The term “Interreligious Studies” is a relatively new one within academia, but one that is becoming frequently employed. Its basic meaning refers to studies involving two or more religious traditions or groups; however, it can bear a number of different connotations within this broad area. For instance, it is often seen linked to the term “Intercultural Theology,” a term that usually refers to recent development within ecumenics and mission studies where emphasis moves from mission as conversion toward developing an inculturated theology and dialogue with the religious other. In this context, although stressing the Religious Studies context rather than the theological, it may carry a theological tone where study between religions for mutual enrichment is key. However, this is not its only usage, and it may refer to the study of different religions in meeting, encounter, and activism. Here, a more “secular” than theological concern may be involved based in, for instance, a sociological exploration of the role of different religious traditions in social inclusion, or activism around issues like the environment. Another area that may be of concern in Interreligious Studies, and where, probably, the most common usage of “interreligious” on its own is found, is as an alternative or synonym to “interfaith” in the phrase Interreligious/Interfaith Dialogue. This preview of three sample areas may suggest a variety of different usages, and this is indeed the case, however, this does not make the term too broad. Across its various usages, Interreligious Studies often tends to imply more than simply a study of two or more religions, but is about studying the dynamic encounter and interaction between them. This may involve hermeneutics, dialogue, historical encounters, or other areas; moreover there is normally an interest in the meaningful growth, enrichment, and benefit gained in this. Much of its focus will be on modern and contemporary issues; however, for particular scholars historical studies may be the focus.
Given its broad usage and general intentions, Interreligious Studies has a certain affinity with a number of other academic growth areas, particularly Intercultural Theology (referred to above), Comparative Theology, Comparative Religion, and studies in such areas as the Theology of Religions, Multiple or Dual Religious Belonging, and Interfaith Dialogue and Relations. It may, therefore, be seen, in some ways, as an interface between a more traditionally secular Religious Studies discipline, and a more traditionally confessional theological discipline. It is certainly a multidisciplinary enterprise employing historical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, philosophical, and other tools; in this regard, it stands clearly in the tradition of Religious Studies, perhaps as a more engaged aspect of Comparative Religion. However, it can be seen as something more, standing neither in Theology per se, nor simply Religious Studies, with some people involved in the research area sitting more comfortably in Sociology or Global Studies. Concerns with the social issues, political concerns, and other factors related to religious interaction make it a transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary subject area. While many involved may come from one particular background, Interreligious Studies involves the recognition that as a subject area it interacts with many disciplines and areas of life and study.
In the broad sense of an area of study, or field of knowledge, Interreligious Studies can be seen as a science like the fields of Religious Studies and Theology. However, in the more restricted sense commonly used today, in reference to the natural and mathematical sciences, it is not a science. Nevertheless, in the mainland European context at least, many of those committed to Interreligious Studies may see their work as “scientific” in that it holds to strict qualitative and/or quantitative methodologies, criteria, and disciplinary guidelines that prescribe it as a genuine academic area of study.
It is not a religion, however, as outlined in section “Description”; there may be those who see its study as providing important details about the contemporary activity of their own religion.
As noted above, Interreligious Studies is a new term, and this has implications for its recognition. It could be argued that it is a development from the older, and well-established, field of Comparative Religion. However, whereas this sought to simply provide an objective historical or phenomenological account of similarities or points of meeting between religious traditions (notwithstanding criticisms of its quasi-theological function under such luminaries in the field as Mircea Eliade), Interreligious Studies is more expressly focused on the dynamic encounter and engagement between religious traditions and persons. Moreover, it can be seen as going beyond Theology and Religious Studies as a transdisciplinary area. Certainly the resurgence of religion in recent decades has seen it growing in importance in relation to areas such as politics, economics, and sociology; therefore, it may be suggested that there is room for a new research field that cuts across subject borders.
Relevance to Science and Religion
The issue of “Science and Religion” is one that would not necessarily be of interest within Interreligious Studies; however, at the same time, it could within certain contexts become a key focus for specific studies. For instance, in studying the historical encounter between Christianity and Islam the passing of Greek wisdom as interpreted and developed by Islamic scholars could be a fruitful area for exploration. It could certainly be usefully employed as an exercise in helping contemporary communities engage more closely in dialogue and understanding. In contemporary concerns, practical issues of interreligious activism may involve issues such as climate change, and as such would again involve directly scientific questions and issues.
