Interreligious Dialogues in Academe: Elite, Real, Open-ended

Cambridge, MA. Several blogs ago, I promised that I would say something about recent events at CSWR (the Center for the Study of World Religions, which I direct) and Harvard during Interfaith Week and the days around it. As I suggested in that previous blog, most of our events were not directly connected with the university’s marking of the week – we are always doing this and that – but in any case we had many events going on. Here is a list, after which I will pose a question about it:

1. A program co-sponsored with the Pluralism Project, on “The Meaning of Common Ground in Interfaith Dialogue,” with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Humanist speakers;


2. A lunchtime conversation by and for our graduate students, on “interreligious disagreement in the classroom;”

3. Professor Sébastien Tutenges, from the University of Aarhus, Denmark, lecturing on “The Road of Excess: From Durkheim's Theory of Religious Experience to Bataille's Accursed Share,” a report on his research into youthful excess and experimentation as elementary forms of religious life, with reference to contemporary nightlife resorts, music festivals, drug use, and risk taking;

4. A two-day colloquium, co-sponsored by CSWR and Ministry Studies, on the Interfaith Master of Divinity degree — on how the MDiv, traditionally a degree preparatory for ordination in a Christian tradition, is now also being taken by students of other faith traditions; we had visitors in town from other divinity schools (Union Theological Seminary, Hartford Seminary, University of Chicago, Claremont School of Theology, and Seattle University, as well as our neighbor Andover-Newton School of Theology) for this event on the practical, theological and formative dimensions of this new phenomenon;

5. Professor John Thatamanil, from Union Theological Seminary, giving a lecture, for the Harvard Divinity School Society for Comparative Theology, on “The Promise of Religious Diversity: Comparative Theology After Religion;”

6. A small group gathering of Harvard faculty and students, and visitors from neighboring institutions, for a conversation with Professor Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (University of Lancaster, UK), his book project, “God, Self and Being: constructive theology from two commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita;”

7. For our ongoing series of lectures entitled “Intellectual Worlds of Meditation,” a lecture by Swami Tyagananda of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society on From the Unreal to the Real: Reflections on Vedantic Meditation;”

8. Professor Julia Watts Belser, visiting scholar in the HDS Women’s Study in Religion Program, speaking on “Feasting, Fasting, and Famine: Talmudic Disaster Tales and Feminist Food Ethics,” an event we hosted at CSWR;

9. A Boston Theological Institute sponsored event at HDS – which I had to miss — on "Mission in the World of 1812: Trade, War, and Religion'" celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Judson missionary initiative.

I could go on – e.g., this week, for instance, we are hosting an evening session on “Divination: Communicating with Divine Universal Energies,” with Chief Babalawo Oluwole Ifakunle Adetutu Alagbede, professional diviner, ceremonial officiant, and chief priest of the Ile Omo Ope shrine in New York City; and I am heading over to Boston University for a conversation with Thomas Thangaraj, a professor visiting from South India, on “Theology in the Vernacular: the case of South Indian Tamil.” And still later in the week, we will be hosting a lecture on the decline of the school of logic in late medieval India. And so on.

So that’s the list, and sorry if you missed them all! (You are always welcome at CSWR when in the Harvard area.)

But the question is: What does all this tell us about interreligious diversity and dialogue and theology from a Roman Catholic perspective? I can’t go into detail here, but certain general features occur to me. For the sake of clarity and brevity, let me make another list:

1. CSWR is at HDS at Harvard, and so is a kind of academic hot-house, ivory tower, etc. But what happens in academe is real and can be deeply religious in its significance, and pertains to all of us. There are boundaries between dialogue and the academic study of religions, but they are permeable. I admit that most dialogue is not an academic affair, but there are real and necessary dimensions of dialogue that are deeply and importantly academic.

2. Interreligious learning is many things on many levels, and these days rarely takes so simple a form as “Hinduism and Christianity” or “Buddhism and Judaism,” etc. All the many topics listed above open up dialogue in much more specific ways.

3. While there is and should be a specifically Roman Catholic perspective on dialogue, it is not separable from a broader range of Christian perspectives. Interreligious dialogue flows back and forth with ecumenical dialogue among Christians.

4. The work of dialogue and interreligious learning is, among other things, an educational practice. It is not always simple, nor immediately understood and intuitively clear. It is hard work. It requires hard thinking, over time, as well as spiritual discipline. There is no use talking about it unless one participates in it, over a time, and with a willingness to be educated and to learn something new.

5. While we who are Roman Catholic can have solid and stable starting points and perspectives – in Christ, in the Church – none of us gets to decide on our own what it all means, no one controls it; and none of us is in a position actually to understand it all. Nor are we near the end of interreligious dialogue; it is only at its beginning.

6. In the end: the dialogue, inside and outside academe, is not only or primarily a Catholic enterrprise: but if those of us who are Catholic participate, we will see it and do it through Catholic eyes, benefiting the Church and the many communities around us as well.

There is so much to be learned and understood. If Harvard even unintentionally also plays a role and contributes to the Catholic understanding of dialogue and the meaning of Christ, all the better.


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