Inter-religious understanding and debate, once neglected within the academic study of theology and religion, has acquired a political significance that is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future, with the result that it will require substantial and sustained scholarly engagement and investment for the long-term.
The focus of the current issue of Political Theology (13.4) is religious pluralism, and inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Overlooked and marginalised for too long in the academic study of theology and religion – where the ‘big beasts’ of the discourse have tended to be scholars pre-occupied with intra-religious concerns, and where expertise in religions in the plural has been frequently regarded as stretching yourself too thinly – such studies are slowly assuming an academic importance commensurate with the geopolitical significance of religion.
To state the obvious, religion’s role in our world is profound but deeply ambivalent: too often a cause of intolerance and conflict, and a threat to peace and security. Religion mixed with politics creates a potent cocktail with long-lasting toxic after-effects. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that religions are widely perceived as the equivalent of a persistent migraine, rather than the universal panacea they are claimed to be by their adherents. In a guest editorial, ‘Challenges of Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation Today’, Professor Paul Knitter of Union Theological Seminary, New York – who has devoted his academic career to advancing the understanding of religious pluralism – sets out in four theses how religiously motivated hatred and conflict must be tackled by the world religions:
- Unless the religions are part of the solution, they will continue to be part of the problem;
- The religions must be part of the solution together, not separately;
- To be part of the solution religions must confront why they are part of the problem;
- One of the key reasons why religions are so easily exploited for purposes of hatred and violence is because each religion makes claims to be “superior” over all the others.
Knitter argues for a rejection of all claims to superiority by religions and more egalitarian models of relating between religious groups.
The political problem of religion is not going to go away anytime soon. Religious intolerance and aggression continue to pose a serious challenge to our shared existence. Scholars of religion can and must play a role within global responses to this challenge. The importance and potential impact of such scholarly engagement is amply demonstrated by the fact that Knitter’s text is based on his address to the United Nations General Assembly on the theme of ‘Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace’.
Essays follow on the encounter between Islam and Christianity, the world’s two largest faith communities whose followers comprise half the population of the globe. Richard McCallum examines responses by Evangelical Christians to ‘A Common Word Between Us’ – an open letter published in October 2007 by a number of prominent Muslim religious leaders and addressed to all Christian leaders. The document urges better understanding between Muslims and Christians, and calls for recognition of the common ground that exists between the faiths and cooperation in the quest for peaceful co-existence. In the intervening years the open letter has inspired a number of initiatives and follow-up activities aimed at promoting dialogue between the faiths (see the official website of the Common Word initiative: www.acommonword.com). McCallum finds that among evangelical groups there have been mixed responses to the Common Word initiative, some welcoming and others hostile, and that these responses are revealing not only of fraught Christian-Muslim relations, but of the theological disagreements and ecclesiological tensions that exist within the evangelical movement itself. Silas Allard examines the shared scriptural inheritance of Christians and Muslims and, in particular, the traditions of hospitality preserved in these holy texts. Allard argues that these traditions of hospitality provide a fertile ground for promoting political dialogue between the faiths in a variety of aspects of American public life, including in the financial sector. In ‘Rowan Williams’s Shari’a Lecture: Law, Love, and the Legacy of the Enlightenment’, Frederiek Depoortere assesses the Archbishop of Canterbury’s controversial public lecture of 2008 and defends Williams’ positive assessment of the potential contribution of Shari’a law within the British legal system.
Turning to Jewish-Christian relations, Rev. John Pawlikowski, Professor of Social Ethics at Catholic Theological Union, renowned for his scholarship in and promotion of Jewish-Christian dialogue, indicates the lack of serious attention paid to the post-holocaust discourse between Jews and Christians in the field of Christian and particularly Catholic ethics. Christian ethicists of all denominational stripes need to pay more attention to the ways in which Christianity’s story is forever intertwined with Jewish history and culture, and how Christian history has scarred the Jewish people. Lenn E. Goodman, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, whose expertise includes Jewish and Islamic philosophy, closes this special issue with his essay on ‘Religious Pluralism’, in which he considers humankind’s individual and social responsibilities in light of the de facto religious diversity and pluralism that characterise our world. Goodman states:
… I see the boundaries of religious toleration today not between theism and atheism but between religions that open up the soul and those that tend to cut off its air and stymie its growth. Pluralism is of moment here, because it demands respect for individuals and their traditions. But the same warrant sets the limits that keep pluralism from declining into indiscriminate endorsement or dismissal… In an age when even venerable religious bodies can be havens of exploitation and abuse, personal wisdom and public good sense will be gauged by the success of religious and secular individuals and communities in distinguishing ways of life and thought that open windows from those that close doors.
One might say, in a pluralistic world where co-existence is a necessity, our shared future depends upon the capacity of religions and their adherents to turn the page rather than burn the book.
Table of contents
Challenges of Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation Today
Love: A Common Word between Evangelicals and Muslims?
In the Shade of the Oaks of Mamre: Hospitality as a Framework for Political Engagement between Christians and Muslims
Silas Webster Allard
Rowan Williams’s Shari’a Lecture: Law, Love, and the Legacy of the Enlightenment
The Significance of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue and Holocaust Studies for Catholic Ethics
John Thaddeus Pawlikowski
Lenn Evan Goodman