John D’Arcy May. Coventry Press, 2019, (p210)
ISBN 9780648497783.

John D’Arcy May, an ecumenical scholar, gave a series of lectures in 2015 in the University of Frankfurt’s Inter-cultural Theology programme. In this new thoughtful book he presents a “considerably augmented and updated” version, with a particular focus on potential readers in his native Australia.

May’s starting point is that the way particular societies operate is shaped in important ways by the presuppositions and worldviews of the people who make up that society. Stated that way it is, perhaps, an obvious enough point. But he argues that the connections between these ‘religions’ and politics is often “extremely complex” and need to be much better understood if (as he aspires to) these traditions are in some sense to serve together as unifying forces across religious and cultural boundaries. His goal is, as he puts it, “to call into question the crass secularism of Western observers and dent their complacency”.

The heart of Pluralism & Peace, and its greatest value to this reader at least, is the chapters in which he steps through a series of Asian-Pacific case studies illuminating the religions, and associated world views and values, that dominate each of those societies, and how the religious perspectives in turn interact now with the politics and the functioning of the respective society.  There is also some valuable discussion along similar lines for pre-European Australia.

May’s call is for what he describes as “collaborative theology”. His aim is that this collective project should come to serve as something that might over time allow religion to serve as the “spiritual resources” that would make possible what he terms an “ethical globalisation”. Without it, he argues, we can expect only a future of conflict and destruction.

His own political priors are on show. He is very much opposed to the policies of successive Australian governments around illegal migrants and “boat people”. He doesn’t seem that keen on a market-based economy either. Fair enough, but in a sense the one culture—and the forces and beliefs that shaped it—that he doesn’t really take seriously enough seems to be his own.

It is good to be able to critically assess one’s own culture, and the policies to which it gives rise—and perhaps more polite to critique one’s own than others. But it isn’t clear to me that May fully recognises the implications of just how secular most Western countries, including Australia and New Zealand, have become, even as those same Western countries/cultures (for all their faults) remain at the leading edge of technological advance and economic performance. It still seems to me more likely that religion will be pushed to the margins in more and more societies, as the elites of those societies pursue the economic fruits (if not the democratic systems) of the West, than that theologies, collaborative or otherwise, will take back the public square any time soon.

There is clearly value in understanding other religions/societies. Every society has that web of meaning, a way of making sense of the world, that we call “religion”. But May never grapples satisfactorily with the fact that the world’s main religions have overlapping, often mutually inconsistent, truth claims. That isn’t just true of Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Consider the exclusive claims of the Chinese Communist Part—interestingly, China is an example May doesn’t touch on—and the consequences of those exclusive claims for serious disciples of any other faith.

In our case, of course, the exclusive claim is reflected in the words of Jesus: “No one comes to the Father but by me”. And evangelism and making disciples, forming worldviews and shaping behaviour, is what we are called to. Melanesia, to take one of his case studies, is better for the proclamation of the gospel there. So is New Zealand. Our confident proclamation is that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

May’s response to these competing truth claims isn’t that satisfactory. One option he suggests is “double religious belonging”.  Perhaps it works across Christian denominations (identifying perhaps as both Baptist and Anglican); perhaps it might even work for political ends, which May seems to focus on. But once we get beyond mere denominational differences I’m pretty sure such divided loyalties weren’t the gospel Peter and Paul proclaimed. The Roman authorities, on the other hand, would have been delighted with such a model; their civil society wouldn’t have been threatened.  The world wouldn’t have been turned upside down or the gospel gone out to the very ends of the earth.

Review: Michael Reddell