Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 9, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2018)

playlist_add_check Review Article

Monte Cox. Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors. Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2017. 192 pp. Paperback. $14.99.

I start with a few disclosures. Monte Cox, who is the Dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Harding University, is on the shortlist of people who have positively impacted my life. Starting in the late 1980s, my wife and I were on a burgeoning mission team that Monte and Beth Cox inspired and mentored. My longer vocational journey also parallels his, from working in East Africa to collegiate teaching on the world’s religious traditions. In all this, he has remained a friend and exemplar.

In Significant Others, readers can now glean from Cox’s years of teaching and interacting with various religious communities. The book is written as a “primer for beginners” and directed primarily to North American Christians. While he aims to increase the religious literacy of American Christians, Cox is not interested in mere book knowledge. In the opening pages he states directly, “if . . . you have no intention of seeking friendship with [non-Christian] ‘others’ . . . you’ve wasted your hard-earned money on this book” (16). If he was reading that line for an audio book, those who know him might expect to hear his distinctively dry wit, but the statement is not merely tongue-in-cheek. Beyond issues of literacy, Significant Others is written to prepare Christians to love and “share their faith” with non-Christians (16). In other words, Cox writes as both teacher and missionary.

Content

Significant Others consists primarily of introductory chapters on ten different religious or sociocultural communities (“Our Jewish Neighbors,” “Our Muslim Neighbors,” “Our Hindu Neighbors,” and continued in that form for Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, Jain, Native American, Chinese, and Shinto neighbors). Each chapter begins with brief anecdotes of practitioners in North American contexts and then follows a pattern of introducing the tradition’s origins, significant figures, basic beliefs and practices, and historical developments. Cox then provides his Christian readers with “points of contact” and “points of contrast” to help them process the information and prepare for informed interactions. Chapters conclude with discussion questions and a brief list of resources for further study.

All things considered, the book delivers on its promises and offers a valuable resource for classrooms, churches, and neighborly interactions. Cox acknowledges his choices and assumptions without getting lost in the theoretical weeds, and he successfully incorporates considerable amounts of information into chapters that are concise, accessible, and interesting. As a fellow teacher, I found myself dog-earing pages for their compelling anecdotes or pedagogical insights. I also appreciate his emphasis on attentiveness and respect and his insistence that Christians “are not interested in caricatures” (30). Evidence that he practices what he preaches in this regard is found in the references and endorsements of a number of his non-Christian friends and contacts.

The teacher in me also imagines ways to clarify or enhance various sections. For example, the chapter “Our Jewish Neighbors” would benefit from more attention to the differences between Rabbinic Judaism and Biblical Israelite religion since, as Cox notes in passing, this is a point of confusion to which Christians are “especially susceptible.”1 On Islam, Cox mentions the challenges of theocratic and theological intolerance in some Muslim countries, but he should also emphasize that most of the American Muslims he wishes his readers to befriend (as well as many non-American Muslims) are religiously inclusive and politically pluralist.2 It would also be helpful to contrast Islam’s more optimistic notions of lawful obedience with Christian notions of sin-nature, unmerited grace, and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. On Buddhism, the attention given to themes of detachment needs to be supplemented by the central role that “engaged” compassion plays in many contemporary forms of Buddhism. Finally, while Cox’s chapter on Native Americans effectively represents “traditional religion” in North American contexts, I wish he had also drawn more on his own experiences to highlight the global significance of African spiritualities. After all, traditions such as Yoruba continue to have immense influence in the Americas and beyond, as chronicled by everyone from religion scholar Stephen Prothero to pop icon Beyoncé.3

These selective suggestions are offered in the spirit of dialogue more than critique. Anyone who teaches this material understands the challenge of sifting through the tsunami of data and knows that results are always partial and impressionistic. Given the book’s informed and nuanced chapters, my suggestions testify to Cox’s success at offering meaningful impressions that stir engaged reflections.

Structure

Moving from the book’s content to its structure invites different kinds of assessment, starting with an acknowledgement: Significant Others, and the classes Cox and I teach at our respective universities, employ a “world religions paradigm” that is contested and problematic.4 The paradigm consists of what is now a standard list of global religious traditions. Critics note, however, that the paradigm treats the religions as if they are bounded categories that can be neatly separated from each other and from other cultural and historical forces. This is a serious concern that demands attention, although scholars often divide over whether it renders the paradigm merely limited or altogether unsalvageable. Cox is aware of the issues but clearly still finds the paradigm and its categories useful. Even so, due to especially acute complexities, he does not try to extract a singular religion from wider cultural currents and identities in the chapters on Native Americans and Chinese, and he probably shouldn’t have tried for the somewhat unwieldy chapters on Shinto and Hinduism. Nevertheless, even when employing the standard categories, his emphasis on “neighbors” rather than “systems” treats the religions as the complex, amorphous, living realities they are.

