What has religious studies got to do with interfaith? If that question prompts blank looks or a state of denial, then for scholars of religion, I would recommend doing what I finally got round to doing on a plane - read Peggy Morgan's paper, 'The Study of Religions and Interfaith Encounter.' (in NUMEN, Vol. 42 (1995)). It's very timely, especially for myself with the prospect of the Parliament of the World Religions approaching very fast.
Morgan's paper (even though I'm blogging, I feel academic matters assert some formalities) was authored in 1993, the year that the International Interfaith Centre was co-founded by three organisations. In her second footnote, Morgan writes: “The International Interfaith Centre is intended to provide Westminster College with a research resource and has been set up jointly with the World Congress of Faiths and the International Association of Religious Freedom.” Her paper makes a number of references to the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, from which the present series, the Parliament of World Religions, is derived. It's very absorbing, the kind of paper that distils evidently many years of study and engagement with topic, offering various reflections that give shape to how the academic deliberations of and encounter with inter-faith can point to ways to that sharpen that encounter, make it become more (self-)aware of possible effects and contributions. It also gives some pointers as to what academics may usefully investigate, with some underlying directions. The suggestion is amply made that the tools offered by various disciplines – of anthropology, sociology and phenomenology – offer considerable potential to enhance interfaith very broadly.
My passage to this year's Parliament in Melbourne has been kindly sponsored by the IIC and as part of the deal I've been asked to write an article on interfaith developments, in quite broad terms. Given Morgan's article and my recent studies in religion, it seems appropriate to observe and try to survey and evaluate – in a very partial way – what's going on now and compare the situation with that of 15 years ago.
From a personal perspective, I tend to come in and out of these large gatherings (8,000 expected on this occasion), as my usual work is in academic IT. So I imagine that if you're an interfaith veteran, I may be repeating things in ways that have been far better expressed before. However, Morgan also raises questions about how one's personal background affects the nature of the study. So it may be interesting to see (for others to commnt on) how having had two parents practising devoutly their religions and having imbued me with both – something rare even in mixed marriages – may impact on my more academic writings.
From the other side, my personal practice means I can seek to validate what goes on among (amid the many lofty words of) the academics, according to my experience. From my time in Oxford's local interfaith scene (which usually means informal gatherings where there's food!) there's been more than a passing mention of indifference to Oxford University's academics, who are perceived as in their own self-created ivory tower. However, Morgan provides an excellent demonstration of thoughtful concern, dealing on the human level, yet subjecting her reflections to the particular rigours of academic analysis - though it's just one kind of rigorous analysis, I'd add. As a result, she comes up with very interesting and pertinent questions – asking the right questions and collecting quite a few in this paper. It's particularly some of these questions that I should try to keep in mind as I explore the Parliament (and other related gatherings).
Here are a few of the questions Morgan raises:
Academics in attendance of such meetings raises the question of identity and its relationship to the subject of study: “Are they there as members of a faith community, which many are, but which is not a requirement for research in the study of religions?” [This latter point about requirement can be challenged with regard to the quality of study – there's a whole raft of insider/outsider discussions with which I know Morgan is very familiar]. I like to consider: Who speaks for whom? When listening for whom are you listening?
Morgan asks further: “If they are there as academics first and foremost what relevance do such gatherings have to their academic work? Does participation in any way tinge the academic agenda with a kind of para-theology?” And Morgan is ready with some illustrations of this. Another question: “Does the agenda of interfaith work potentially cast a shadow over the shape of the study of religions in the same way that concerns of an individual religion might?” (We can consider, for example, how does a Divinity department deals with the study on World Religions). Further, “Is interfaith a kind of new religious movement?”
Not sure how far I'm going to get into this, but at least it could be useful to lay down some markers.
[sent from Federation Sq., Melbourne]