Current Journal

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Photo by Diganta Talukda, via Flickr.

This issue represents some of the rich scholarship and dialogue that were fostered at the recent meeting of the American Academy of Religions (AAR), in San Diego, California, in November 2014. The Academy includes groups including Interreligious and Interfaith Studies Group and Comparative Theology, and papers and panels within these groups provide opportunities for learning, conversation, and collaboration for participants from around the world.

Part of the mission of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies is to amplify—as widely as possible—the work of scholars and participants in these fields. By including papers presented at the AAR, we make this work accessible to our readers around the world, in a free and online format, to include as many dialogue partners as possible—even those who could not gather in person in San Diego.

In addition, in our interViews section on the website, where we share examples of innovative practice and voices from the field, we are honored to share “Holi Toledo,” by Jeanine Diller and Ibtissam Gad, which captures and articulates how one campus community engages sustaining, fun, and inclusive inter-religious learning. Ahmed Albanai has provided images from the community’s event.

Finally, we close with an interview of dialogue pioneer Leonard Swidler, by Or Rose. In this conversation, Swidler reflects on his life and work, and offers reflections for current and emerging leaders in this field.

We organized this roundtable conversation, “Toward a Field of Interfaith Studies: Emerging Questions and Consideration,” at the 2014 AAR Annual Meeting in order to explore several theoretical questions raised by the emergence of this area of study as well as the practical implications of these questions. The conversation engaged scholars from diverse institutions (a public university, a theological school, and a private, religiously-affiliated liberal arts university, and the leader of a national non-profit focused on interfaith and higher education); in the conversation we sought to explore the following questions:

What should the field of interreligious and interfaith studies look like? What can we say about the research agenda, signature pedagogies, and learning outcomes that might emerge from this work?

Is this field interdisciplinary, and if so, what other disciplines might play a role in shaping the field? What does that mean for scholars of religion?

What posture should religious studies take to this emerging field? How is interreligious and interfaith studies different from or similar to already existing subfields in religious studies, such as comparative religions or comparative theology?

What follows is based on the comments that the four panelists gave for our roundtable discussion; their comments were followed by a lively conversation with the audience.

Despite the great deal of achievements seen in the field over the last two decades—which has been well documented by leading institutions like the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Religion and Peacebuilding Center, the University of Notre Dame Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and others—there are short comings and limitations that ought to be addressed. However, it should be emphasized that identifying these limitations or gaps is not a critique of USIP or the World Parliament of Religions, or Al-Azhar dialogue initiative, etc. These limitations exist across the board and are not associated with one specific organization, country or program.

This article focuses on some of the possible areas that the field of religious peacebuilding has yet to successfully address or explore, both in terms of research and practice. Specifically, four questions were identified in order to focus the discussion: 1) What are the main issues that the field has not examined in its practice and research? 2) What are some of the major future possible directions? 3) What are the cutting edge initiatives that are emerging, i.e. the “frontier work”? 4) How can the field of religion and peacebuilding be better integrated with other sectors in the larger field of peace and conflict resolution (PCR)? What follows is a discussion that speaks to these questions by identifying key issues and gaps within religion and peacebuilding.

The last decade has witnessed a significant increase in academic research on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD). Catherine Cornille’s 2013 Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue calls for a consolidation of the discussions on interreligious dialogue in a new way. Along those lines, other scholars have started to interrogate the power dynamics and meaningful systematic relations that underlie dialogical activities emerging as the result of an increased religious pluralism worldwide.

Against this background, the paper at hand focuses on what can be – in the widest sense – described as ‘sociological approaches’ to the analysis of interreligious dialogue – with a particular emphasis on the concerned discussion in Germany. Since 2010, three works have set a new tone in the German study of IRD by introducing three major themes:

  1. The usage of the concept of religion put forward by central actors in the field of interreligious dialogue.
  2. The framing of interreligious dialogue activities with regard to concepts of ‘religious pluralism.’
  3. The significance of conflict as a major concept in those debates.

The present article aims to follow this particular tradition. It asks the question to what extent an approach that treats IRD as a socio-cultural phenomenon can provide a contribution to the study of IRD in general.

Editors' note: This paper was part of the panel conversation on interreligious aesthetics; its author here shares her abstract, information about her forthcoming book, and additional resources for those interested in further study.

Religious texts and performances exert rhetorical force. They offer visions of reality, inspire emotional responses, and model behavioral transformations appropriate to those realities. They can exert these effects not only on the intended audience but on outsiders as well. India's aesthetic and religious traditions have a long and distinguished history of theorizing affect through the category of rasa. This paper argues that rasa is not only a descriptive category for the affective dimensions of religious experience across faith traditions, but it is also a theological category that assesses how such experiences mediate the divine.