Sources of Authority
There are no foundational texts for Interreligious Studies. While, as an interdisciplinary area it is, perhaps, best seen as an approach to looking at things and/or a methodological focus rather than something focused in a specific corpus of works. Nevertheless, it is possible to define scholars whose work fits readily into this research area, some of whom may see themselves as scholars of Interreligious Studies, some are even Professors of Interreligious Studies, whereas others would self-identify in different ways. These figures include Gary Bouma, Marcus Braybrooke, Diana L. Eck, Francis Clooney, Reuven Firestone, Paul Knitter, Oddbjørn Leirvik, Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Paul Weller, Hendrik Vroom, and Frans Wijsen.
As an academic discipline those involved in Interreligious Studies would follow any relevant ethical guidelines applicable to their own subject discipline, research methodology, etc. If Interreligious Studies has its own distinct ethical principles it would involve a sensitivity to the varied cultural and religious traditions of its studies, while scholars involved would, normally, be methodologically self-conscious and would, as a principle, exercise a kind of hermeneutical suspicion about privileged starting points.
Given the diversity of perspectives encompassed, key values would vary. However, by and large, some guiding principles could be noted: (1) respect for the other (religious, cultural, etc.); (2) valuing and appreciating diversity; (3) an awareness that truth is plural and diversely expressed; and (4) an interest in social change, particularly involving social cohesion and religious tolerance in society; for many this interest could be spoken of in terms of commitment or desire for these things as areas of scholarly study and personal activism may overlap.
As a varied academic discipline Interreligious Studies would not have a set conceptualization of any of the following; however, some notes on each can be briefly observed.
These may be conceived from within the religious worldview of the traditions studied.
Interreligious Studies will attach worth to the human being qua a human being, possibly based on humanistic ethics or on resources within the religious traditions.
Life and Death
Again, perspectives may depend on the religions studied.
Interreligious Studies may have a concern with Ultimate Reality if viewed from a more theological standpoint, from a more sociological one its concern may be with the perceived phenomenal world, that is, how religions contribute, or deter, social inclusion rather than with how they relate metaphysically. However, these two perspectives are not incompatible.
As with much else, attitudes here will depend upon the researcher, their field, and methodology. Some researchers may be very much concerned with questions of how knowledge is obtained, that is, in terms of such things as intercultural hermeneutics, others may question the very concept as an objective category at all following, for instance, lines of thought inspired by the French critical theorist Michel Foucault where knowing is an act of power and what is known is shaped and determined by the means of knowing.
Questions of “truth” may not be of much concern to people involved with the pragmatics of interreligious social action, while the question of getting results may be valued. However, within religious contexts, truth may play a key role; indeed, it is likely to be held that lasting benefits must in some way be aligned with what is “true.”
Biological questions of what perception involves are unlikely to be of concern. However, in philosophical terms, what shapes what we perceive, the way we perceive it, etc. Then it will be related to some of the lines of thought discussed under “knowledge” and “truth.”
Unless issues about the different perceptions and understandings of time between religious traditions are raised, that is, whether it is conceived in linear or cyclic terms and the effects of this on thought worlds, actions, etc. it would not often be of much concern in most circumstances.
Concepts of this vary vastly between different religious traditions, and social and cultural groupings and so may become a topic of discussion among those concerned with the more abstract and metaphysical aspects of Interreligious Studies.
These would be strategically relevant issues rather than ones intrinsic to Interreligious Studies per se, and might include such things as follows:
Areas of common concern in activism, for instance, where religious groups come together to discuss climate change, global warming, stewardship of the planet, etc.
The shared history of scientific endeavor that links Islam and Christianity (and also Judaism) could be a useful area to link these religions in a sense of a shared history, which would also bring it into intimate relation with certain secular realms of thought. For instance, the portrayal of religion as “irrational,” “anti-religion,” and “dangerous” by some of the New Atheists would be shown to be erroneous if the role Islamic scholars played in preserving and improving on the Greek scientific legacy and passing this to Europe, allowing that continent’s own Renaissance and moves to modernity, was more widely known.
Areas of scientific study could be applied in specific instances, for example, studies have been done on the brainwaves of people meditating or praying, showing that this activity alters the patterns. Comparative studies of religious experience or near-death experiences could also be undertaken which would have a possible application within Interreligious Studies.
My thanks go to Dr. Anna Halafoff, Deakin University, Australia, and Dr. David Cheetham, Birmingham University, UK, for comments on an earlier draft that has helped shaped this entry.
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