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Interreligious/Interfaith Studies: Defining a New Field
Date Reviewed: January 18, 2019
During a job interview over a decade ago for a position in Christian theology, I mentioned how I incorporate non-Christian texts when teaching Christology (the study of Christ). One member on the committee was nonplussed, demanding an explanation. A rare occurrence then, it would be quite shocking now, as the emerging field of interreligious (or interfaith) studies is becoming more common. What exactly, though, are its methods, aims, definition, scope, areas of expertise, value, strengths, and limitations? Judged by the slash in this book’s title, much still needs to be formulated. This collection of eighteen essays (and an introduction by the editors) provides a solid foundation for furthering such attempts. The book is the fruit of a 2016 conference at California Lutheran University. Part One maps the field, and here the diversity of US colleges and universities augment the breadth and flexibility of definitions provided. Most contributors to this book prefer the term “interreligious” over “interfaith” (I prefer the latter, but much depends on how you define faith and religious).
A strong current in the essays is pragmatic: seeing the benefits an interfaith pedagogy can bring to a range of disciplines in the humanities – raising the profile of religious studies, and religious literacy, more generally. Some contributors in Part One, however, seem constricted by the academy’s theology / religious studies debate and argue about where interfaith / interreligious studies best belong, an argument that requires one to believe in the rigidity of such departmental boundaries in the first place.
Part Two examines interfaith pedagogical philosophies and specific curricula. Professors and future educators (at all levels) will benefit from how the contributors employ specific texts, classroom activities, and assignments. I am already thinking of how I can use some of these ideas in my World Religions module; for example, adding a more expansive sensorial list of preparatory questions for students before they visit religious sites and places of significance.
Part Three focuses on the challenges and benefits this field provides for students and educators; for example, how studying anti-racist approaches or ecological issues through an interfaith lens develops a more expansive, nuanced picture, while also encouraging deeper interfaith participation and engagement. Finally, Part Four (my favorite section overall) presents the value of interfaith studies beyond the classroom, with essays on its positive impact for religious leaders, for those in prisons, for those seeking to enhance secular careers (because of their multifaith literacy) – and civically in promoting a truly interfaith and pluralist society. On this last note, Dublin (my adopted hometown as a New Yorker) was the first major city to publish an interfaith charter. This book, however, is US-focussed (or limited, depending on one’s view): it could seem to the uninitiated that the field is primarily of relevance to the United States. Hopefully a second volume is planned to expand the focus beyond the confines of the fifty states, and not just to Europe, but globally.
By the way, in 2019 (and beyond), if anyone is asked how to teach Christology (or a similar topic), I suggest you bring in as many faith-positions as possible – that is where the fields of theology and religious studies are heading.
Teaching Interreligious Encounters
Date Reviewed: January 22, 2018
As many of the contributors to Teaching Interreligious Encounters point out, interactions with people of diverse religious commitments are becoming more frequent in the workplace, in civic affairs, and in many neighborhoods. Consequently, there is a need to help individuals develop the attitudes and aptitudes that will enable them to conduct those encounters in an informed, respectful, and personally satisfying fashion. This volume argues that education, particularly in the undergraduate classroom, can make a substantial contribution to preparing individuals to understand and participate effectively in a religiously diverse society. To that end, the contributors offer an array of resources, comments on course and assignment design, and concrete strategies to show students how to conduct themselves in and learn from “interreligious encounters.”
Precisely what is entailed in such encounters and how they are to be enacted and understood receive a variety of answers throughout the book. At times, whatever lines might separate interfaith engagement from interreligious encounters, and either from comparative theology, and all of them from comparative religion do not appear in sharp focus. Some authors appear to use at least several of those terms as rough equivalents, while others strive to define their terms very clearly. For example, Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer propose that “interfaith or interreligious studies is concerned primarily with the interactions between lived religious and nonreligious actors and communities” (300). Thus, they differentiate it from “comparative religions, comparative theology, and world religions” which they see as being less concerned with actual relationships and interactions. But several contributors cite with approval Francis Clooney’s statement that comparative theology “entails the interpretation of the meaning and truth of one’s own faith by means of a critical investigation of other faiths” (see 45), which would bring it closer to Patel and Meyer’s understanding of interfaith and interreligious studies.
How to construct courses, course modules, and individual assignments to promote what Patel and Meyer call “interfaith literacy” receives a lot of attention. Joshua Brown, for example, describes and analyzes a course on political theology that uses examples from Christianity and Chinese religions. Jonathan Edelman provides a detailed consideration of the Bhagavad Gita as a theological text. Other authors focus more on pedagogical strategies. In one of the more interesting contributions, Devorah Schoenfeld and Jeanine Diller describe how they use the Jewish process of hevruta to encourage students to disagree with each other in their interpretations of texts while still remaining in conversation, recognize disagreements within and among religions, and value interreligious disagreement. Emily Sigalow and Wendy Cadge make a clear and strong case for the value of using case studies in teaching about interreligious encounters, something that several other contributors also mention.
Most of the contributions emphasize that students can learn something personally valuable and meaningful from studying and especially participating in interactions with people who have religious commitments different than their own. This volume offers a rich set of suggestions about how to design and structure such learning opportunities.