Global Conversations with: Dr. Leonard Swidler, Founder and President of the Dialogue Institute

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Kathleen Quigley, for GPA -- For almost fifty years, Dr. Leonard Swidler has been the head of the Dialogue Institute, which is headquartered at Temple University as part of its religion department. The Dialogue Institute, in addition to working with religious scholars from all over the world, publishes the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, which Dr. Swidler revealed was on the cutting edge of religious scholarship right from its founding. Speaking with Global Philadelphia Association, Dr. Swidler illuminated the many fascinating aspects of his work, including why interreligious dialogue is essential for peace in our world.

Dr. Swidler, thank you for taking the time to speak with Global Philadelphia Association today. Could you tell us how you came to live in Philadelphia?

My wife and I were teaching at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which is a Catholic University. She was in the English department, and I was in History, and we had spent three years previous to coming to Duquesne University in Germany. I was doing research on a doctoral dissertation in History and also finishing a degree in Catholic theology. In fact, I think I’m the first Catholic lay person to get a degree in Catholic theology, at least in modern times. People just didn’t get degrees, and now of course it’s very common.

This was back in the 1950s, and in any case, I had that degree in Catholic theology, but I also had the doctorate in History, and so I was hired by the History department at Duquesne University. And as I said my wife was, too, and she came up with the idea that maybe we should start a scholarly journal devoted to ecumenical dialogue, which means dialogue among Christians working toward Christian unity.

The reason for that was that that was my topic of research in Germany the previous three years, and so we became very aware of it, and of course by the time we got to Duquesne University it was fall of 1960 that we came. By then, Pope John XXIII had already issued a public call for the Second Vatican Council, an ecumenical council, and he made it clear that one of the major reasons for it as far as he was concerned was to promote Christian unity, this ecumenical movement, also dialogue with Jews, and bringing the Catholic Church up to date. That was his language. He used the Italian aggiornamento. “Giorno” means “day” and “aggiornamento” meant “bringing up to date” quite literally. So that was in the air. And so it was my wife’s idea to start this scholarly journal, and we did proceed to do that.

It’s called the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. If you look at those almost 50 volumes behind you, that is the result from the top down. And what happened was one of the young scholars whose article we published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies was coming through Pittsburgh for some reason or other, and by this time, I had also established a radio program. And so I interviewed this Lowell Striker was his name, and he was a young scholar at Temple University. Temple University was started back in the 1880s in connection with the Baptist Temple, hence the name. The pastor, Russell Conwell, started it for poor men and women. After the war, tuition went up, and so it was becoming more and more difficult for the mission to be fulfilled. So the university administration went into consultation with the state, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to see about some kind of state-related status. That, in fact, did happen.

In July 1966, officially Temple University became a state-related university. Previous to that, the divinity school, which was attached and had Protestant-trained ministers, could no longer be brought into this relationship because of separation of church and state in the United States, and so a department of religion was founded in 1964. They hired a Jewish professor to be the Chair, and so when I was interviewing Lowell Striker at Duquesne, I asked him if he’d be interested in joining the faculty at Duquesne, because we were looking for qualified professors. He later returned to Philadelphia and spoke to his chairman. I got a phone call from Lowell Striker, after talking to his chairman, saying that the chairman would like to hire me and my co-editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. I didn’t want to go, but eventually I did to Temple University. The Journal of Ecumenical Studies came, as well.

That is how I came to be at Temple, and July 1, 1966 is when we started. We’ve been here ever since. The “dialogue” started out, as I mentioned, as intra-Christian, among Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants. Within a year and a half, we expanded to include dialogue with Jews, and then quickly with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists. So by 1968, we had already expanded in that direction and had Christian-Marxist dialogue in our pages.

That must have been extremely novel for the time period.

Yes, it was very “far out,” in the 1960s language. It might be interesting to mention that the very first issue, I was still at Duquesne University in 1964, contained articles by the two most famous Catholic theologians alive today. One is Professor Hans Küng who was at the University of Tübingen the same time I was. Also, a colleague of his, Joseph Ratzinger, who was also faculty at Tübingen. Ratzinger today is of course Pope Benedict XVI. So that’s the first issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. That will be fifty years a year and a half from now. That was our auspicious beginning.

