict, Marty focuses on outlining how individuals can take the responsibility to begin to establish understanding and trust with religious strangers through the use of mutual hospitality, rather than simple unengaged religious tolerance.

In this way Marty attempts to encourage individuals to engage in religious dialogue and foster mutual understanding and cooperation between disparate faiths inhabiting the same world, while holding radically differing world views. When Faiths Collide reads as an attempt to apply balm to the traumatised world view of a post 9/11 America. Marty sees the United States as one that is no longer isolated from the sometimes dangerous realities of the ‘religious stranger’.

He argues that his country has been forced to take into account a larger, scarier globe where the boundaries have been obliterated between the “safe” world, where religions prosper in a setting in which religious tolerance prevails, and the “unsafe” world, where religious intolerance and interfaith aggression dominate. However in dealing with individuals of faith, rather than states or religions, Marty’s notion of the collision of faiths avoids any comparisons with Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilisationsthesis and its inherent inadequacies in conceiving of religions and civilisations as monolithic wholes and conflating personal religious adherence with ethnic or national identity.

The book forms part of a series of Blackwell Manifestos in which “major critics make timely interventions to address important concepts”, and this personal and immediate quality conveys great power and strength to Marty’s text. Rather than being motivated by anger or the need to argue and engage in polemics, his personal manifesto is moved by concern, if not fear, and an attempt to ignite conversation and mutual understanding between individuals. This results in a balanced, persuasive and rather conversational tone throughout the book. In many ways it reads as a ‘how to’ manual for conducting mutual interfaith recognition, dialogue, understanding and reconciliation, rather than a conventional academic treatise on the nature of inter-faith collision.

Martin E. Marty is a former Lutheran pastor and obviously a man of deep Christian piety. His examination of interfaith tension is informed by his own Christian ‘insider’ perspective and his manifesto is not concerned with an academic analysis of the historical, social or theoretical aspects of interfaith dialogue. This results in a book somewhat light on theoretical considerations of the rise of religious intolerance, communalism, and conversion, although the text is peppered with brief but insightful anecdotes on many of these issues, informed by Marty’s own long personal experience working in the field. For instance, Chapter Two provides an insightful overview of the relationship between the growth in religious fundamentalism and the global mass media. Similarly, the book is predominantly concerned with the collision of worldviews that occurs between differing religious faiths, and this certainly is a limiting factor.

Rather than examining the tensions in perspective that exist between a liberal and secularised person versus that of the orthodox, or even fundamentalist, adherent of a religious faith, Marty focuses exclusively on clashes between differing religious identities. Yet, at a time when the space between religious identity and supposedly secular politics appears to be shrinking in the liberal democratic world, such an analysis is a timely, if slightly ominous, contribution.

Marty’s main contention is that unengaged religious tolerance must be supplanted by the active performance of mutual hospitality between those of differing religious world views if individuals are to learn to live productively with one another in mixed-faith communities. It is argued that religious tolerance has lost the vigorous connotations it once had, and Marty shows little enthusiasm for its wholesale adoption in contemporary world affairs. Although laudable as an ideal, proclaimed religious tolerance often fails to necessitate any real engagement with the sometimes radical and intrinsic differences of other faiths.

It is fundamentally a passive state of religious ‘non-interference’, allowable in communities only until real and pressing religious difference is encountered. Rather, the risk of religious communities offering mutual hospitality to members of differing faiths is advocated as a way of re-engaging in religious dialogue and fostering mutual trust and understanding. Hospitality demands both inviting the religious stranger into the space of one’s own home as well as into the space of one’s own personal awareness, and Marty claims that by letting the religious stranger into their community, home and place of worship, a person of faith can begin to risk a re-evaluation of their own religion.

The religious stranger then acts as a mirror and allows a self-critical re-evaluation of ones own faith, assumptions and prejudices. Again, the value that Marty places on hospitality and religious self-reflection is inspired by his own deep commitment to the Christian faith, a point that he makes abundantly clear through his extensive drawing on Biblical quotations and precedents in the latter part of his book.

Some could claim that through revealing his own deep commitment to a religious faith, Marty compromises his position as an impartial mediator between conflicting religious traditions. Yet as a personal call for engaged religious dialogue, mutual understanding, and religious pluralism, When Faiths Collide is a sincere attempt to speak to all those who are concerned about the tensions between faiths that characterise so much of contemporary world affairs.

Julian Droogan

Department of Studies in Religions, University of Sydney