After tracing the religious significance of rasa for Hindus, this presentation proposes that rasa bridges the gap between experience and critical reflection. Rasa theory elucidates how aesthetics mediate interreligious engagement--how, in other words, people can understand and appreciate one another through religious art, worship, and text. Rasa illuminates how persons connect on an intuitive, embodied, human level; but it also accounts for culturally specific layers of expression by analyzing the excitants, indiactors, and accompanying emotions of religious performances that might initially seem strange. Because rasa covers the range of human emotion, it also covers a range of religious experience. This work suggests that persons can understand the aesthetics and theology of another faith tradition if they become appreciative and cultured spectators (sahrdayas) of its religious emotions. Here we give examples of this phenomenon in relation to the religious dispositions of peace, love, and prophetic anger, and conclude with a note on the critical function of reflection on emotion.

Finally, the 2014 panel on "Aesthetics in Hindu-Christian Studies" will be published by the Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies in late November 2015. Their website is here.

While considerable research has gone into the Abrahamic faiths and their art, almost none has explored links among artisans in spiritual preparation for their artistic endeavors. This paper considers such links as may be found in ascetic practices of artisans, scribes, and craftsmen in preparation for their endeavors and the beliefs that such practices might impose on their future project, as well as divergences within those practices across the Abrahamic faiths. It is argued that in each of these faith traditions the customs and ascetic practices associated with particular artistic productions only follow the development of doctrinal rubrics and technical artistic requirements established by the receiving faith community by a considerable length of time; practical production and the doctrinal assessment of that production’s technical aspects preceded efforts to control how the item was produced, and by whom.

This paper examines the artwork of the contemporary Japanese painter Hiroshi Senju as a vehicle to explore how fissures within a religio-aesthetic concept like the sublime can provide productive openings for interreligious engagement. A focused study of Senju’s installation at the Shofuso Japanese House outside Philadelphia serves as a lens to view two different responses to the antagonistic excesses of the Western sublime, one from Japanese and Buddhist aesthetics and the other from Christian aesthetics. Considering further how Senju’s art mediates these two different perspectives, the paper claims that it provides a unique response to the problematics of the sublime, a response that envisions a peaceful sublime that sustains a participative relationship.

But how are we to conceive of this bridgework between traditions? Let me address this by referencing one of the chasms the bridge is meant to cross: experience and critical reflection. One paper in this panel suggests to me that Rasas, for the Hindu believer, carry the very same analytic weight that “critical reflection” does for a western thinker. Rasa is not simply a dimension of experience, it is clearly a reflective category, or even, a theological category, in the sense of proposing that such experiences count as tastes of the divine and anticipate the final experience of moksha. But it is reflective only from a certain perspective—in terms of, I would say, a specific “receptive imagination.”

In the past thirty years we have witnessed an increasing level of interconnectedness that makes both this panel and its topic quite relevant. Despite popular descriptions of this interconnectedness as making a “flat” world, I would argue that the conception of the world being flat implies a mode of thinking that is beholden to the twentieth century, where one moved between points on map. In this conception of the world, nations sought to be united, world wars were fought, and businesses strove to become “world-wide” in their operations. By contrast, in the society of the twenty-first century, we increasingly perceive our existence to be less that of moving across a flat surface than to be comprised of an increasing web of complex interconnections. We perceive our existence as global.

This change in perception from the worldwide to the global is accompanied by a shift in what it means to belong to such a society. At a time of instantaneous communication, at a time when anyone in this room can board a plane after this talk and disembark tomorrow on the other side of the planet, the degree to which we are interconnected has increased exponentially. Scholars such as Diana Eck have highlighted the new interreligious fabric of American society, where the world, so to speak, is next door. In such a society, we have different obligations to one another, to those we have yet to meet, and to the planet we all call home. We have moved from a society where a select few were considered citizens of the world while the rest stayed in place, to a framework where we are all interconnected global citizens. As such, we all bear responsibility to one another. A key aspect of this responsibility is the implied stewardship we therefore have for the health of our planet. The application of this stewardship to an interreligious context is a task to which many practitioners and scholars of religion have turned their collective efforts.

This paper explores the prospects for Christian-Muslim dialogue and cooperation regarding the ecological crisis, including the climate crisis, through a dialogical comparison of the work of two thoughtful leaders from these religious communities, Sallie McFague and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. McFague and Nasr, both born in 1933, have spent decades writing and speaking about the ecological crisis. Though they had opportunities to dialogue, they were unsuccessful in finding common ground. McFague’s postmodern eco-feminist perspective and Nasr’s traditionalist Muslim perspective are not easily reconcilable. This paper does not seek to conceal the apparent difficulties in negotiating the ideological obstacles between these two thinkers and the religious communities they represent, but seeks to show that such a negotiation is possible and worthwhile; substantial common ground can be established if we are willing to work through our differences.

Concerns of ecological degradation due to climate change encourage an interreligious dialogue that mutually reinforces the primary aim of each (sustainability) while also offering an opportunity for further expansion and critique. I employ a comparative theological method in order to place ecologically reconstructed understandings of the common good in Catholic social thought, as expressed by John Hart and Jame Schaefer, with ecologically reconstructed understandings of interdependence in Mahayana Buddhism, as articulated by Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hanh. In content and methodology, Buddhists and Catholics share significant common ground, yet engaging their differences generates new content for each. Buddhist interdependence affirms and stretches dimensions of a Catholic cosmic common good by making stronger calls to identify with non-human creatures. Each theologian’s vision is shaped by their personal work on justice and sustainability issues, demonstrating that interreligious ecological ethics must therefore be engaged in concrete issues and not merely be textual or academic.

