BOOK REVIEW: Rebecca Kratz Mays, editor, Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots (Philadelphia: Ecumenical Press, 2008, xii + 131pp.)
 As a Lutheran theologian now in retirement, looking back at the last half of the twentieth century, one of the most notable and rewarding developments in which I was privileged to participate was the ecumenical awakening. For me that included a ten-year period in which I taught at a Roman Catholic institution that was deeply affected by Vatican II and the impact of Pope John XXIII. The transition from a Lutheran upbringing in which one was suspicious of all things Roman, to teaching priests and nuns in a Master of Theology degree program and participating in daily mass, left an indelible impression. For many of us, ecumenical dialogue and interchurch activity moved us well beyond the parochial limits in which we had been raised, inculcating a strong desire to recognize and celebrate our unity in Christ that transcended our denominational identities.
 If the 20th century was the century of ecumenism, the 21st promises to be the century of interfaith dialogue, a prospect hardly imaginable by most Christians until the current decade. The imperative for Christians in the United States to understand and respect the other world religions has always been present, but always among a very few. Without question the train of events initiated by the September 11 tragedy has changed this situation dramatically, giving a geopolitical urgency to interfaith dialogue. Our secularized culture is now struggling to understand how people and movements identifying with religious traditions can take such a decisive role in shaping the international political scene.
 Christians should understand, however, that the imperative to reach out to those of other religious traditions is not based on political dynamics, important as they may be in contributing a certain urgency to interfaith dialogue. Fundamental to our involvement in this venture is the conviction that our faith itself compels us to reach out to the neighbor who, religiously speaking, is the stranger. Historically speaking, never has the time been more ripe for religious dialogue, for that stranger is now in our midst, a fellow citizen who may even live next door. I believe we face a kairotic moment, when circumstances compel us to relate our faith to that of the other religious traditions of the world.
 This book, generated by the Dialogue Institute of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies at Temple University, thus comes at a most opportune time. As the title indicates, the focus is on the “grass roots,” which means that not only a powerful rationale is given on behalf of dialogue, but practical helps and techniques as well that enable groups to facilitate dialogue in their own communities. Contributors range from well-known figures in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue (Leonard Swidler, S. Mark Heim, Eboo Patel), to those who have labored at the grass roots level and who bring special insight and savvy based on long and rich experience in conducting dialogues. Questions for reflection and suggestions for action conclude each chapter. While most of the contributors are Christian, the other two Abrahamic faiths - Jewish and Muslim - are also represented.
 If dialogue between religious traditions is to be significant and fruitful, it should include every level among religious communities, from laity to officials to theological experts. The nature of a dialogue group will shape the kind of encounter that is suitable, from more formal presentations to small group discussions to groups collaborating on a project. In every case, the required ingredients are openness on each side to what one can learn from the other, and sufficient knowledge of one’s own tradition to enable a meaningful exchange of ideas. And of course, whoever the participants, without careful planning the goals of dialogue are not likely to be realized.
 Those goals include gaining new knowledge and understanding, recognizing that the insights thus gained can and will shape the attitudes we bring to our neighbor’s faith. This is the particular challenge we face with genuine dialogue, a challenge that clearly carries an ethical dimension. As Swidler observes, we are not to enter into dialogue with the purpose of imparting truth to the ignorant, but to see how my neighbor’s truth can bring greater insight to my own comprehension of the truth. It involves a sufficient measure of respect for the neighbor as to move me to ask how the Triune God I know in Jesus Christ is a part of his life and tradition, and how his comprehension of truth might shed light on my own faith and life.
 Essential to this goal is the conviction that we do share common ground with adherents of other religions, and sharing those convictions can generate insights that enlighten our faith and our humanity. The conviction that we are all children of God, sharing the divine image, should be a powerful bond that sustains us in the quest for mutual understanding. As one of the Muslim writers observes, we too easily turn those of other faiths into the “infidel” and the “enemy,” failing to recognize that we all have a common enemy in “the dehumanizing reality of poverty, backwardness, oppression, ignorance, and other destructive social problems.” Interfaith dialogue also makes a most significant contribution in helping to “keep hope alive” in the face of violence that too often marks the relations of religious groups.
 Given the charged atmosphere today between the three Abrahamic religions, it is not surprising that the prospect of real dialogue between them is regarded with skepticism on the part of many. Thus it is all the more important for believers to recognize dialogue as essential to their vocation. Those who seek mutual understanding place themselves on the front lines in combating the destructive stereotypes that too often inform and poison interfaith relationships. They also open themselves to a deeper understanding of their own faith, seeing elements of harmony as well as contrast with other faiths and inviting a more serious study of beliefs they have taken for granted. Perhaps the most precious gift offered by serious dialogue is the cultivation of the truth that our calling as God’s children is not to render judgment of the stranger, but through mutual understanding to turn that stranger into a friend. This imperative runs throughout this book, and I hope that it helps to generate many a fruitful dialogue in communities throughout our country.
© August 2009Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)Volume 9, Issue 8© Evangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaAll rights reserved.