Interreligious Dialogue Reconsidered: Learning from and Responding to Critique and Change
Sheetz-Willard, Julia, Faaland, Per, Mays, Rebecca, Ilic, Angela, Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Interreligious dialogue has come into its own as an academic and activist enterprise over the past decade. Once an esoteric endeavor on the edges of "legitimate" religious studies or an occasional activity on the part of visionary local religious leaders and communities, interreligious dialogue is now being actively promoted by the likes of Tony Blair, Karen Armstrong, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and President Barack Obama. However, the practice and scholarship around present-day interfaith dialogue did not emerge full-blown from the rubble of the Twin Towers or the White House Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In the West, it is a movement that had its beginnings more than a century ago, with a handful of scholars who have laid the theoretical groundwork in earnest since at least the 1960's. The purpose of this jointly authored essay is to look at the life work of one of the most prolific of these scholars, Professor Leonard Swidler of Temple University, as an example of this early--and continuing--work in the field. The authors analyze the historical and theoretical underpinnings of the model for dialogue advocated by Swidler and examine its fruitfulness as a resource for building the future of global interfaith scholarship and activism.
This analysis, like all scholarship, comes from a particular, interested perspective. In this case the interest is significant--the co-authors all work closely with Leonard Swidler, as staff members and graduate students involved in the work of the Dialogue Institute that he founded at Temple. This article is part of a larger project studying the history and contemporary landscape of interreligious scholarship and activism. The key question in the present work is this: How can the work of pioneering figures such as Swidler be both appreciated and reshaped for a new generation of interfaith scholars and activists?
1. Roots of Interreligious Dialogue (Julia Sheetz-Willard)
This initial section lays out the central features of early interreligious dialogue work in Swidler's U.S. Roman Catholic Christian context, assessing its philosophical, theological, and historical benchmarks and influences and the particular avenues through which this work has been influential.
A. Philosophical Underpinnings
Early scholarship in the interreligious field, as typified by Swidler's body of work, emerged at a very particular theoretical and historical moment. It is important to see some of the elements that intersected to make this endeavor both possible and compelling. First, interreligious dialogue, as Swidler's scholarship makes clear was, as it emerged in that time and place, a thoroughly modernist project. In his major work, After the Absolute, he explores how the post-Enlightenment deabsolutizing of the notion of truth makes dialogue both possible and necessary. (1) Over the past two centuries, the sense that truth was static, unchanging, and absolute has given way to a more relational, dynamic understanding. From a variety of disciplines, a reframing has emerged, with six key elements. Swidler delineates this as an understanding that truth is: (1) historical, (2) intentional, (3) perspectival, (4) language-limited, (5) interpretive, and (6) dialogic.
These changes arose from a series of paradigm shifts. In the nineteenth century, scholars came to see that all statements about truth, especially about the meaning of things, were shaped by the thought-worlds of their historical contexts. For some scholars, indeed, this awareness arose out of embodied experience; as they studied and lived in other cultures and came to know, firsthand, both the teachings and the practitioners of those cultures' religions, they began to question traditional truth-claims. Texts and doctrines could no longer be regarded as conveying universal meaning--they had to be understood in light of the context of their historical situation. …