Comparative theologians who want to address contemporary questions need to think about how their work will actually help those who want to actively engage religious traditions in giving answers that will help us to contribute to a better world; interfaith activists who want to be grounded in the faith traditions with which they work will need the results of comparative studies of these traditions in order for their proposed action to be fruitful. And again, some of us will want to work across religious boundaries in various ways at the same time, combining work in comparative theology, theology of religions, and interreligious studies. In fact, any worthwhile interreligious dialogue will need all of this.

Leonard Swidler is Founder and President of the Dialogue Institute, as well as Founding Editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. He is Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue in the Religion Department of Temple University. The author or editor of numerous scholarly and popular works, his recently published Dialogue for Interreligious Understanding: Strategies for the Transformation of Culture-Shaping Institutions (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015). Fittingly, this volume inaugurates Palgrave’s new book series in Interreligious Studies in Theory and Practice (ISTP). In this brief interview, Rabbi Or Rose, Co-Director of CIRCLE, and a member of the editorial committee of ISTP, invites Dr. Swidler to reflect on his pioneering work in the field of interreligious dialogue and the future of this evolving discipline.

In this brief essay, I outline several key components that I believe are essential to interreligious education for future American rabbis. Before delving into this discussion, however, it is important to state that there are some significant challenges to implementing a meaningful interreligious educational agenda into the contemporary rabbinical school curriculum. In speaking with administrators and faculty from several different seminaries, they repeatedly raise the issue of time. The existing curricula in all of the schools I am familiar with—across the denominational and nondenominational spectrum—are already very full. Further, in many of the non-Orthodox schools, students necessarily spend a great deal of time developing basic language and classical text skills, since they often enter these programs with limited prior Jewish learning. Where can one fit in courses in interfaith dialogue or comparative theology when already there is not enough time for Tanakh, Talmud, Halakhah, and the like? In speaking with students, another dimension of the time dilemma emerges: many of them come to rabbinical school after spending long periods in non-Jewish (mostly secular) environments, and they now seek a deep immersion in Jewish religious life for personal and professional growth. As such, they do not necessarily see engagement in interfaith educational activities as being crucial at this point in their journeys.

 

We open this issue of JIRS with an essay by Rabbi Or Rose of Hebrew College about the need for interreligious education in Rabbinical Schools. In arguing his case, Rose discusses the pedagogic foundations of this work and offers several brief curricular suggestions. In response to Rose’s essay, his co-directors at the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE, a joint venture of HC and Andover Newton Theological School), Dr. Jennifer Howe Peace and Celene Ibrahim-Lizzio, offer reflections on related dimensions of interreligious leadership in general, and for the Christian and Muslim communities specifically.

In an effort to extend the conversation about rabbinic education specifically, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College shares her thoughts on Rose’s piece, anchoring it in her many years of pioneering work implementing such programming at the RRC. Rounding out this forum is a response co-written by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Yael Shy about how the pedagogic elements discussed by Rose relate to their experience working on interreligious leadership education with undergraduates at New York University’s Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership.

In crafting this special section, we hope to engender further conversation about the nature of interreligious leadership as it emerges as a distinct vocational path and a subject of scholarly discussion.

To what extent is Christianity complicit in the genocide perpetrated by the Third Reich? What continuity exists between Christian teaching about alleged Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion and Nazi ideology? To what extent is such teaching discontinuous with it?

How, precisely, to assess the degree of Christian complicity is fraught with difficulty. Not surprisingly, Holocaust historians differ in their judgment about the extent of Christian responsibility. Quantification, however, is not the issue, as if continuity and discontinuity could be apportioned in a mathematical formula. The preponderance of evidence, however, reveals that Christian teaching—both in what was explicitly said and in what was left unsaid—bears considerable culpability for the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the larger context in which the Third Reich carried out genocide reveals other significant causes of the Shoah.

There are clearly many ways to address the issue of interfaith dialogue in an academic context. A first distinction may easily come when tackling the question: Why do we care about interfaith dialogue? The answers scholars, instructors, and students come up with may be very different. Among the most common is the consideration that our world is getting more and more diverse, and people are living in multireligious environments. We should therefore learn how to live together at our best and invest in social cohesion. Dialogue, then, has a very practical and communitarian aim. However, this is not the only answer one can give.

We are thus faced with a field approached with different aims, at different stages of personal growth, and in different ways. Whether we agree with the first reasoning or with the second or with both, it is clear that this “interfaith dialogue” people are interested in learning or that they feel may be relevant for their future activities is primarily concerned with concrete and necessary encounters with an “other” from a different faith community. It is therefore imperative to discuss what can be taught to these people and how.

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