In 1978, I was invited along with a Catholic colleague, Professor Eugene Fisher, to Washington DC. We were invited by Sergeant Shriver, the founder and first director of the Peace Corps, and he married into the Kennedy family. Shriver wanted to get together a group of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars. So my wife and I got together the first Jewish-Christian-Muslim “trialogue” we called it, and we met for a number of years. I continued that, even after Shriver lost interest because we weren’t solving the political problems of the Middle East as he hoped we could. That started the Dialogue Institute. It was the first enterprise of the Dialogue Institute, you might say, and the Dialogue Institute was the first outreach arm of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. The Journal is peer-reviewed, so it’s the highest scholarly level material, and the Dialogue Institute was a way to put theories into concrete practice.

For the first few years, everything was done, in a way, pro-bono. I’d have to go around and raise the money for whatever a project was or whatever idea was generated. But about eight years ago, we were able to gain enough funding to hire our first Director. Now we have a staff of five, besides myself. That’s how the Dialogue Institute began, with this Jewish-Christian-Muslim “trialogue”, which is continuing. We had it every year, now it’s not quite as frequent because instead of the scholars coming in a ten Jewish/ten Christian/ten Muslim scholars, we are moving in the direction of bringing in the business world and education world and so on, so that the Dialogue Institute has now become more and more global in its outreach and efforts. Let me tell you where I’ve been this year; last fall, I was lecturing in the University of Vienna, then in Seoul, Korea, then in Beijing, China, then in Cluj, Romania, then Baku, Azerbaijan, then Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, Beirut, Lebanon, then Kinshasa in the Congo, then Lubumbashi in the bush.

This was all in the last twelve months?

Yes. Later in [September], I will be going to Beijing and Jakarta to lecture. And we have been bringing in people around the world. We’ve conducted State Department-sponsored programs for scholars from Africa, Asia, and Europe. A few weeks ago, a group of twenty university students came from four Middle Eastern countries--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iraq. Last February, we had a group of twenty Indonesian students. Earlier this summer, we had a group of judges from Iraqi-Kurdistan, and another group of business leaders from Iraq, and a group of 8 professors from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia from King Abdullah University and Imam University.

How do you arrange the accommodation when all of these individuals come to Philadelphia?

It varies. For the Middle East students, they came in the summer, so we were able to use the student dormitories here. The students that came from Indonesia came in January/February, and we used the Conwell Inn, which is our local hotel here on campus. For the business leaders and judges, and the Saudi Professors, we use hotels downtown. Because they spend most of their time in Philadelphia, for one group of Iraqis, we used a Catholic retreat house out in Haverford. Then we take them to New York City and Washington DC. The students we sometimes take to Gettysburg because one State Department program was on American religious pluralism and democracy. So the Civil War and racism is very important in learning about all that, so we took them to Gettysburg.

When you have a plurality of visitors from a plurality of cultures, how do you logistically and sensitively prepare for their arrivals, when it seems there is so much to take into consideration?

Well the short answer is: with great difficulty. You’re absolutely right, we have to be sensitive. Like when we had the mixed group of students from four different Middle East countries, they’re not all the same. First of all, they’re not even the same religiously. We’ll have Christians, Shia’a, Sunni, and Druze involved. We also had one group of women professors from Al Qasemi College in Israel, which is an Arabic speaking college, and so the faculty that came to us was a combination of Jewish and Muslim faculty. We put them in touch with civic leaders, foundations, fundraising operations, besides of the training we did in house in dialogue and critical thinking. Those are our signatures--dialogue, interreligious, intercultural, critical thinking. We don’t want to encourage people to have dialogue and simply exchange their ignorance. The whole point of dialogue is to learn more, and that means critical thinking.

More and more, we are sending people out. One of our staff is going to be speaking in Indonesia at a conference that is organized by alumni, the university students we had here, and they are putting on a very major conference in Sumatra. It turns out that this invitation I got to go to Beijing, which came about really recently, I’m planning to meet the students in Indonesia. I have to tell you that, it was like a year ago, I was also in China and I decided to come back by way of Jakarta. The American embassy there organized a reception at the home of the ambassador, and invited all of the Indonesian students who had been trained by us here. I must say it was really fun for me because I felt like a rock star. I came into the place and they all cheered and came over to hug me. That doesn’t happen very often to university professors.

When you’re abroad, do you promote Philadelphia as a great city of international activity?

