Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Leonard Swidler


I. “Nobody Knows Everything about Anything!”*

In the dawning Age of Global Dialogue we humans are increasingly aware that we cannot know everything about anything. This is true for the physical sciences: No one would claim that she or he knows everything about biology, physics, or chemistry. Likewise, no one would claim that we know everything about the human sciences, sociology, or anthropology, or—good heavens, economics—and each of these disciplines is endlessly complicated. To repeat—as a mantra: “Nobody knows everything about anything!”

However, when it comes to the most comprehensive, the most complicated, discipline of all—theology or religion—billions of us still claim that we know all there is to know and whoever thinks differently is simply mistaken. But, if it is true that we always can only know partially in any limited study of reality, as in the physical or human sciences, surely it is all the more true of religion, which is an “explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly, based on some notion and experience of the Transcendent.”[1] We must then be even more modest in our claims of knowing better in this most comprehensive field of knowledge, religion, “the ultimate meaning of life.”

Because of the work of great thinkers like the late Hans-Georg Gadamer and the late Paul Ricoeur, we now also realize that no knowledge can ever be completely objective, for we the knower are an integral part of the process of knowing. In brief, all knowledge is interpreted knowledge. Even in its simplest form, whether I claim that the Bible is God’s truth, or the Qur’ān, or the Gita, or, indeed, the interpretation of the pope, or John Knox, it is I who affirm that it is so. But, if neither I nor anyone else can know everything about anything, including most of all the most complicated claims to truth, religion, how do I proceed to search for an ever fuller grasp of reality, of truth?

The clear answer is dialogue. In dialogue I talk with you primarily so that I can learn what I cannot perceive from my place in the world, with my personal lenses of knowing. Through your eyes I see what I cannot see from my side of the globe, and vice versa. Hence, dialogue is not just a way to gain more information. Dialogue is a whole new way of thinking. We are painfully leaving behind the Age of Monologue and are, with squinting eyes, entering into the Age of Global Dialogue.

II. The Universe Is a Cosmic Dance of Dialogue

Dialogue—the mutually beneficial interaction of differing components—is at the very heart of the Universe, of which we humans are the highest expression: from the basic interaction of matter and energy (in Einstein’s unforgettable formula, E=MC2; energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light) to the creative interaction of protons and electrons in every atom to the vital symbiosis of body and spirit in every human, through the creative dialogue between woman and man to the dynamic relationship between individual and society. Thus, the very essence of our humanity is dialogical, and a fulfilled human life is the highest expression of the Cosmic Dance of Dialogue.

In the early millennia of the history of humanity, as we spread outward from our starting point in central Africa, the forces of divergence were dominant. However, because we live on a globe, in our frenetic divergence we eventually began to encounter each other more and more frequently. Now the forces of stunning convergence are becoming increasingly dominant.

In the past, during the Age of Divergence, we could live in isolation from each other; we could ignore each other. Now, in the Age of Convergence, we are forced to live in one world. We increasingly live in a global village. We cannot ignore the other, the different. Too often in the past we have tried to make over the other into a likeness of ourselves, often by violence, but this is the very opposite of dialogue. This egocentric arrogance is in fundamental opposition to the Cosmic Dance of Dialogue. It is not creative; it is destructive.

Hence, we humans today have a stark choice: dialogue, or death![2]

III. Dialogues of the Head, Hands, Heart in

Holistic Harmony of the Holy Human

For us humans there are three main dimensions to dialogue, corresponding to the structure of our humanness: Dialogue of the Head, Hands, Heart, in Holistic Harmony of the Holy Human.

A. The Cognitive or Intellectual: Seeking the Truth

In the Dialogue of the Head we reach out to those who think differently from us to understand how they see the world and why they act as they do. The world is too complicated for anyone to grasp alone; increasingly, we can understand reality only with the help of the other, in dialogue. This is important, because how we understand the world determines how we act in the world.

B. The Illative or Ethical: Seeking the Good

In the Dialogue of the Hands we join together with others to work to make the world a better place in which we all must live together. Since we can no longer live separately in this “one world,” we must work jointly to make it not just a house but a home for all of us to live in. In other words, we join hands with the other to heal the worldTikun olam, in the Jewish tradition. The world within us and all around us is always in need of healing, and our deepest wounds can be healed only together with the other, only in dialogue.

C. The Affective or Aesthetic: Seeking the Beautiful

In the Dialogue of the Heart we open ourselves to receive the beauty of the other. Because we humans are body and spirit—or, rather, body-spirit—we give bodily-spiritual expression in all the arts to our multifarious responses to life: joy, sorrow, gratitude, anger, and, most of all, love. We try to express our inner feelings, which grasp reality in far deeper and higher ways than we are able to put into rational concepts and words; hence, we create poetry, music, dance, painting, architecture—the expressions of the heart. (Here, too, is where the depth, spiritual, mystical dimension of the human spirit is given full rein.) All the world delights in beauty, and so it is here that we find the easiest encounter with the other, the simplest door to dialogue.

