Peter C. PHAN. The Joy of Religious Pluralism: A Personal Journey. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2017. pp. 235. $35.00 pb. ISBN: 978-1-62698-225-3. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, Shaker Heights, OH 44122.


In this detailed response to the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith’s citric challenge to the orthodoxy of his earlier work, Being Religious Interreligiously, Peter Phan has created a sometimes tart but always refreshing lemonade. He answers each of the Congregation’s objections in turn. Finally he offers his own apologia for a religious journey to joy and an appendix of the correspondence between him and church officials.

Phan argues that their concern about his work flows directly from a difference of methodology rather than a disagreement in content. The CDF, he says, uses a top-down approach to doing theology, “an uncomplicated and uncritical acceptance of faith in God’s revelation.” He suggests that a more efficacious starting point is “an attentive and active listening to God’s self-manifestation, here and now, in the community of faith and elsewhere” throughout history. He suggests a less monochromatic method than what he sees in that of the CDF’s. To appreciate fully the complexity of divine revelation, it is necessary to draw from a larger magisterial palette than institutional conclusions. How those added colors might expand the picture is detailed in the succeeding chapters.

Phan responds to the CDF’s specific concerns: the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as savior, the function of non-Christians in salvation, the church as sacrament, and the mission of the church. He grounds his line of thinking with a metaphor from Irenaus: the spirit and the Christ are the “hands” that carry out the mission of God in the world. These “hands” employ not different economies but ones that are congruent and connected to that of the Father. It is not as something to overcome, but “God’s gift to the world.” God’s hands at work in the world are something to celebrate.

Quoting from cogent documents, he argues that this broader method characterizes much of modern Eastern ecclesiology. In Asia, diversity is in the theological DNA. Teachers become listeners, assuming that God’s revelatory light shines broadly on other individuals and traditions, not just on those who believe in Christ and cluster under the reading lamp of Rome. Approach to other religions should be one of dialogue: with (cum) and among (inter) rather than to (ad) them. The mission of the church should be one of humble journeying with believers from other traditions, accepting the concrete differences and putting aside the triumphalism that so often characterizes Catholic missionary activity. His message is easily transferable to the egoistic attitude present in much of today’s American political discourse.

In many ways the book is deeply personal. Phan recounts his own metanoic experiences with serious believers from other traditions. He notes how much he has grown spiritually from the deep faith of others. His sincere compassion for the real situation of the poor increased when he saw in person their plight in contrast to the stark excess of some church leaders. Such first-person testimony cannot be put aside lightly. Likewise the book is peppered with Phan’s self-deprecating and often biting humor, the bite occasionally drawing a drop of blood. It reveals the deep hurt that the ecclesial challenge has been for him.

Phan demonstrates not only his meticulous methodology as a theologian but also his place on Fowler’s scale of religious development as a secure believer, one open without fear to the richness of God’s revelation in other traditions. Few reach a level of security in their professed faith that allows them to wade with confidence into the whirlpool of disparate belief. Getting wet and playing in the uncharted waters of others is challenging.

The author’s knowledge and understanding of religions beyond Christianity is rich, as is his internalization of real-life experience of wisdom, disadvantage, and the holiness of “the other.” Although I must admit that I have not read Phan’s other books−over a dozen at last count−I want to go out and buy this book for all my friends (and maybe several bishops).

At the end of the book the author compares himself unfavorably to the American Maryknoll missionary, Douglas Venn, calling his (Phan’s) own work “all straw and long-winded blabber.” If memory serves, that is what another challenged theologian said. Thomas Aquinas claimed to have written a bit of “straw” himself. Peter Phan is in good company!

We owe the CDF an expression of gratitude. Without their investigation, we may not have had Peter Phan’s latest gem. The book is rich in its insights and its clarity, but most of all in its passion. Phan reveals himself as a truly humble and holy man. But I may be prejudiced, since I consider myself a friend.