Absolutely. When I talk about Philadelphia, I always talk about how this is the birth place of America. This is the birth place of democracy, this is the birth place of freedom. Now, it depends on the kind of people I meet. If I’m speaking to business people, besides that, I say we have huge connections with all kinds of global companies, and education--we’re loaded with universities. I talk about Temple first. This is the sort of thing I just automatically do, even if there were no such thing as Global Philadelphia. It’s to the advantage of the Dialogue Institute to say that we are connected with this major university, and it’s to our advantage to say we are right in the middle of all the stuff in Philadelphia that I would describe.

In your experience, when visitors come, what do they tend to enjoy most about the city?

Well, it depends. They love it downtown, the ones we put in the hotels. They also all love the freedom monuments, which are very important, obviously, because the people we bring here are almost always from, we shall say, not highly-developed democratic countries. They come and America is a city sitting on a mountain top for them. It’s a fantastic goal. Especially after the Bush era, going around the world was very painful for me as an American. Most people were very unhappy with American administration, but that’s not the case anymore. One hundred years ago this year, my father came to this country from the Ukraine as a fifteen-year-old boy, and he referred to America as “das goldene land”- the golden land. 

Could you tell us why we should invest in religious dialogue?

Back in 1983, the United Nations issued a document which was on freedom of religion and/or belief. I was invited by a human rights organization in New York City to help them put together an international conference on how to make that document begin to be real in the world. And people from the State Department and business people came to these meetings, and were saying “religion, smigion! What’s that got to do with anything?” Then of course, there came 9/11, and religion blew them out of the field.

Now of course they’re recognizing that religion is very important for good and for ill, and what we need to do is change the ill into good. It’s there, and it’s a powerful force. It’s not only a force in the Islamic world, although there it is very powerful, and of course we know about its negative effects in massive ways. We’re at wars because of that, and we’re losing and using probably trillions of dollars. So religion has had a negative effect on US business and politics in terms of trillions of dollars.

What we need to do is turn this force, which is there whether we like it or not, in positive directions so that it will produce trillions of dollars as positive productivity rather than negative destructiveness. That’s on a purely physical basis, to say nothing of the transferring of minds and spirits. Many millions are trapped in a destructive mindset of what religion could be, should be. Much of it is very destructive and it need not be, because as you can see, there are many positive expressions of it. We need to change it from negative to positive, from destructive to constructive. At the heart of that is that at the beginning, I have to at least tolerate you, but that’s not sufficient. 

We know from lots of experience that you must move beyond tolerance to positive engagement, meaning dialogue in the broadest sense. I talk about dialogue of the head, hands, and heart. In dialogue of the head, we try to understand each other. In dialogue of the hands, we join hands and work to make the world a better place to live in. Dialogue of the heart has two dimensions: everybody loves things of beauty, poetry, painting, etc.-- this is the easiest way for us to meet the other through the dialogue of the heart, the beauty. Then, you get to know this person and his or her other dimensions. Then, there is the spiritual dimension, the interior, what we think, what we value, what we hate, and why we need to encounter each other there at the deepest levels. So we need to encounter each other there at the deepest levels, and engage in this dialogue of the head, hands, and heart. And the fourth is the dialogue of the whole, because as humans, we want to be integrated. We don’t want to be schizophrenic. We know this is a destructive way to exist as humans. What’s really interesting is that in English and the Germanic languages to be “holy” means literally to be “whole.” So dialogue is of the head, hands, heart and the whole.

Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Only that I’d like to say that I guess our work at the Dialogue Institute, promoting critical thinking and the dialogue behind it, we have to think in terms of yes, we need dialogue and critical thinking, but then we have to be able to act in accordance with the openness of ‘I want to learn from you,’ which is what dialogue is, and wanting to think critically to get as close to reality as we can, which is a never-ending task. Then, we have to act, but how should we act? I use two terms: “competitive cooperation.”

Cooperation is obvious, but we have to have competition in the sense of putting principles into action, individually and communally. In Islam, they use the word ‘jihad,’ which means ‘struggle.’ In the Qur’an there are two major kinds of ‘jihad.’ One is the struggle inside me, to live up to my principles, and the second is the exterior. Well, it seems to me that that is what this competition has to be. First of all, the interior, to live up to my principles means creativity. In many instances, we can create things more effectively cooperatively rather than individually. So that’s kind of the complex way that I see it: deep dialogue, critical thinking, competitive cooperation. 


This interview with Dr. Leonard Swidler has been edited and condensed from its original version. Edited by Kathy Quigley for GPA.