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Stephan Leimgruber {*}

New Perspectives of Interreligious Learning


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 6/2007, P. 363-374
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


The most prominent example of inter-religious learning has been given by Pope Benedict XVI on his fourth journey abroad to Turkey at the end of November 2006. His arrival was still overshadowed by the Islam-critical Regensburg lecture of September, in which a medieval Christian dignitary made disparaging remarks about the Prophet Muhammad and associated Islam with a "religion of the sword". With it a centuries-old Christian interpretation pattern was used for a today complex religion with many quite different beliefs (e.g. Sunni, Shiites, Alevi).

In the course of his Turkey journey the Pope set several symbolic actions that showed his intensive occupation with Islamic theology and culture as well as with the Turkish language. He made statements that reminded of the conciliar didactics of "Nostra aetate" (Vatican II), i.e. a comparative approach to Islamic and Christian ways of thinking. He knew for instance to preach in Ephesus about Mary the Virgin Mother of God, who is important for Christians and Muslims. In amazement he stood before the monuments of the world cultural heritage "Hagia Sophia" and "Blue Mosque". He did not need to hush up the differences between Christianity and Islam, but as guest in Ankara he occasionally hid his breast cross under his coat. There was no "conquest of hearts", as during John Paul's II visit (1979), but great respect for a - also world-political - authority.

The many conflicts about building mosques and the height of minarets or about the implementation of an Islamic cultural centre in small-town conditions show the urgency of such inter-religious and intercultural learning. The caricature debate made Islamic sensitivities stand out and proceed to counter-attacks. Fundamentalist Muslims did not shrink from using the demonstrators as an instrument for their aims, for they knew well that their cherished ban on pictures, which is already found in the Decalogue, had been hurt. In schools the introduction of Islamic religious education becomes indispensable, if the field shall not be left to the Imams in the Koran schools and the rising generation shall get a religious-spiritual anchorage and orientation.

Meanwhile intercultural and inter-religious learning can be found in all curricula from the kindergarten to the secondary school. It often replaces the former teaching about other religions. Inter-religious learning is based on religious-scientific knowledge and at the same time emphasizes the subject-led, personal learning in the context of a didactic of appropriation.



Altogether it serves a fruitful coexistence, a dialogical living together of members of different cultures and religions. Since the living together of the population is endangered, lifelong individual learning becomes so important. In the following we ask about the changes in the past ten years in the field of science, theology, and didactics of RE as well as in the churches, and we specify some absolutely necessary positions both for inter-religious learning and a Christian-Islamic dialogue viable for the future.


The Meeting of Religions Presupposes Intercultural Learning

On closer examination the observation can be made that a number of Christian-Islamic conflicts reveal disagreements of two different cultures and are neither religiously nor theologically caused. The so-called "compulsory marriages", which are arranged by parents with best intention, come from centuries-old traditions; in the Koran nothing is found about the mutilating of female genitalia, for this practice came into use long before Muhammad and is above all practiced in Africa. An international conference of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo in November 2006 declared itself against this inhuman custom! About the headscarf there is just as much obligatory in the Koran as in St Paul's letter to the Corinthians about the veil. For many teachers much more crucial is the nonchalance, with which Muslim boys meet lady teachers and how much they ignore their hints - simply because they are used to it from their home.

The more towards socialisation and participation in the religious life orientated religious education in Islam is simply based on learning imitation and obedience, whereas "the west is rather moulded by an education that is in the last analysis obligated to enlightenment and intends mature judgment. The fact that Muslimas and Muslims show and cultivate a more pronounced sense of shame is little compatible with the in the west usual advertising, which uses the female body without any inhibition for better marketing.

But on the other hand Europeans are terribly impressed how Muslims practise and profess their religion without shyness in public, when they really fast and perform their prayers in the airplane or in the Federal Railroads, whereas Christians do not want to make a show of their religiousness and pray privately - if at all. The communication structures among Muslimas and Muslims are culturally determined and predominantly run in a sex-specific way. In both religions the equal value of the sexes can theologically be substantiated, namely by the theology of Creation, which is advocated on the part of Islam as well.



But that the husband is the head of the family and the wife has to obey him meets cultural prescriptions fixed in the Sharia and which - if you will pardon my saying so - was also known to St Paul ("the head of the wife is the husband", 1 Cor 11, 3) and which was - before the times of women's emancipation (by training and the opportunities of earning an income) - reality also in the west. Only the increasing independence of women made possible more flexible understandings of gender and role patterns of behaviour.

