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Leonard Swidler: Dialogue pioneer and peacemaker.

One of my most important teachers was Leonard Swidler, Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University. At the forefront of interfaith dialogue for the last fifty years, he co-founded the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 1964 and remains the editor today. Although he has written more than eighty books, he is perhaps best known for his article, "Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue," which has been translated into many languages and is considered to be a foundational statement on interfaith dialogue. In this article Swidler presented "ten commandments" that he considered to be essential for genuine interfaith dialogue:

1. The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality and then to act accordingly.

2. Interreligious, interideological dialogue must be a two-sided project--within each religious or ideological community and between religious or ideological communities.

3. Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity.

4. In interreligious, interideological dialogue we must not compare our ideals with our partner's practice.

5. Each participant must define [her or] himself.

6. Each participant must come to the dialogue with no hard-and-fast assumptions as to where the points of disagreement are.

7. Dialogue can take place only between equals.

8. Dialogue can take place only on the basis of mutual trust.

9. Persons entering into interreligious, interideological dialogue must be at least minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions.

10. Each participant eventually must attempt to experience the partner's religion or ideology "from within." (1)

Swidler has also worked with Hans Kung to shape the important document, A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World's Religions, which was signed by 200 world religious leaders at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions. The aim of this document is to lead people of all faiths to see that there is a common ethical core in all religious traditions, including humanism, and that this realization would encourage them to participate in genuine interfaith dialogue. (2)

Kung has become well known for constantly stressing that there can be "no peace among the nations without peace among the religions" and "no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions." (3) What stands out for me in the work of Swidler and Kung is their stress on the equality and dignity of every human being. Swidler's dialogue statement and Kung's global ethic statement are in perfect accord with a statement by Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish pioneers of interfaith dialogue, that "many things on earth are precious, some are holy, humanity is holy of holies." (4) For Heschel the fundamental statement about human beings, according to the Jewish tradition, is that human beings are created in the image of God. From this perspective it is clear to me that the real aim of dialogue is to develop friendship and love and that, in the Abrahamic faiths, love of God must manifest itself in love for all human beings.

Leviticus 19:33-34 tells us to "love the stranger as yourself." Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain, pointed out that in the Hebrew Bible only "one verse commands, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself,' but in no fewer than in 36 places commands us to 'love the stranger.'" (5) The aim of interfaith dialogue is to make this command a reality. My claim that the ultimate aim of interfaith dialogue is love for the stranger is fully in accord with the religious traditions I have studied.

Although Swidler has written extensively on both the Abrahamic religious traditions and the religions of Asia, especially Buddhism, I will deal primarily with the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are called the "Abrahamic faiths" because Abraham is seen as the ancestor of these traditions and as a hero of faith in these religions. As I study these three traditions of the children of Abraham, I am amazed at the remarkable similarities in their views on many significant issues. By similarities 1 do not mean that they are identical. The differences are real, but I believe that it is very important to know what they have in common.

I am very much aware that in spite of the strong affinities there are also many differences, many conflicting truth-claims, and that these traditions also challenge one another's beliefs. It is because of these differences that dialogue is so important. Today, dialogue is a must between members of the Abrahamic family. I am convinced that Swidler would agree and would add that interreligious dialogue is also a must between and among the Abrahamic and Asian religious traditions. He has often stressed that "the future offers two alternatives: death or dialogue." (6) Heschel fully concurred with Swidler when he stated that "the choice is to live together or to perish together." (7)

Let me briefly point out some of the remarkable similarities among the three religions of Abraham. All believe in the same creator. "Allah" is the name that Jews and Christians who live in Arabic lands use for God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims speak of God as just, wise, powerful, loving, holy, all-knowing. All speak of the goodness of God. All believe that God, who is the creator of heaven and earth, communicates with human beings. All belong to what Pope John Paul II called the "tradition of Abraham." On numerous occasions when speaking to Muslims and Jews, he stated that "your God and ours is one and the same, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham." (8)

Another strong affinity that I see is the idea that we should love God and neighbor. There is a great stress on compassion. Human beings also have a duty to confront evil in the world, never adjusting to evil. We must protest against the injustice visited upon God's creatures. All three religions aim to bring healing. The saint is the person who loves both God and other human beings. All three stress faith in God, which unites us, although there are certainly doctrines that divide us. Perhaps most important of all, the Abrahamic traditions stress that all human beings are created in the image of God. Every human being is precious in God's sight. God is concerned with human beings. If there is one thing that I would say that the sacred texts teach us, it is God's concern with human beings.

The three traditions also confront the perennial issues of existence in which the mystery of evil is central. I believe that they also agree that no human being can fully comprehend the way of God. We do not have the answers to some of the ultimate questions in life. In the words of Rabbi Yannai in the Ethics of the Fathers, "We do not know the reason either for the suffering of the righteous or the prosperity of the wicked" (4:15). The Abrahamic traditions offer many answers to the problem of evil. Yet, after all explanations are given, an element of mystery remains. However, the ultimate meaning of God's way is not invalidated because human beings cannot fully comprehend God's way.