Critics also complain that the world religions paradigm imposes Western Protestant structures on all religions. In other words, the paradigm acts like a Protestant cookie-cutter that characterizes and compares religions primarily based on essential beliefs, texts, and originating histories. Cox is more vulnerable on this point since the structure of his chapters is straight out of the paradigm’s playbook. An example of how this potentially affects content is seen in the chapter on Buddhism. Cox claims that a “proper introduction” to the religion begins with the story of the historical Buddha (including a nativity account) and the central teaching of the Four Noble Truths, all according to several key texts. Only then does the chapter explore Buddhist practices, as if they are derivative. The problem with this approach is that global Buddhisms are typically understood as prioritizing orthopraxis over orthodoxy. In other words, Cox could be charged with getting his presentation backwards, allowing a Protestant tail to wag a Buddhist dog. Even if this is a valid critique, however, it is not always clear what the alternatives are. Would changing the order of the chapter’s sections—putting the description of practices before the histories and creeds—make the presentation more accurate, or merely swap a chicken for an egg?5 Regardless, considering these issues helps us grapple with religious difference and imagine what makes various traditions tick.

The point here is that readers should consider what is gained and lost through Cox’s employment of the world religions paradigm. When all is considered, however, the best anyone can do is proceed with caution, always expecting the living realities to spill over the edges of the categories used. While some may find Cox camped too far in the interior of the paradigm, his nuanced and self-aware posture keeps the presentations flexible and effective.

Theology

Finally, I offer a few reflections on the book’s theology, as it appears especially in the opening and closing chapters. In the field of comparative religion, two basic assumptions are still common: Religions are best studied from a neutral and religiously detached point of view, and religions are perennially similar, like parallel paths on the same proverbial mountain. Significant Others rejects both of these assumptions. For the former, Cox’s confessional approach aligns with the increasingly common conviction among scholars that neutrality—a “view from nowhere”—is both undesirable and incoherent.6 For the latter, while acknowledging the appeal of perennialism, Cox asserts that religious diversity is more cacophony than symphony.7

From there, the specific implications of his theological framework surface, especially in his treatment of the categories of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Cox identifies himself as an exclusivist, thus emphasizing at least two convictions: Salvific truth is only found in Christianity,8 and personal salvation requires people to hear and convert to that truth “before they die” (24). Fortunately, he doesn’t allow the discussion to get bogged down with predictable questions about exceptions to the rule (i.e., what about those who never hear?). Instead, Cox promotes a “messenger mentality” that trusts God to make ultimate judgment calls, expresses hope that God will be merciful to all, and yet remains committed to evangelize and even provide “dire warnings” to non-Christians who are at risk of “dying in their sins” (26–27).

For those drawn to this specific kind of exclusivism, Cox provides clarity and a humble, non-combative tone. Others will find it too restrictive. For example, while he rightly wants to keep the descriptions concise, his passing mention of Karl Rahner does not adequately represent the diverse forms of inclusivism associated with Christians such as C. S. Lewis, John Stott, N. T. Wright, Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Mark Heim, and arguably even Billy Graham in his later years. Additionally, he does not mention the longstanding and diverse traditions of Christian universalism of people like Gregory of Nyssa, George MacDonald, Karl Barth (arguably), William Barclay, Desmond Tutu, Jürgen Moltmann, and evangelicals like Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry (a.k.a. Gregory MacDonald). Despite passing caveats, by ignoring or quickly dismissing these “wider” understandings of salvation, Cox leaves the impression that anything short of restrictive exclusivism inherently undermines the urgency of mission, takes a soft stance on sin, and/or requires liberal readings of Scripture. In fact, many of the wider options draw on exclusive truth claims as much as Cox does. Moreover, for one example, Parry’s “evangelical universalism” mixes an explicitly high Christology and high view of Scripture with robust doctrines of judgment and hell.9

