Laying the Foundation: An Interview with Leonard Swidler, By Joshua Stanton

Posted on June 4th, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, IR News and Events, On Campus

Professor Leonard Swidler

When you speak with Professor Leonard Swidler, you cannot help but feel mentored by him. This week, I had the chance to interview him about his role in founding the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and the recent celebration of his illustrious career in the Department of Religion at Temple University. Here are some kernels of wisdom from a pioneer in the field of inter-religious study and action.

Stanton: You've done so much during your career, from feminist theology to inter-religious studies. What are you most proud of?

Swidler: I suppose it's the launching of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, that my wife and I founded in 1964. That's been the main basis of all of my subsequent work... It's the skeleton on which everything else is hung.

Stanton: It's wonderful that you started the journal with your wife. How did that come about?

Swidler: (With a chuckle) My wife often had 'my' best ideas... We were married in the Spring of 1957 and moved to Germany that fall. Germany had been like Northern Ireland for hundreds of years, with tension between Catholics and Protestants, but after World War I began to calm down. My studies and her teaching there set us up for more work in the field. Then when we got back to the U.S. and went to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, she said, “Hey. Guess what. There's no scholarly journal in the field. Maybe we should start one.” So we got started making one.

Stanton: What were some of your initial challenges and joys with the journal?

Swidler: The biggest initial challenge was the timing, since we founded the journal only at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. It was a bit of a challenge to get by the censor, since Duquesne was a Catholic university run by the Holy Ghost Fathers. Father Koren, who had made the Philosophy Department so famous, focusing on Existentialism and Phenomenology, which were at the time the most exciting topics in Europe, and then brought similar prominence to the Psychology Department and then founded the Duquesne University Press, heard about our idea for the new journal. He got in touch about having it published and 'got it all settled' with the Church. Koren had himself designated the censor by the diocesan bishop, John J. Wright, later cardinal. However, he promised to 'censor' the journal only after it was in the galleys and couldn't be changed before publication anyway. So we avoided being censored. But soon the whole issue of censorship evaporated and we didn't have to worry about it at all.

The other challenge was gathering together a Board of Associate Editors.... It began as just a Protestant-Catholic publication but by 1965 we had our first non-Christian Associate Editor, Rabbi Arthur Gilbert. When in 1966 we [and the Journal of Ecumenical Studies] moved to Temple University, Arthur urged the Board of the Reconstructionist Movement [of Judaism] to establish its rabbinical institute nearby. He helped negotiate the whole arrangement with what became the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It had a rule that anyone in the program also had to be accepted for a PhD in the Religion Department at Temple University.... The challenge [of finding Associate Editors] had a very happy development, as Temple ended up with 10-12 [more] Jewish graduate students in the Department of Religion.

Stanton: How did the Dialogue Institute emerge from your work with the Journal of Ecumenical Studies?

Swidler: It began as intra-Christian dialogue. But post-Vatican II, it broke out of the box. We started dialoguing with Jews... and once you turned away from looking inward and started looking outward, it developed a kind of momentum to keep going.... We needed to find ways to translate theory into action in life in organizations and institutions.

Stanton: What's in store for the Dialogue Institute in the future?

Swidler: Three years ago we received substantial funding to expand our staff.... Despite the current economy, you can expect to see us expand even more in the future. We have three major initiatives planned: one with Israeli women - Jewish, Christian, and Muslim - of al-Qasemi Academy, which is a teachers college primarily for Arab women... another is with Saudi professors, who are also coming for a week of training... and a third is interreligious dialogue a training for all U.S. Military Chaplains in Europe, and for two different combat brigades about to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan .

More broadly, we hope to bring together religious figures and leaders and global business. These are the two most powerful forces for change in the world. We tend to think of them as antithetical rather than working together. But they can and should be brought together.

Stanton: What do you hope for the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in the future?

Swidler: The journal just started to do special issues, like Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots - books aimed at clergy and lay leaders. Interfaith Dialogue at the Grassroots is designed to help the clergy and others go about the business of interreligious dialogue. There are a large number who already know how to do so, but an even greater number who are interested or feel that they should be involved in interreligious dialogue but don't know how to do it. We want to provide them with a range of information from people with experience doing dialogue at the grassroots level. It can also serve as a kind of study guide and provide practical guidance. In the future, we hope to have a whole series of publications - books and booklets.

Stanton: From the sounds of it, you are just as busy after your 80th birthday as before. Do you ever plan to take a break?

Swidler: I plan to leave my work either when my health goes bad or when the 'great retirement' comes. And I'm very careful to ride my 'bike to nowhere' [stationary bike] 5-6 miles a day to stay in shape.

Stanton: What advice do you have for a young person like myself, interested in getting more involved in inter-religious work and dialogue?

Swidler: I guess, really, you're already doing the first thing, which is listening. You have to learn to listen to others and understand why they are doing the things they are doing one way or another.

Dialogue is the best way to find the heart of your understanding of how your tradition is similar to and different from that of your partner. We make all kinds of unconscious assumptions about the other. The only way to make progress is to get our unconscious assumptions into the open - and to do so we need dialogue. Our dialogue partner becomes our mirror into ourselves and, also, how the world perceives us.

Stanton: What book has most influenced your work?

Swidler: Maybe, I would say, the basic writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist, writing back in the beginning of the 20th Century. He died in 1954 but his vision of reality, an evolutionary one, is far out in front of where most thinkers are today. He put together in his writings matter and spirit.

Photo courtesy of Temple University's Department of Religion.

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