Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

In Quest of the Religious Sources of Toleration in the Academy

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

In Quest of the Religious Sources of Toleration in the Academy

Article excerpt

Where can we hope to begin the work of finding in religion sources for amity rather than enmity? To date, interfaith dialogue has proved difficult for believers to mount within the framework of church and synagogue groups. They lack the intellectual equipment, the learning, the analytical categories, so different people talk about different things to different people, intersecting nowhere, with no resulting shared discourse. If not in churches, synagogues, and mosques, then where? The academy defines the ideal venue for the quest for the religious sources of toleration, since here we join concrete knowledge with conviction concerning modes of thought, rationality, and reason, which we conceive that we share with everybody. What defines the university is the aspiration to frame a common discourse, made possible through rules of reason that govern all and make possible shared discourse: different people talking about the same things in the same ways. Hence, we may hope to form a different sort of knowledge of religion, one that uncovers and places on display the sources of religious toleration, in learned rebuke to those who in our day draw upon the sources of religious intolerance.

How are we to proceed, and where shall we look for the path beyond interfaith conflict that forms today's counterpart to the Northwest passage of old, the route from Europe west to China? We have to begin where we are, in the world we shape. We define ourselves as scholars of religion, not only of religions. The university defines our setting: We are scholars, persons of learning and rationality and reason. That makes us particular, imposing a special task, a distinctive obligation: not learning in general but learning as we pursue it within the academy. Rather than speak in large and general categories, let me narrow the discussion to the real world in which those of us who conduct the study of religion in universities do our work. We represent a remarkable resource for the formation of a body of ideas and attitudes that, all together, may bear within themselves the power to change minds and reshape emotions.

We teach young people about religion and give them some concrete notion of what religion is and does - not only the religion in which they have been raised (if any) but also the religions of other people here and elsewhere. Not only do we teach but we also write articles and books, talk with reporters and give lectures, and thereby shape the intellectual life of our day - not necessarily by persuading people we are right in what we write but by defining the agenda of public discourse about religion. Finally, we enjoy that privileged sanctuary of reason and civility that does not always flourish beyond the borders of the campus. We have the wherewithal of learning and the opportunity of sharing what we know. We enjoy the privilege of a life of comfort and security, standing, and public resonance with our ideas. Thus, ours is the challenge to be worthy of our opportunity, the challenge of thinking about matters in a fresh way.

In that context, what can the academic study of religion contribute to the cartography of religious toleration within the geography of religion - the search for the elusive passage? Specifically, how do I propose that, within the academic study of religion, we begin to reshape the way in which people perceive religious difference and learn to understand, respect, and accept that difference for what it is, in proportion and in balance? Scholarship, teaching, and the shape of future learning define the categories of these simple, concrete proposals:

1. Scholarship: All study of religion must find its task in comparison and contrast, so that difference will emerge at the very foundations of learning about religion. The stake that we who study religion have in interfaith dialogue proves formidable, for, in the end, we cannot do our work well without the encounter beyond the frontiers of our learning. …

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