Interreligious dialogue and pluralism in the modern – Fellows’ seminar by Ephraim Meir and Wolfram Weisse

1 March 2022

“The growing religious pluralisation of modern societies places the question of religions and dialogue at the centre of public and academic attention. There is an ambivalence: On the one hand, violence and terrorism of individuals or groups, using religion as justification, show the destructive potential of religions. On the other hand, interreligious dialogue contributes to peaceful coexistence of people with different cultural and religious backgrounds, offering non-violent alternatives to the polarising effects of difference,” said Wolfram Weisse of the Academy of World Religions, University of Hamburg, Germany. “Research in this field has intensified in the past 20 years especially in Western Europe. However, an integration of analyses done in theologies of world religions, in social sciences, political science, philosophy and education is lacking. There is also a need for research comparing different contexts, such as South Africa and southern Africa, which can provide valuable perspectives.”

STIAS Fellows Wolfram Weisse and Ephraim Meir presented their seminar on 24 February 2022

In their seminar, Ephraim Meir of the Department of Jewish Philosophy, Bar-Ilan University, Israel, focused on the relationship between religions and dialogue, and its relevance today. He showed how interreligious dialogue forms the basis for a pluralised theology and emphasised that ‘dialogical theology’ provides an answer to developments of global religious pluralisation.

“The plurality of religion also coexists with ‘powerful secular discourse’ with religion as ‘a thorn in the conscience of secular society’,” said Weisse, referring to Peter L. Berger and Juergen Habermas.

Weisse reported on the findings of his long-term (2013 – 2018) project ‘Religions and Dialogue in Modern Societies’ (ReDi). This mixed-methods study included interviews and participant observation, looking at different beliefs and practices of religious dialogue in societies in Germany, Scandinavia and the UK, and at its impact on processes of integration and peace-making.

The findings highlighted that religion is embedded in a complex social context; that interreligious activities can be  more prevalent in minority communities and are a form of social-capital building; that there is a spatial dimension with encounters normalised by nearness and familiarity; and, that the function of religious thought is dependent on individual actors and their use of religious thought.

“Development of trust was a high priority,” said Weisse. “Good neighbourliness is often more important than talking about religious issues and there is a focus on community harmony rather than the divisive power of religious conversations. But, Dialogical Theology is also relevant in view of motivating and legitimising interreligious dialogue at grassroots level. Moreover, respecting difference is important for interfaith ideas, as a way of bringing people together.”

No religion is an island

Meir elaborated on a Dialogical Theology, which works with “trans-difference” that brings together particularisms and unity, and is moored in Jewish philosophy. He focused on the idea of being as inter-being, in reference to Thich Nhat Hanh.

“Dialogue creates a shared world,” he said. “We create bonds with religious others and sharing is as important as living your own culture. There is a new consciousness of the need for the interdependence of all religions in view of a peaceful society.”

There are conditions for such dialogue in which partners can learn from and criticise each other.

“The characteristics of Dialogical Theology include being present, a readiness to learn, humility and an abandonment of absolute-truth claims,” he continued. “One may recognise that religious others have their own way to the Ultimate Reality.”

“Truth is not from heaven. Humans have to seek it in dialogue. And, as Gandhi said, we have to ‘be the change you want to see’.”

He compared the ideas of Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mahatma Gandhi as activists, whose interreligious dialogue contributed to a praxis-oriented dialogical theology.

“For Gandhi the pursuit of truth transcends all religions and the Truth is God. For Gandhi and Heschel God is in every human especially the downtrodden and outcasts.”

“Both believed that prayer, political and social action go hand-in-hand in the pursuit of justice and reconciliation, and that non-violent political activism is a religious act and testimony to the presence of God in all. They believed race and religion excluded one another. Heschel participated in the 1965 Selma March with Martin Luther King and his ideas provided input to King’s famous speech ‘I have a dream.’ He felt his legs were praying. To Gandhi ‘s mind, the Salt March in 1930 was also a religious act.”

“Heschel looked for divine sparks in the souls of all, the unity of mankind and oneness of God. Gandhi wanted to uncover Brahman in all,” said Meir. They never met, but Meir imagined a dialogue between them, showing the high relevance of their encounter.

Pluralisation is a must

In summary Weisse and Meir pointed to the unresolved challenges of theology, the need for more innovative professional theological reasoning, for both theory and practice, and understanding the limits of interreligious dialogue.

“Theology knows about multiple roles, tensions and unresolved questions,” said Weisse. “You cannot develop Dialogical Theology in the confines of your own religion. Pluralisation of religion at universities is a must. And, there is a need for sociological analyses, as religion is embedded in comprehensive social and political contexts.”

“Dialogical Theology should be a source of reference and discussion about religion. It’s helpful to those who fear a weakening of religion and worldview by dialogue with others.”

“We must also understand the limits of interreligious dialogue,” added Meir. “I believe Heschel and Gandhi offer alternatives for religious fanaticism. They approach religion with an ethical mindset.  Religions can have a Janus face – they can be used for good or bad. We need a transformative approach to bring together plurality and unity.”

In the discussion, they addressed the concept of Ubuntu, African religions, South Africa specifically and the challenge of absolute-truth claims.

Ubuntu emphasises that the marvel of existence lies in co-existence,” said Meir. “Gandhi’s principle of Satyagraha or truth force is a great contribution to civilisation. We realise truth together and therefore need to work together and not place the individual first.”

“South Africa is an example of how to deal with the past in a way that is not forgotten and not in an easy way forgiven,” said Weisse. “The TRC let the people speak – oppressor and oppressed. Desmond Tutu played his role as a person open to others and striving for a new life.”

“It’s possible to be involved in both African traditional religion and Christianity. Life is not decided by the limits of a certain religion. You can believe simultaneously in truth claims and not that one religion holds truth alone,” he added.

“It’s not either or but this and this,” said Meir. “A dialogue with different traditions in one person is possible. God did not create religion. He created the world. If you confuse religion with God you have a big problem.”

During his fellowship at STIAS Weisse will hold a one-day symposium on 7 March 2022 with the theme: ‘Limits of Religious Pluralisation?’. The symposium will reflect on this theme from various interdisciplinary perspectives including theology, religious studies, education and the social sciences, with special attention to southern African discourses and contexts. For more see

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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