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Religion and Society

The Role of Religious Studies – Oasis at G20 Interfaith Forum

Oasis’ Scientific Director, Martino Diez, spoke this morning during the panel on Religious Studies at the G20 Interfaith Forum. Here you can find his speech

Last update: 2021-09-14 14:19:26

This morning’s panel is entitled “The Role of Religious Studies”. It involves a metaphor (‘the role’) taken from the world of theater. Continuing along the same metaphor, I will ask two related questions: who are the actors of “religious studies”? And second: who is the audience? Whom do these actors perform their play for?


The audience


Let us start from the second question, which we could also rephrase as the role of religious studies for societies at large—and more specifically for the global leaders, since this is what the G20 Interfaith Forum is about.


In my decade-long experience at the Oasis International Foundation, I have grown more and more convinced that including the religious dimension in political and geo-political analyses, which is one of the things we do at Oasis, both challenges some of our assumptions and improves our understanding of many phenomena. It challenges our assumptions that human beings are selfish, power-driven entities, always acting according to an economic calculation of advantages and disadvantages, benchmarks and metrics. No, they are not. They can sacrifice themselves for something they believe is worth the sacrifice, be it something right (the martyr) or something wrong (the suicide-attacker, who is parodying the martyr). And, at the same time, religious studies improve our understanding of many phenomena, again both positive (resilience, networks of solidarity) and negative (fundamentalism and the mechanisms of violence).


Yet, as any other kind of knowledge, religious studies stand in dialectical relationship to the society in which they are pursued. Societies put forth some needs (today, for instance, healing, countering violence, supporting the ecological transition, and favoring such vague things as inclusiveness and non-discrimination), and religious scholars are supposed to set their mind on them. There is—thanks God! —still some room for apparently purposeless research (the “usefulness of useless knowledge”, to quote Abraham Flexner, the founder of the first Institute for Advanced Study in the world), but, broad and large, nobody can fully escape these conditionings, which we could also take, when they are sincerely motivated, as “God’s calls”.


There are two risks lurking here: the first is to become ideological, that is to do research whose findings are already written in the premise—or in the donor’s name. The other is, in order to avoid ideology, to turn insignificant, that is to study subjects that only interest a tiny bunch of pundits. From bad to worse, or from the pan to the embers, as we say in Italian.

What is the way out of this conundrum? In my opinion, if it is true that religious studies cannot escape the conditioning imposed by the context, their true task consists in relativizing the framework in which we live. After all, if a definition of religion can be attempted, it certainly has to do with the quest for the absolute. If God is the absolute, we are not, our social and cultural structures are not.


This realization, which is typical of our pluralistic age, can pave the way to cultural relativism. But this is not the only possible outcome. It can also allow for something at once more modest and more crucial: a critical look at one’s own culture. Indeed, in the Christian understanding even the most Christian culture or polity (which is not the case of the West today!) cannot claim to exhaust the riches of revelation. There is always something missing, “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4,13).


Let me give you a quick example of what I mean. Nowadays, religions are kindly requested to get people vaccinated, to teach them to respect the environment, and to spread peace. In this forum, several politicians have voiced these concerns, which are often based on an unspoken premise: that religions are for simple-minded people who need some imagery to be persuaded to do things, because they cannot understand abstract, rational truths. Pure Ibn Rushd, pure Averroes, in post-modern garb!

Well, I would contend that religious studies can do much more than this, and to the benefit of politics too. They can call into question the very assumptions on which these requests are based. Take the issue of environment. The kind of “green theology” many decision makers envision is a collection of inspirational sayings about the beauty of nature, the value of water, the care for the animals etc.: a bit of Saint Francis, a touch of Sufism, a drop of Tikkun ‘Olam and you are done. Religious studies become thus a cover matter for the Sunday cultural supplement. But religious studies (or theology, let us dare say the word) can go further and deconstruct the nihilism underpinning our secular framework, for instance. They can do away with the illusion that the ecological problem is just an issue of technology: let’s find new ways to produce energy and the whole matter will be fixed once and for all. I do hope that we can soon find new ways to produce energy and I am very admirative of the recent developments in nuclear fusion, but at the same time, a critical outlook to my own culture tells me that the root of the ecological crisis is the Nietzschean will to power, Wille zur Macht, that is part and parcel of contemporary nihilism and its loss of the sense of limit. It is an anthropological problem, not a technological one. So, yes, religions can tell people to separate their waste, but they can (and must) do much more: by activating the notion of creation (obviously, I am thinking here of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as I have no expertise to further generalize), they can expose the roots of the crisis rather than curing its symptoms.


The actors


Let us now turn briefly to the other question, the actors. Who is doing religious studies nowadays? The answer varies significantly from context to context, but I am convinced that there is a common need which is clearly emerging. It is the need, in a globalized context, for interreligious scholarly conversations (where the “scholarly” is as important as the “interreligious”). And since we have in this panel some distinguished Muslims scholars, I will take the liberty of adding that in my view this interreligious conversation is particularly urgent for religious studies in the Islamic world. In fact, Islamic scholarship, with laudable exceptions, is still carried out in isolation from the rest of the world, even in fields, such as the Arabic language, which do not imply faith matters. After all, if the Qur’an itself can be safely said to be in dialectical conversation with the Biblical universe (dialectical meaning both confirming and rejecting), the same feature should apply to Islamic studies at large.


This said, religion is a tricky thing, because it asks for your personal assent. But then, how can you get involved into something you don’t believe (or you only partially believe)? This problem was acutely felt by the French orientalist Louis Massignon. From his own experience, he came up with a thought-provoking answer: you cannot feign yourself something you are not (for instance, you cannot feign yourself a Muslim while you are a Christian or vice versa), but you can ask for hospitality to the religious other, the kind of sacred hospitality that Abraham gave to his mysterious guests.


I happen to have some experience of inter-religious meetings and not rarely one returns home with the feeling that, with all good will, the discussions remained rather shallow and generic. In my view, part of the problem depends on the fact that participants are generally supposed to translate their own views into a ‘meta-language’. This is probably an instinctive reflex, and it is not specifically modern. It is the path, for instance, taken by the Brethren of Purity in 10th-century Basra, for whom Greek wisdom could work as a common ground between different denominations and religions.


However, much is lost in the process of translation: the meta-language conveys a functional meaning, but it does not nourish the spirit. Interestingly, many people attending inter-religious meetings ‘compensate’ for this loss by enjoying well-prepared liturgies in their own tradition. Yet, they feel ill at ease in how to transition from one level to another: how do I convey the richness of the liturgy to which I have just taken part into non-denominational categories?


Sacred hospitality offers a different perspective. Take the subject of this meeting, “time to heal”. I can understand what healing is by ‘translating’ some Islamic, Jewish or Buddhist principles into secular values. But I can also ask for hospitality to these traditions to witness how this principle is understood, lived and put into practice in their faith experience. From the ‘abstract universal’ to the ‘concrete universal’, to quote Hegel. It is more demanding, but also more enriching. This is my humble suggestion for inter-religious studies. And perhaps also for future G20 Interfaith fora.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation