Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Jonah and the Religious Other: An Exploration of Biblical Inclusivism

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Jonah and the Religious Other: An Exploration of Biblical Inclusivism

Article excerpt

I was recently reading the works of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi. Though I am a Christian, I found his thoughts meaningful to the point of sacramentality. I was hearing the proclamation of the gospel--the good news--in a new voice. Though potent, this experience brought into sharp relief the difficulties of interreligious dialogue. On the one hand, I felt as though I were hearing the truth. On the other hand, I had subsumed that truth into my own religious framework by calling it the "gospel." I also knew that other professing Christians would refuse to acknowledge my experience as valid. Thus is the tension surrounding the religious other, a tension captured in the debates among pluralists, inclusivists (whether open or closed), (1) and exclusivists. Inherent in this tension are questions about the status of the relationship between the religious other and the divine. Does the other have such a relationship? If so, is it wholly natural or does it fall under the notion of "special revelation"? Does the relationship enable salvation?

These questions are problematic and their answers diverse within the Christian community, yet the experiences that lead to the questions demand thorough consideration. Such consideration includes revisiting Christian scripture with a hermeneutical eye to the state of the religious other. This task is not aimed at definitively exhausting the other's place before the divine. Rather, it is aimed at considering what (if anything) Christianity's authoritative text can offer in the face of a pluralistic world wrought with religious violence, both physical and nonphysical.

Given this demand, the aim of this essay is to offer a reading of the book of Jonah that takes into account both the exegetical insights of historical criticism and the contextual concerns of the religious other. The task at hand will require an exploration of Jonah that addresses pertinent exegetical issues in dialogue with the questions posed above. At this intersection, I will suggest that the Hebrew book of Jonah offers a helpful vision of religious inclusivism in which the religious other not only is in a genuine relation with the divine but also reveals the divine to those that consider her or him to be "other."

1. The Book of Jonah: Exegetical Concerns

The issues surrounding the narrative of Jonah are vast and difficult. The root of these issues lies in the narrative's uniqueness. It is a fantastical story about an Israelite prophet (as opposed to the prophet's message) and his struggle against YHWH. The narrative's ironical tone and mythical elements have led most scholars to label it along the lines of a didactic fiction. (2) As such, many have attempted to define the central didactic intention of the narrative.

Toward the middle of the twentieth century, many exegetes believed the text leveled strong critiques against the people of Israel, for which Jonah was a type. This interpretation was based largely on a confident dating of the narrative's composition to the post-exilic community. (3) James Smart, on account of his reliance on the post-exilic date in conjunction with the view that the work is a parable, claimed that the central message of the text is a critique of Israel's nationalistic disdain for non-Israelites, a disdain epitomized in the exclusivism found in the reforms of Ezra. (4) In a similar vein, Julius Bewer, based on the reference in 1 Kgs. 14:25, argued that the author chose Jonah as the central prophetic character in the narrative because he "was a nationalistic prophet and therefore a good representative of [the post-exilic community's] narrow, exclusive tendency." (5) Some later exegetes have followed this line of interpretation. Hans Walter Wolff argued that the central theme of the text is a critique of Jewish piety via an expression of the boundlessness of God's mercy. (6) James Limburg, also accepting a post-exilic date for the narrative, suggested that the meaning of the text has to do with polemically educating the "insiders" about the "outsiders. …

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