The Study of Religion and Interreligious Dialogue

By Swidler, Leonard | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Study of Religion and Interreligious Dialogue


Swidler, Leonard, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


There are myriad "definitions" of religion. Rather than wade through that "swamp," here is offered a relatively "simple" description: "Religion is an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly, based on a notion and experience of the Transcendent." (1) It normally contains the four "C's": Creed, Code, Cult, Community-structure.

"Creed" refers to the cognitive aspect of a religion; it is everything that goes into the "explanation" of the ultimate meaning of life. "Code" of behavior or ethics includes all the rules and customs of action that somehow follow from one aspect or another of the creed. "Cult" means the ritual activities that relate the follower to one aspect or other of the transcendent, either directly or indirectly, prayer being an example of the former and certain formal behavior toward representatives of the transcendent, such as priests, of the latter. "Community-structure" refers to the relationships among the followers; this can vary widely, from a very egalitarian relationship, as among Quakers, through a "republican" structure as Presbyterians have, to a monarchical one, as with some Hasidic Jews vis-a-vis their Rebbe. The "Transcendent," as the roots of the word indicate, means "that which goes beyond" the everyday, the ordinary, the surface experience of reality. It can mean spirits, gods, a Personal God, an Impersonal God, Emptiness, etc.

Especially in modern times there have been developed "explanations of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly" that are not based on a notion of the transcendent, for example, atheistic Marxism or secular humanism. Although in every respect these "explanations" function as religions traditionally have in human life, because the idea of the transcendent, however it is understood, plays such a central role in religion, but not in these "explanations," for the sake of accuracy it is best to give these "explanations" not based on a notion of the transcendent a separate name; the name often used is: "ideology."

For the most part, the study of "religion" was done from the perspective of the religion of the teacher/student. Thus, there was Christian "theology," Muslim kalam, etc. After the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in the West and the subsequent development of the "critical" science of history, and then the various social sciences (sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc.) in the course of the nineteenth century, the "scientific" study of religion (Religionswissenschaft) was born--Max Muller being recognized as its "Grandfather"--in its last quarter.

The study of religion largely continued in departments of theology, and equivalents, in religiously related universities for the rest of the nineteenth century and more than half of the twentieth century. When religions other than the "home" religion (in the West, almost always Christianity) were studied and taught, it was almost inevitably by a Christian theologian. This began to change when Temple University became a state-related university, divested itself of its Divinity School, and established its Department of Religion in 1964 (other state universities, for example, the University of Iowa, had developed various symbioses with religious bodies in the teaching about religion). Temple University's Department of Religion pioneered a new way to study and teach about religion, namely, by gathering professors who were critical scholars of the religions they were teaching about, in addition to professors whose approach was more Religionswissenschaft. Thus, the world's religions were studied/taught by critical scholars who knew the religion from "the inside" and "the outside."

One can begin here to discern the differences between the study of and teaching about religion via one of the various forms of Religionswissenschaft on the one hand, and studying and perhaps experiencing interreligious dialogue on the other.

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