Interreligious Theological Conversation at Harvard

Cambridge, MA. Readers of my blog not infrequently comment kindly that my reports are interesting and that the issues I raise, as I raise them, must surely ring true in an academic setting – but not in the wider community, larger world, where more down to earth direct dialogue is needed. This is all true, I am sure, but opportunities do arise for direct encounters and conversations across religious boundaries, and sometimes the university is the best setting. As you know, I am currently Director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, and in my second year now, I have been gradually shaping a direction for the Center (even while allowing a thousand flowers – other people’s initiatives – to bloom as well). It involves fostering intereligious theological conversations. An instance of this was a conference I sponsored this weekend, “Doing Theology Interreligiously: the Hindu-Christian Case.” Here is part of the public announcement we sent out:

“CSWR announces, as the first in a proposed series of interreligious theological conversations, a Hindu-Christian theological seminar on Friday and Saturday, September 16-17, 2011. This seminar, along with the proposed series to which it belongs, explores the possibility of theological conversation across religious boundaries on issues of theological substance. In addition to expected concerns about method and the protocols of dialogue, the goal is movement toward substantive theological exchange on matters of recognizable importance to conversation partners from several traditions, even if the framing of any given issue will vary from tradition to tradition. The seminar is open to academic discourse about these theologies and about instructive historical examples, but is not confined to second-order observation. It welcomes as well first-order ‘insider’ discourse, theologians speaking on issues of common concern from and to some extent for one or another of the traditions involved.


“Framing such conversations as theological is indebted to (Western) Christian understandings of theology; some initial categories of content — scripture and revelation, grace, liberation and salvation, etc. – are likewise drawn largely from Christian sources. But key to the project is the argument that theology is a legitimately broader category marking a certain kind of intellectual religious practice evident in a much wider range of traditions as well. This seminar has as one of its major goals the substantive introduction into theological inquiry of guiding categories arising in other traditions.

“The opening session on September 16 offers a general exposition of the project, with introductory remarks by Frank Clooney (Harvard) and further comments by Brian Hatcher (Tufts). We then turn to a first example of this conversation, an exchange between Graham Schweig (Christopher Newport) and Frank, based on their current research projects on the meaning of the absence and presence - arrival and departure, visibility and hiddenness - of God as a scriptural and theological topic and matter of experience.

“During the Saturday session of the seminar (which included also Mark Heim [Andover Newton], Srilata Raman [Toronto] and Deepak Sarma [Case Western]), more specialized papers highlight both historical and theoretical issues. Time is devoted to several constructive instances of Hindu theology and of older Christian reflections on Hindu theology, and to how narrowly we should think of “theology” today.

“CSWR envisions future such conversations, involving other traditions (Muslim-Christian, Hindu-Buddhist, etc.), either in distinct conversations appropriate to those traditions and their histories, or as further stages of this first conversation.”

Thus the plan. In fact – looking back at the conference today (Sunday), the day after — I think that the conference was a successful event, yet one that leaves us with much to do. On Friday, for the open session, we had about 60-70 people present. Our discussion – two of our visiting professors spoke, though I had much – too much? – to say in getting us started. As indicated in the description above, my hope was to make the case that theology matters and is necessary even in academic circles, and that a necessary and valuable form of dialogue is that between theologians in different traditions. For I do believe that there are Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim and Jewish theologians; the dynamics of “faith seeking understanding” occur in different religions, even if we must quickly add that not all theologies are the same.

For the smaller Saturday session, we were about 15, half and half professors and graduate students. In this small setting, the personal interactions among the participants, some Hindu, some Christian, were key. Some of us were already friends, others quickly became friends. The four sessions on Saturday – based on previously distributed papers -  got us into some historical examples of Hindu and Christian theological reflection across the religious border between the traditions, and a contemporary case of what exactly it means to say that Lord Visnu’s providence cannot be contested, and everything we do is by his will alone, in accord with our accumulated karma. This is a teaching of the Madhva Vedanta Hindu tradition of south India. Part of this discussion, unsurprisingly, had to do with figuring out if the Madhva theological debate is similar to the long-term one in the West about free will and predestination. No surprise: similar in some ways, not in others. The very first paper reflected on the diversity of Christian understandings of “theology,” with a good sense that we certainly do not, should not, mean that people in other religions need to do theology the way Christians have done it in the past century. There are rich premodern understandings of theology that can and serve us well in this century, and some of these will make better sense of people in various religious traditions.

We enjoyed all these conversations, but at the end of the day, we were tired enough that it was a relief to end our formal sessions and head for dinner. We realized that we have much more to do, since we only began to have interreligious theological conversation, even just among a few Hindus and Christians. Even this same group would do well to meet again, even as we would do well to plan and hope for other such conversations involving many other traditions.

My main feelings at the end of the day were two. First, while admitting that such small events do not grab headlines and may seem a luxury in today’s world, they are absolutely necessary. There is so much mindless spouting of religious sentiments, protestations of faith by believers who seem unable to respect anyone else’s faith, that we are surely better off if we have even small groups dedicated to very careful interreligious study and conversation. We cannot change the flow of history this way, but we can stand against religious and interreligious fear, ignorance, and deafness. If we have universities let us use them well.

Second, regardless of how hard we still have to work to make such conversations a regular event, this kind of theology — cooperative across religious borders, involving theologians not just of one but several traditions together — will become an ordinary way of doing theology. Not everyone will do it or even approve of the idea. But in the future, some theologies will be solely within a tradition, while other theologies, even if firmly Christian or Hindu, will be ordinarily and every day deeply interreligious.

We hope to post at our website the audio-tape of the opening event soon. (And hey, if you are on Facebook, become our friend, our fan!)


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 4 months ago
What a wonderful and good thing you are doing.  (I became a Facebook Fan!)


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