All these conflict potentials signal the indispensable necessity for intercultural learning, still before all inter-religious learning. With it mutual learning processes between members of two or more cultures are meant. Intercultural learning begins with attentive culture comparative perceptions. It notices the differences in parallel elements of two cultures without assessing them. So the relativity of the two cultures becomes visible, which are different but not "better" or "worse". Today people who with a certain ease switch from one culture to another and are able to communicate and to find their way in both are acknowledged as inter-culturally competent: One knows about the intercultural differences, which are often merely due to missing historical contemporaneity and which so can be understood and mastered.

To take up once more the examples mentioned such as the height of minarets or the disobedience of boys to lady teachers: In the case of intercultural conflicts arguing goes on until both sides make concessions and reach an agreement. Here account is to be taken of the fact that western people are rather convinced of the changeability and context relatedness of historical conditions than people who are oriented towards a God given and therefore inspired and to a large extent unchangeable revelation. Intercultural learning has much to do with disadvantaged minorities and social learning. There differences in education and tradition become involved.


Narrow and Broader Sense of Inter-religious Learning

"Inter-religious learning "is more than a vogue-word that has for more than twenty years been booming in pedagogic of religion and in the vocabulary. "Inter-religious" and "intercultural learning" depict the multi-cultural religiously plural social situation and signal the necessity that members of different cultures and religions get to know each other and better understand. Particularly both concepts are program for Christianity and Islam, if these two religions and their cultures are not to remain irreconcilable opposites producing conflicts all over.

To me it seems meaningful and useful to distinguish inter-religious learning in a broader sense from inter-religious learning in a narrow sense. The first means what we have been doing for a long time already, i.e. to take notice of foreign religions, for instance use/assimilate documentary reports on radio, television and in books.



As it were in passing we learn a number of things about backgrounds, structures and religious practices of other religions. Inter-religious learning in the narrow sense takes place by personal contact, by discussions, visits and meetings from face to face; in a word: by the living together of members of different religions. Dialogue is the centre of this learning - as taking and giving, as listening and answering, as mutual exchange of experience. This learning is occasionally seen as 'ideal way' of the general inter-religious learning, because it is an authentic and direct learning that works more persistently and moulds the attitude to another religion more than indirect experience, e.g. by the media.

The aim of inter-religious contacts consists in respectfully meeting members of other religions and understanding their religion as a whole that offers meaning. The principal focus of dialogue is not to persuade and convert the others but mission in the sense of giving testimony, (see the Apostolic Letter "Evangelii nuntiandi" (1975). Consequently inter-religious learning can one's own religion make stand out more clearly in the mirror of other ways of belief. Neither a mishmash religion nor a minimal religion on the smallest common denominator is intended, but the acknowledgment of the other religion in question.


New Inter-religious Statements of the Churches

In the last half millennium the attitudes of the Christian churches to other religions changed fundamentally. It is not by chance that there is talk about a change of paradigm or even a "Copernican turn", which is accompanied by the parting from the exclusivist Ecclesiology and has changed from the former rather unfortunate negation of other religions to a - though differentiated - recognition of those "ways of salvation".

In the reception of the Council resolutions as well as in the newer Council research, which has at last reached also the German-speaking countries, it becomes increasingly clear how path braking the declaration 'Nostra aetate' was for the Catholic Church. It must be read before the background of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) and in the context of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Only when there is no longer any compulsion in religious things and the large religions are no longer heresies and errors, and only when the church's sacramentality is understood as symbol and in its character as tool and baptism is no longer seen as the only door (to heaven), a dialogue at eye-level can begin. Undoubtedly the new Catholic position on religions shaped by the Council implicitly was also decisive for the newer statements of the other Christian churches.



Interesting is the most recent statement of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) from December 2006 "Clarity and Good Neighbourhood - Christians und Muslims in Germany", (see: texts 86; Despite all differences between Christian and Islamic theology this document nevertheless sees Islam as religion of the neighbours with whom dialogue and respectful living together are future tasks without alternative. But the EKD does not shy away from telling the Muslims where they still have deficits in the EKD's opinion. Despite all things in common the two religions obviously have, the differences are "clearly" admonished - up to details of the Scharia.

The declaration "Dominus Iesus" (2000) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had the same aim. Worried about a relativistic mentality it emphasized "Jesus Christ's and the Church's uniqueness and all-embracing salvation" and imagined the other religions - in comparison with the (Catholic) church in a "situation of deficiency", but without giving up the necessity of dialogue.