As a student of religion, I am also aware that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all contain in their sacred texts passages with astonishing violence. We may be surprised to find some very hateful passages in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 137 concludes:
   Fair Babylon, you predator,
      a blessing on him who repays you in kind
      what you have inflicted on us;
      a blessing on him who seizes your babies
      and dashes them against the rocks! (9)


Passages that encourage violence are found not only in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but even in the Hindu tradition, with its strong stress on nonviolence. The Bhagavad-Gita, one of the most sacred texts of Hinduism, is seen by some as a text that encourages violence and war. Yet, the Gita was precious to the apostle of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi. We cannot ask Orthodox Jews or Muslims to cut passages out of their sacred texts or convince them that there is a human element in sacred texts, but we may ask them if the texts of terror in their traditions are in harmony with the core of their traditions. The members of the Abrahamic religions, for example, must ask themselves whether their interpretation is in harmony with the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God, are interconnected, and are responsible to one another. Even if we believe that every word of the text is the word of God, we still have to interpret the text. It is in our hands. There are problematic passages in all traditions that need to be interpreted in a way that would lead to peace rather than to war and that is consistent with the mercy and justice of God. The prophets and saints of all religious traditions that I have studied dream of a world of peace, one in which every person is treated as having infinite value.

In the twentieth century, great men and women from many different religious traditions have worked tirelessly toward interreligious harmony. At the forefront of this movement we find such influential leaders as John Paul II and the Dalai Lama and academics such as Swidler who are convinced that interreligious dialogue can promote respect among members of different religions and help bring peace and harmony to a world tom by conflict and war, poverty, and the destruction of the environment--a world that is captivated by materialism and secularism and in deep need of finding significant existence. John Paul II was especially grieved by the wars caused by children of Abraham, stating: "I consider dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be a priority. In coming to know each other better, in growing to esteem one another, and in living out, with respect for consciences, the various aspects of their religion, they will be, in part of the world and elsewhere 'artisans of peace.'" (10)

The question is often asked whether dialogue is mere talk or if it is really helping to heal the world. People such as Swidler who have devoted their lives to religious dialogue do make a difference. In his recent book Inside the Jesuits, Robert Blair Kaiser wrote of a number of people, including Jesuits, who are working to make a better world. He singled out Swidler because of his engagement in interreligious dialogue with Muslims in various parts of the world." I believe Swidler's influence is due to the fact that, for him, no religion is in full possession of the truth, and God is greater than any religion.

I see Swidler as very much in love with the Catholic tradition, but his greatness lies in his ability to extend his love to members of other faiths and of no traditional faith. What is critical for Swidler is life, not doctrine. What is most essential and what constitutes true worship of God is not a concept of God but the ethical quality of one's life. (12) In his book, Buddhism Made Plain, written with Antony Fernando, he stated: "True worshipers of God ... are thus recognized not by the acts of formal worship that they perform but by the characteristics of their day-to-day behavior. The most central of course is loving care--concern--for those in need." (13) Leonard Swidler has become one of the most prominent voices in interfaith dialogue today because he has remained true to the ten commandments of his "Dialogue Decalogue."

(1) Leonard Swidler, "The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue." J.E.S. 20 (Winter, 1983): 1-4. This is a slightly revised 2008 version of the original.

(2) Hans Kung and Karl-Josef Kuschel, eds., A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World's Religions (New York: Continuum, 1993).

(3) Hans Kung, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1991), p. 138.

(4) Abraham Joshua Heschel, "No Religion Is an Island," in Harold Kasimow and Byron Sherwin, eds., No Religion Is an Island: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Interreligious Dialogue (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 1991), p. 7 (originally published in Union Seminary Quarterly Review 2 [January, 1966]:

(5) Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2002), p. 58.

(6) Leonard Swidler, "Introduction," in Leonard Swidler, John B. Cobb, Jr., Paul F. Knitter, and Monika K. Hellwig, Death or Dialogue? From the Age of Monologue to the Age of Dialogue (Philadelphia: Trinity International Press, 1990), p. vii.

(7) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), p. 186.

(8) Pope John Paul II, "To the Participants in the Symposium on 'Holiness in Christianity and in Islam,'" Rome, May 9, 1985, in Francesco Gioia, ed., Interreligious Dialogue: The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church (1963-1995) (Boston, MA: Pauline Books, 1997), p. 283.

(9) Ps. 137:7-9, from The Writings-Ketuvim: A New Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures according to the Masoretic Text, Third Section (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982).

(10) John Paul II, "Address to the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, January 11, 1992," in Eugene J. Fisher and Leon Klenicki, eds., The Saint for Shalom (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2011), p.227."

(11) Robert Blair Kaiser, Inside the Jesuits: How Pope Francis Is Changing the Church and the World (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), p. 91.

(12) I realize that Swidler's stress on concrete deeds rather than on belief is problematic for some Christian scholars who argue that, according to Martin Luther and even to St. Paul, human beings are saved by faith alone. However, Swidler's view is certainly consistent with the Christian Scripture's Letter of James, which states that, "without practice, faith in itself is dead" (2:17); further, one "is justified by deeds and not by faith in itself' (2:24). John Keenan has argued that, although the Letter of James "has often been shunted to the periphery ... the Letter of James is of central significance to the understanding and practice of Christian faith" (John P. Keenan, The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahayana Buddhism [New York: Newman Press, 2005], p. 1).

(13) Antony Fernando with Leonard Swidler, Buddhism Made Plain: An Introduction for Christians and Jews (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), p, 108.
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Author:Kasimow, Harold
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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