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!