The Orthodox Churches - due to their geographical and social proximity have always lived in a situation of competition with Islam. After age-long rejection of Muhammad's prophetic claim, the refutation of the Koran and the condemnation of the Islamic moral in the last third of the 20th century a serious mutual perception and a real dialogue got going. In 1985 this dialogue between Orthodoxy and Islam was officially organized, namely from the Orthodox centre of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Chambésy (Switzerland) under the chairmanship of Metropolit Damaskinos Papandreou. Since then there are regular dialogue meetings between Muslims and orthodox theologians who examine the conditions of co-operation. In 1997 the eighth round of dialogue between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Al-Abait-Foundation drew up a Declaration of Principle on the Orthodox-Islamic dialogue, in which both sides bound themselves to principles like the effort to further the unity of mankind (as basis for peace and justice and contrary to any war ideology), to respect each other and to become sincerely acquainted with each other.

The Ecumenical Council of Churches (ECC), an umbrella organisation of more than 200 Protestant and Orthodox churches, founded as integration organ of the ecumenical movement in Amsterdam (1948), in 1971 officially joined the inter-religious dialogue and established a department "Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies". In 1979 the ECC developed "Guidelines for the Dialogue with People of Different Religions and Ideologies", which in the member churches were taken as basis for inter-religious dialogue and were widely read and comprehensively commentated. On the basis of the experiences made with that paper, and including the changed situation of society, 23 years later those guidelines were updated in the document "Ecumenical Considerations on Dialogue with and Relations to People of Other Religions" (2002).



This document is about the inter-religious dialogue and the role of religion in conflicts. In a number of countries it is possible for dialogue partners in the concrete peace work to show solidarity to others beyond the dividing line of the diversity of religion. In other cases religious personalities are invited to deliver a public testimony for peace initiatives promoted by the state.

The more recent statements of the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Church as well as of the Ecumenical Council of Churches (see above) distinguish themselves by a common positive, critically-affirming position towards the great religions of the world. They harbour great riches and give many people hold and orientation in a complex life. All of them stand up for mutual respect regarding other religions and a relationship of dialogue with them. Point of difference is and remains Christology, particularly Soteriology. In other words: The Christian denominations are ready for inter-religious learning. Without a fundamentally positive attitude to other religions there is no fruitful inter-religious learning.

In particular Islam and Judaism have accepted this dialogue offer and recently positively reacted to the Christian initiatives. As answer to the churches' self-correction the Muslims opened their places of worship and introduced the "Day of the Open Mosque". They answered the good wishes of the Pope and the bishops at the time of Ramadan, by sending good wishes to the Christians at Christmas and Easter. In the meantime there are various Islamic statements about the human rights up to the so-called "Islam Charter 2002" of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (see There the democratic fundamental order, the central human rights as well as the German marriage law, the law of inheritance and the procedural law are recognized. In these partly encouraging statements it becomes clear that meanwhile one can no longer speak of "the Islam" as monolithic quantity, but one has in each case to take into account the different movements in Islam.

On the part of Judaism the well-known statement "Dabru emet" (speak truth, 2000) of four Jewish scholars from the USA shows the readiness of many Jews for a dialogue with the Christian churches. The building of new synagogues (e.g. in Munich, 2006) by the third post-war generation points in the same direction and the beginning of a new phase of Jewish community life in Germany, which is only positive for the religious education and places the topic "Judaism - Christianity" under new portents/signs.



On the Necessity of Religion-Theological Models and Their Limits

Also teachers of religion can in classes no longer evade the question how the different religions react to each other. The truth question of the world religions competing with each other can as little be faded out as the question of their mutual relations.

Modern theology of religion calls the traditional model of the relations between the religions "exclusive" or "ecclesia-centred 'exclusivism'". According to this for a long time held doctrine (Cyprian of Carthago, Augustinus, Council of Florenz, Petrus Canisius SJ) salvation is found only (exclusively) in the church and only for baptized people. This exclusivist ecclesia-centred view is - so the international theologian commission in its document "Christianity and the Religions" (1996) today no longer held "by Catholic theologians". Clear statements of Pope Pius XII and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on God's will of universal salvation and the possibility of salvation for those who do not belong to the visible church (among other things LG 16; Gs 22) speak against such a model.