Beyond issues of how wide or restrictive the paradigms should be, however, the bigger question concerns how Christian salvation should be understood in the first place. The exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism template can create the impression that the Gospel is primarily concerned with the afterlife (i.e., whether individuals go to heaven when they die) and thus primarily directed toward efforts to move individuals from the “unsaved” category to the “saved.” As many theologians and biblical scholars insist, however, this is a seriously reductive understanding of the gospel. While it is certainly true that the justification of individual sinners is a significant component of the Christian message, when an individualistic saved/unsaved binary becomes the center around which all other convictions, activities, and motivations revolve, the gospel’s God-centered, cosmic vision is compromised. This also risks turning all dialogue into apologetics and all friendships into proselytizing projects. Cox is sensitive to these concerns, but his methodology and theology do not easily escape the risks.10

In the end, Cox’s presentation would benefit from more engagement with wider theological frameworks and their implications for understanding and interacting with global neighbors. Wherever one lands on such issues, however, Significant Others is a gift. It does a remarkable job of increasing our religious literacy, challenging us to love God by loving others, and providing mature guidance for how to do so in a Christ-honoring way. For this and much more, we can all be grateful to Monte.

I know I am.

John Barton

Director, Center for Faith and Learning

Professor of Religion

Pepperdine University

Malibu, California, USA

1 A visiting rabbi once told my class that Biblical Israelite religion and Rabbinic Judaism are “completely different religions,” adding that Judaism is younger than Christianity since Rabbinical traditions were formalized after 70 CE, nearly four decades after Pentecost. The rabbi’s rhetorical claims fostered a wonderful class discussion about the continuities and discontinuities between ancient Israel, the different branches of modern Judaism, and Christianity.

2 Recent Pew surveys show that most American Muslims believe that other religions can lead to eternal life and that the more devout Muslims are, the more progressive on religious and political issues. See http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-app-a and http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/28/u-s-muslims-are-religiously-observant-but-open-to-multiple-interpretations-of-islam. It is also significant that most of Islam’s major intellectual figures throughout the religion’s history have embraced some form of inclusivism. See Mohammad Hassan Khalil, ed., Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

3 Prothero considers Yoruba spirituality and its derivatives (i.e., Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodun, Brazilian Candomble, Trinidad Shango, etc.) one of the most influential religious movements in the world. See God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World (New York: Harper One, 2010), 203–41. Beyoncé explores details of Ifa initiation practices in “Lemonade.” See Kamaria Roberts and Kenya Downs, “What Beyoncé teaches us about the African diaspora in ‘Lemonade,’ ” PBS New Hour, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/what-beyonce-teaches-us-about-the-african-diaspora-in-lemonade.

4 See Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 10, no. 3 (July 2013): 253–68; Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of the World Religions: or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

5 In the more organic context of a classroom, I often try to introduce each tradition in a way that highlights its respective tendencies or emphases. For Judaism, I start by talking about family trees, stories, and struggles. For Islam, we begin by hearing Arabic recitation and looking closely at a few key texts from the Qur’an and hadiths. For Hinduism, we start by considering the sensual experience of sounds, smells, colors, and icons of divinity. For Buddhism, we contemplate posture, meditation, the rhythms of chant, the ironies of koan, and the desires for unfettered peace. I find that such introductions help students imagine the orientation of the traditions before diving into the details.

6 I am assuming here a difference between nonlocal neutrality and situated objectivity, the former being an incoherent abstraction, and the latter being an ethical and epistemological ideal. From this perspective, even God should not be understood as having a nonlocal view from nowhere, but rather a panlocal “view from everywhere.”

7 While Cox doesn’t offer many clues, one wonders how this might affect his political theology: Does the cacophony result in some version of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” or Miroslav Volf’s more hopeful thesis that, despite irreconcilable differences, the world’s religions demonstrate overlapping resources that make peace and collaboration imaginable? For the latter, see Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

8 Cox acknowledges that he perceives truth—sometimes, even “core truth”—in other religious settings (29–30, 220), but he does not consider such expressions of truth salvific.

9 The common assumption that universalism and doctrines of divine judgment are mutually exclusive shows a lack of understanding of universalism, at least in its Christian non-pluralist forms. See Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, second ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012).

10 Cox acknowledges that the “full biblical sense” of salvation is more than forgiveness and eternal life for individuals (25), but this appears more as a side note than a guiding framework. In addition, he rightly insists that dialogue must be a two-way reciprocal process, but also insists that his conviction that non-Christians are “lost” does not “irreparably [taint]” all dialogue with a “hidden agenda.” I agree with this in principle. My only point here is that these are the risks of his theological posture and I am not sure that he persuasively avoids them. In this regard, Miroslav Volf offers a helpful discussion on a “common code of conduct” for religions with a missional impulse. The code is guided by the Golden Rule and seeks to ensure mutually respectful, non-coercive forms of witnessing. See Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 209–13.