D. Holiness: Seeking the One

We humans cannot live a divided life. If we are even to survive, let alone flourish, we must “get it all together.” We must not only dance the dialogues of the head, hands, and heart but also bring our various parts together in harmony (a fourth “h”) to live a holistic (a fifth “h”), life, which is what religions mean when they say that we should be holy (a sixth “h”). Hence, we are authentically human (a seventh “h”) only when our manifold elements are in dialogue within each other, and we are in dialogue with the others around us. We must dance together the Cosmic Dance of Dialogue of the head, hands, and heart, holistically,[3] in harmony within the holy human.

*Reflections delivered by Leonard Swidler before the Scottish Parliament on March 19, 2009. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu4ssQHRLP0.

[1]Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes, The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), p. 17.

[2]See Leonard Swidler, with John Cobb, Monika Hellwig, and Paul Knitter, Death or Dialogue: From the Age of Monologue to the Age of Dialogue (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990).

[3]Those who know Western medieval philosophy will recognize that these are the “metaphysicals,” the four aspects of Being Itself, perceived from different perspectives: the one, the true, the good, the beautiful.

Leonard Swidler

Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 45:2, Spring 2010

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Leonard Swidler


Ours in the West is largely a secularized society. However, especially after 9/11, we have become much more aware of the influence of religion—mostly bad in many people’s eyes. This, I believe, is a bum rap for authentic religion, which I would describe in a phrase as “within me, and between me and thee.”

I cringe, for example, when someone says of a Jewish person that she is “religious,” meaning, of course, that she does all the externals. That is not only a wrongheaded understanding of what religion is, but it is precisely wrong. To stick with Judaism for the moment, according to the rabbis the heart of what Judaism is all about is kavanah, interior intention. The same is true, of course, of all the major religions. In Confucianism, for examples, the rituals, Li, are for the sake of forming an authentic human, Ren. The externals are supposed to be helps to get our head and heart right, and then to act accordingly— “within me, and between me and thee.”

If the externals—which include not only “doing” all the prescribed things but also “saying” the correct formularies of doctrines (which is a special problem for Christians)—in fact distract us from the righting of our head and heart and consequent action in the world, we should reevaluate and perhaps even drop them. After all, the greatest “sin” in the Bible is idolatry. This is so not because God is thereby maligned—surely God cannot be injured by humans. No, there is a constitutive reason why idolatry is the “worst” sin. Idolatry is so bad because, as long as we hold on to it, we are incapable of becoming authentic humans.
Idolatry literally means “worshiping an image” (Greek: eidol, image, latria, worship). It is to focus on the finger pointing to the object, rather than on the object. The whole purpose, however, of the pointing finger is for us to look at the object, not the finger. In the case of religion, the finger is the externals and the object is the interior thought and desire and consequent action: “within me, and between me and thee.”

The two major Semitic religions, Judaism and Islam, both tend to concentrate on what to do, on actions, whereas Christianity (“half” Semitic) stresses much more, though of course not exclusively, what to think. Hence, the greatest temptations toward idolatry for Jews and Muslims are the external actions: I must not eat certain food; I must stop what I doing and go pray now; I may not join with you at these times. All these prescribed actions are doubtless good, as long as they are for the sake of persons (for we truly “love God with our whole heart” by “loving our neighbor as ourselves”), not for the sake of an action.

For Christians, although they are also tempted to idolatry by way of external actions, the most deceptive temptation comes from their adherence to doctrines. For example, Protestantism classically claimed that truth is to be found solely in the Bible (sola Scriptura), and yet in the United States alone there are over 350 different Protestant denominations. Have they made an eidol of their doctrine of what the Scriptura teaches? Catholicism, of course, is not any better off, with its doctrine of papal infallibility. Has papal infallibility become an eidol that is focused on with latria?

Many examples of authentic religion could be lifted up. Let me pick just one here that, in different ways, reflects all three of the Semitic religions. The Jew Rabbi Jesus from Nazareth, whom both Christians and Muslims call the Messiah, said that “it is not what goes into the mouth” (an “external”), but “what comes out” (an “internal” reflecting the kavanah in action) that makes a person good, or not—and elsewhere: “What you have done to the least ones . . . enter into the reward prepared for you.”

Authentic religion is “within me, and between me and thee.”

Leonard Swidler

Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 45:1, Winter 2010

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Leonard Swidler

According to twentieth-century cosmology, it all started with “The Big Bang”! Here we are 13,200,000,000 years later on a beautiful speck of stardust called Earth, spinning around one of trillions of stars called Sun. According to the Torah, the Spirit of God, Ruach, played the central role: “In the beginning God created the . . . earth [which] was empty and formless [tohu va vohu; in Greek, chaos], and the Spirit of God, Ruach Elohim, brooded over the waters.” In the Fourth Gospel, it was the Logos, the Word/Thinking, that was at the beginning (En arche en ho logos): “In the beginning was the Word/Thinking.” In the twenty-first century, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the focus is on not simply Logos but Dia-Logos, word/thought-between, which contains both deep-dialogue and critical-thinking. We can paraphrase the Fourth Gospel, En arche en ho dia-logos, “In the beginning was Deep-Dialogue/Critical-Thinking.”