A variant of 'exclusivism' is to be found in Martin Luther (1483-1546) and in the dialectic theology (of the early Karl Barth, 1886-1968), namely the model of the Christ-centred 'exclusivism'. According to this model salvation is only possible on the basis of confessing Jesus Christ. Other religions are seen negative, for they in the end represent a form of unbelief. According to this view salvation is only found in Jesus Christ. This model is occasionally still represented on evangelical side.

The model of the "theological pluralism" or the "pluralist Theo-centred theology of religion" stands in direct contrast to this exclusivist model. According to it there are beside Christianity with its unique way to salvation in Jesus Christ further unique equivalent ways to eternal salvation. This pluralist model of theology of religion is today represented by some theologians (J. Hick, L. Swidler, R. Pannikar, P. Schmidt Leukel). For them God's revelation is an event of "several peaks"; Christianity is equivalently placed beside the other religions: Jesus Christ beside Buddha, and the New Testament beside the Bhagavadgita. Perry Schmidt Leukel recently attempted to conceive a pluralist theology of religion which declaredly proceeds from Christian preconditions. On the basis of the teaching of the "seed corns of the word" or the "rays of truth" outside Christianity he communicates God's general will of salvation with the pluralist theology of religion and assigns to the cross event the meaning of God's boundless love in Jesus Christ. From the view of the New Testament the critical question arises whether and to what extent the pluralist view of religion is compatible with the Biblical promise that all believers find salvation and redemption in Christ.



John Hick justifies his position with the religion-philosophical hypothesis that God's will, his justice, grace and salvation in principle apply to the whole creation, but take shape in different revelations and mediators of salvation, for instance in Buddha, in Jesus Christ or also in the Koran.

The inclusive model of theology of religion takes the middle and mediating position, which was among other things implicitly taught by the Second Vatican Council in "Nostra aetate" and "Ad gentes". According to this view salvation happens in one religion, but at the same time it can appreciate the other religions and in certain forms recognize (traces of rays) of truth, even different possibilities and ways to salvation. This view takes up the earlier teachings of a few Church Fathers who also among the "pagans" see "seed corns of the Word" (AG 9; 11; to see 15) or "rays of truth", which promise them also chances of eternal salvation. According to this view there is salvation in and by Jesus Christ as well as the possibility of salvation in other religions on ways only God knows (AG 7). There is an inclusive salvation in Jesus Christ.

Islam in so far represents an including view as God's revelation in the Koran over Muhammad as quintessence of the prophet reached mankind after this revelation had first over Moses in the Torah had reached the people of Israel and by Jesus in the gospel the Christians. Jews and Christians are according to Muhammad's earlier preaching in Mecca included in God's final revelation in the Koran, but according to Muhammad's later preaching Torah and Gospel have been changed and falsified. But the model of inclusivism certainly applies to the early "Mecca phase" of Islam. Rightly Reinhold Bernhard recently speaks (2005) of a double 'inclusivism'.

The including model has two advantages: First it is compatible with the main statements of the Bible about salvation and redemption and secondly it sees in Jesus Christ God who has become man and the universal redeemer. The disadvantage of this model is that it pockets the members of the "non-Christian religions" in the sense that they are seen as "saved" by Christ, as "anonymous Christians" (Karl Rahner SJ). But the non-Christian religions do not define themselves by Jesus Christ as saviour. No matter how the discussion between inclusivism and pluralism will develop, RE teachers do well to acquire basic knowledge of the theology of religion.



Inter-religious Learning in School and Religious Education

Regarding the changed didactics of world religions in school and instruction, the following characteristics can be detected:

1. Inter-religious learning frequently begins or ends with aesthetic, perceptive learning. Sacral rooms of the religions are visited, looked at, explored and possibly services are celebrated and experienced. Here it is about a holistic getting to know with all senses, about being impressed in a 'slowed down' way. Aesthetic learning opens a new approach to religiousness.

2. Inter-religious learning tries to give a theological foundation to the contents of faith. With it this often proceeds comparatively and uses comparisons to Christian experiences of one's own. It perfectly corresponds to a spirally, constructive learning, if one refers to well-known Christian sources and familiar religious practices, in order to better notice the foreign reality in its characteristics.

3. Inter-religious learning emphasizes the things in common and clarifies what is different in the religions. One often marvels at the parallels or similarities, which are frequently larger than assumed. But it is always to be taken into account that each religion is as it were an individual orchestra, and each "element" to be seen in the general context. But comparisons remain indispensable for understanding.

