Current Journal

In this issue, we are pleased to bring the work of a guest editor and collaborator, Whittney Barth, from the Pluralism Project. Founded and directed by Dr. Diana Eck, the Pluralism Project at Harvard University is a research and educational project that aims to study America’s increasingly diverse religious landscape and its implications for public life. For nearly 25 years, Pluralism Project researchers have been documenting the changing contours of cities and towns—the establishment of new mosques and temples, the growth of interfaith efforts, and the development of complex controversies—drawn anew by immigration trends of the last several decades.

Although the case method is rarely used in religious studies or interfaith education, it is a proven pedagogical tool which can help us engage with both the problems and promise of pluralism. The Pluralism Project's newest case study, "A Call to Prayer," describes the divisions that emerge over the broadcast of the call to prayer in Hamtramck, Michigan. This case invites us to consider "what is at stake?" for the city council president, the diverse Muslim communities, interfaith leaders, as well as those who oppose the broadcast. Case studies provide a unique opportunity to practice, rather than theorize about, pluralism.

Recent interfaith scholarship has noted the influence of non-religious identities and other external ecological factors on the participation and experiences of individuals in interfaith work. This study builds on this recent literature to examine the mesosystemic factors, and the interfaith participant’s faith community in particular, as they influence interfaith participation. Utilizing case study interviews, we consider the experiences of immigrant/minority faith community members in interfaith work as contrasted with the experiences of non-immigrant/majority faith community members. Implications of this research for interfaith practice will briefly be considered.

Transforming communities through the power of relationships is a process that requires a great deal of thought and work. Shifting the way we communicate allows us to hold constructive conversations that honor differences and build on commonalities. NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change constructs opportunities for Muslims and Jews to work through conflict instead of allowing disagreement to characterize the larger communal relationship. Conflict resolution tools applicable to life in a pluralistic society help participants see the value of connecting with the other to build on areas of common concern.

Local interfaith efforts often cite “relationship building” as a core, if not primary goal. Many engaged in these efforts filter this commitment to relationship building through a lens of pluralism, a strategy for responding to religious diversity. In what ways does interfaith activity that foregrounds the importance of relationships engage in a process of place-making, both imaginatively and physically? This article explores this theme, drawing from several examples from different U.S. cities and putting them in conversation with select scholarship on place and place-making from perspectives within religious studies, education, and geography.

Preparing students for citizenship in a diverse society whose members hold deeply conflicting worldviews and religious beliefs is an essential task of civic education in a democratic society. This article asserts that the dominant emphasis in the United States on free expression and civil discourse is insufficient for this task. When applied to lightning rod issues, such as sexual orientation, this approach fails to acknowledge structural inequities in the marketplace of ideas and does not require meaningful mutual respect for differing perspectives. To fully prepare students, educators also should promote an additional norm, religious pluralism as understood by Diana Eck.

Religious pluralism is a contested discourse that has been subject to much criticism for its complicity with American economic and military imperialism. Yet liberal pluralism discourses have remained largely unmarred by critics of pluralism’s disciplinary power. This essay probes the source of communication breakdown between organizations that advocate pluralism—such as the Pluralism Project and the Interfaith Youth Core—and pluralism’s critical analysts in Ethnic Studies, Subaltern Studies, and Religious Studies. I theorize pluralism as both affective economy and philosophy of history, wherein the past is marked by discord and the future is a happy reconciliation under the auspices of the U.S. nation-state. I argue that when we accept as natural the terms on which mainstream pluralism discourse is constructed—the primacy of the nation-state, the concept of “world religions,” the possibility of redemption in linear time, the self-contained individual subject—other configurations of difference and power are rendered not only invisible, but even unthinkable. Critics who interrogate pluralism on the basis of its structural underpinnings and aim to “include,” instead of in terms of who is still excluded, are fully illegible to its liberal discourse. This illegibility of pluralism’s strongest critics raises again the question: If pluralism’s champions are still unable to fathom the concerns of their critics, of what “pluralism” do we speak?

The Pluralism Project began twenty-five years ago as a research project, investigating the many ways in which America's religious landscape has changed with the renewed period of immigration launched 50 years ago this year, in 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationalities Act. This issue of the Journal of Interreligious Studies brings together several perspectives on pluralism, each of which raises important issues, drawing for the most part from research in on-the-ground studies. This gives me the opportunity to reflect on the roots of the Pluralism Project, why it began, and what are the problems and the promise of this research.

The Global Interreligious Leadership degree is designed to help current and future religious and communal leaders—clergy, educators, chaplains, and activists—develop the knowledge and skills to serve effectively in an age of unprecedented interaction among people with different beliefs and practices. Students in the program can be enrolled primarily at either institution, but will interact extensively with students in the parallel program at the other school, creating together a vibrant and lasting interreligious cohort.

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:

The usage of the concept of religion put forward by central actors in the field of interreligious dialogue.

The framing of interreligious dialogue activities with regard to concepts of ‘religious pluralism.’

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.”

Join The Discussion

You can participate in discussions of all Journal articles that we publish. Click Discuss this article and add your voice to the dialogue.