We see today that Dia-Logos is at the heart of the cosmos (Greek for “ordered reality,” the opposite of chaos). We humans are the highest expression of this ordered cosmos, this deep-dialogue/critical-thinking—from the interaction of matter and energy to the interplay of protons and electrons in every atom, the symbiosis of body and spirit in humans, the creative dialogue between woman and man, and the dynamic relationship between individual and society. Thus, the very essence of the cosmos and of our humanity is dialogical, and a fulfilled human life is the highest expression of the “cosmic dance of dialogue.”

Now at eighty years of age, I see my life through this lens of the cosmic dance of dialogue, starting in my Irish-Catholic mother’s womb impregnated by my Ukrainian-Jewish father. I grew up an American Catholic with twenty years of Catholic education, culminating in being perhaps the first Catholic layperson ever to receive a degree in Catholic theology, fifty years ago, from the University of Tübingen. For my Ph.D. in history I chose—perhaps providentially?—a dialogical subject: the Una Sancta Movement, the twentieth-century, Protestant-Catholic dialogue in the land of the Reformation, Germany, which helped precipitate that watershed event in the history of all religions, the tsunamic Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, 1962–65.

I had the wisdom in 1957 to marry the brilliant, and my beloved, Arlene (“Andie”) Anderson. Her insight led to our founding forty-five years ago the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, whose first issue carried articles by Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), both of whom were later my colleagues at the University of Tübingen.

Andie and I taught at the Catholic Duquesne University for six years before I joined Temple University’s new Department of Religion in 1966, and we brought J.E.S. with us. The department grew from ten faculty members in 1966 to twenty-one in 1968. In 1966 there was one Catholic graduate student, and within two years there were fifty. We continued to grow, and when I was Director of Graduate Religion Studies, 1991–93, we had 165 doctoral students.

When Eugene Fisher and I launched the first Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue in 1978, the Dialogue Institute was born. With the “Fall of the Wall” in Berlin came the next huge breakthrough. I myself published fourteen interreligious-dialogue books from 1990 to 1992, and the Trialogues became global: Austria, Israel, Indonesia, Macedonia, Jordan, and, in the future, China.

An even greater watershed occurred in the wake of 9/11. Like a phoenix, the Trialogue rose from the ashes of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. During the Trialogue’s first quarter-century we had difficulty finding ten Muslim scholars capable of, and open to, dialogue—in the whole world. However, after the shock of 9/11, hundreds, thousands, of Muslims embraced dialogue. Even more encouraging, I am besieged now by young Muslim scholars—and those from other religions—wanting to do doctorates in interreligious dialogue. It is critical that we train the next generations in Deep-Dialogue and Critical-Thinking—Dia-Logos!

The world has always needed to move beyond Logos to Dia-Logos—deep-dialogue/critical-thinking. However, since the Fall of the Wall and 9/11, the world is becoming more aware that it needs Deep-Dialogue/Critical-Thinking. We can no longer work just as individuals and small groups, like lonely scouts out in front. Deep-Dialogue/Critical-Thinking needs to be expanded by Complementary-Cooperation. All of us need to foster these three virtues within ourselves, with one another, and with all the “culture-shaping” institutions of society: not just religion, but also business, science, education, law, medicine, communications, art, government, diplomacy.

Now is the time to build institutions and to knit them together in Complementary-Cooperation, especially through the internet and electronic communications. We can no longer be satisfied with arithmetic expansion, whereby we add another 5,000 to the 5,000 we now have. We can, and must, aim at exponential expansion: 5,0002 = 25,000,000! This becomes possible through networking—which is Deep-Dialogue/Critical-Thinking moving to Complementary-Cooperation.

If I may write as a Christian theologian and quote the Jew Saul of Tarsus, St. Paul: “Now is the time of salvation!” This is the kairos, the Greek New Testament term for “the right time,” to expand Deep-Dialogue/Critical-Thinking and to develop Complementary-Cooperation. To use the analogy of nuclear fission, we have reached a critical mass, and a chain reaction is beginning. However, the human spirit is different from atomic structure; we can unfortunately sink back into chaos. It has happened before. This moment, now, is the kairos. If we do not grasp the kairos, it may slip away into a worse tohu va vohu, chaos.

I invite all of you to join with us to bind together our fragile Earth in the Cosmic Dance of Dialogue of the head, hands, and heart, integrated into the dialogue of (w)holeness, the original meaning of the word “holy.” Together in Deep-Dialogue/Critical-Thinking/Complementary-Cooperation, we must seize the moment: Carpe momentum!