Book Review: Encountering God
Posted December 4, 2011on:
Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, by Diana L. Eck, Beacon Press, 1993, 259 pp.
I doubt I would have ever chosen this book for myself, but I am so glad to have read it. What a beautiful perspective on Hinduism and Christianity, the personal spiritual impact of interfaith dialogue, and the importance of religious pluralism in our shrinking world.
Diana Eck is widely known as a leading expert on interfaith relationships here in the United States, and her work as the head of The Pluralism Project has given her a reputation as the leading authority on the diversity of religious life in America. I loved A New Religious America when I read it several years ago.
Encountering God is a very different sort of book. Rather than a catalog of statistics and anecdotes, it is the spiritual memoir of a scholar. Eck tells her own story of finding God in her private life of faith, and in her professional life as a scholar. She weaves together the ways she found God in the typical places (her home church in Bozeman, Montana; her family’s immigrant story; her church at Harvard) and the unusual places (at the side of the Ganges River; beside a funeral pyre in Banaras, India; in a Hindu temple). Each of these personal stories of encountering God is accompanied by a deep and thorough analysis that shows Eck’s scholarly side. The book makes a compelling case for head and heart about the importance of interfaith conversation and the possibility of encountering the Holy in other faiths.
Reading this book showed me how little depth I have in my own thinking about interfaith relationships. Long ago, I tossed out the Christian exclusivist theology, and I replaced it with a general openness to partnership with people of all faiths and a conviction that God can work through other faiths than mine. Although I have engaged in a lot of interfaith work since then, I have not really thought deeply about the impact that engaging other faiths might have on my own relationship with God. What can I learn, if I am open, about God from people of other faiths?
For example, Eck raises a question about the language we use to talk about the Divine among people of different faith traditions.
Are there many gods to choose from? Is there room for a Christian god, a Hindu god and a Muslim god? … One approach to understanding God language is to take seriously and literally the oneness of God, an affirmation which is central to many faith traditions. (54)
In other words, rather than talking about how my God is similiar to (or different from) your God, we can talk about how you and I understand the same Reality at the core of the universe. I had never considered the implications of that language of “my God and your God,” but I will now think differently about what I am doing when I engage in a faith conversation with someone in another tradition.
Eck guides the way for a faithful pilgrim of one tradition to earnestly explore the wisdom of another. She shows, through a detailed explanation of what pluralism is and isn’t, how one can learn deep insight into meditation from the Eastern traditions, while honoring their integrity and one’s own. In the final chapter, she talks about the critical importance of the world’s religions to one another. We live in a pluralist world, where interfaith dialogue does not just happen in scholarly forums, but in PTA meetings, daily greetings and business encounters. We are keepers of one another’s images, and of one another’s rights—what impacts one faith will impact all faiths, and we must work together to honor one another’s ability to follow God.
Encountering God is an outstanding book. Eck brings together her scholarly expertise, her passion and her personal journey in a way that compels the reader to think differently about their interfaith relationships and personal faith practices. A perfect read for anyone interested in Hinduism and Christianity, or considering how to approach interfaith conversations.