Many Mansions: A Christian's Encounter with Other Faiths

Many Mansions: A Christian's Encounter with Other Faiths

Harvey Cox
Beacon Press, Boston, 1988; hardcover, 216 pages.

There is a crisis in relations between the religious traditions of the world, Harvey Cox argues in his new book. The nature of this crisis is that "the universal and the particular poles have come unhinged."

Faced with a world in which some form of encounter with other faiths can no longer be avoided, the ancient religious traditions are breaking into increasingly bitter wings. Those who glimpse the universal dimension advocate dialogue and mutuality. They search out what is common and that which unites. Those who emphasize the particular often shun dialogue and excoriate their fellow believers who engage in it more fiercely than they condemn outsiders.

"This ugly chasm", Cox says, "runs through all religions, and is a source of considerable pain." Though Cox counts himself as a universalist, he insists that both poles are needed.

This book is his personal account of his own developing encounter with those of other faith traditions than his own Christian Baptist experience. Early in this account he is forced to confront his own ignorance about other traditions, and his own limited perspective on how dialogue ought to take place. For Cox, a theologian at the Harvard Divinity School, this was an often uncomfortable, even painful experience of self-discovery.

Cox will be remembered by many readers familiar with his work as the author of The Secular City and a revised version of that early work produced many years later. More recent works include Feast of Fools and Turning East.

In Many Mansions Cox offers a series of linked essays on dialogue among world faiths, "the Gospel and the Koran", "Christ and Krishna", "Buddhists and Christians", and "Rabbi Yeshua ben Joseph". From these interfaith dialogues he moves on to the question of dialogue between Christians and Marxists-including "the Search for a Soviet Christ". He examines his own exploration of recent years into liberation theology.

In a revelatory chapter on his own delving into Marx's ideas about religion, he finds that the often quoted line about religion as "the opium of the people" assumes a very different perspective when taken in the context of the whole passage in which it occurs. The complete paragraph in Marx is this:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The sigh, Cox says, can be viewed as an expression of our deepest fear and pain. Furthermore, be writes, "Dorothy Soelle says in her book Suffering that a movement from "muteness" to "lament" is essential if suffering and oppressed people are to rise in protest and dignity."

Cox does not believe, as Marx did, that religion will die out; indeed he notes that there has been a resurgence in religion everywhere. What is demanded is that we take charge of that resurgence, that we shape it and reconceive it so that religions will "unite and enlarge us" rather than divide us and lead to self-annihilation.

-William Metzger