4. As cultural matters cannot be left out of consideration in religious education (e.g. food and clothes, women's role and marriage, violence and holy war), so the holy writings of the religions should be treated with priority. The Joseph story, Cain and Abel, Noah, the building of the tower of Babel, the prophets and particularly Jesus Christ are in an optimal way suited to be compared with their representations in Bible and Koran.

5. In numerous schools in the last years multi-religious - surely not inter-religious - celebrations according to the Assisi model (participate when others pray) got going. The German bishops adopted "guidelines for multi-religious celebrations of Christians, Jews and Muslims" (2003). It is neither about any mingling of different images of God nor about celebrating the Eucharist, but about services centred on readings from the Scriptures of members of the monotheist "Abrahamitic" religions. While some are praying out of their tradition, the others are attentively present. Symbolic signs (e.g. kiss of peace) are given to each other. 's The objections of the Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner in December 2006 were directed against possible abuses and against the withholding of (genuine) Christian celebrations for Christian children, who were - with regard to the stage of their psychological development - overtaxed by too many multi-religious celebrations. But multi-religious celebrations will further remain genuine chances for inter-religious learning, as far as they are embedded into a multiform school pastoral.

6. Inter-religious learning provoked a new debate about the confessional religious education, in so far as the topic "religions" as educational contribution belonged to a school for all. Assistance for favouring the class instructions renders the argument that Muslims could represent their religion in the original version



and already here an inter-religious dialogue in miniature could be drafted. In particular from the perspective of religious science one favours a "confession-free", as much as possible "objective", but engaged information, what goes so far that the RE teacher has to set her/his own position in parentheses. In Zurich recently such a religion-scientifically supported concept is - starting from the first class of the primary school - to replace the denominational religious education and to avoid any influencing of pupils.

In contrast to this the form of the religious education, as always in history, will regionally develop and retain the country-specific characteristics. As little as there is one educational system only, so little will there ever be one form of religious education only. In my opinion particularly in the lower classes a multi-religious instruction overtaxes and confuses the pupils, instead of strengthening their religious embodiment. It seems to me a confessional and confessional-cooperative instruction with phases of inter-religious learning, for instance by projects, has definitely its chances and is pointing the way forward in a multi-cultural society.


Future Challenges for Christian Theology and Pedagogy of Religion

Hans Zirker repeatedly pointed to the asymmetrical relationship between Islam and Christianity and held that Islam is the only world religion that concerned itself with Christianity (and Judaism), but that vice versa the Christian theology saw little reason to concern itself with Islamic theology, with the Koran's claim to be God's revelations, and with Islamic ethics.

Of the well-known exegetes so far only Joachim Gnilka (2004), Heikki Räisänen (1971) and Stefan Schreiner, of the recent generation Martin Bauschke (2001) and Friedmann Eißler (on Moses in Bible and Koran) dared to tackle inter-religious connections of Bible and Koran. In the many quite high-ranking Bible commentaries there is still nothing to be found of the fact that the Koran has many Genesis texts, knows a special Sura "Yussiv "(Joseph) as continuous text, and that also Elija, Jona, Hiob and from the New Testament Zacharias, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and, in fifteen Suras, Jesus are to be found.

In particular there is still no clarity reached about the dark words in Sure 4:157: "They did not kill him and did not crucify him, but the appearance was aroused to them" (translation H. Zirker 2003, 70). Here exegetes with knowledge of Arab would be in demand! Why actually is there no Koran interpreter from Christian view beside the commendable beginnings of Theodor Adel Khoury (2004)? Why are most of the Koran's translations in German so difficult to be read and so deterrent for religious education at grammar schools? Why does the German Research Foundation (DFG) reject projects for the study of the Koran from Christian view and does at the same time maintain that practically no applications came from the theologians' side?



It looks somewhat better within the systematic range. As the first and only one Hans Martin Barth has written a "Dogmatic Theology in the Context of the World Religions" (2001). Medard Kehl's new theology of Creation "And God saw that it was good" (2006) has at least a chapter "Christian and Muslim Faith in Creation" (346-357). But Andreas Renz's thesis (2002) on Revelation and image of man in Bible and Koran is still ignored, and the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam" of the Catholic Academy in Stuttgart is hardly taken note of. For Cardinal Lehmann the dialogue with Judaism has priority; theologically this is of course correct; but meanwhile the theological foundation of this dialogue is fully matured and has been expounded in innumerable qualification works.

Within the religion-didactical range there are unfortunately only few theologians who concern themselves with the Christian-Islamic and Christian-Jewish dialogue in a deepened way: Johannes Lähnemann (Nürnberg Forum), Reinhard Kirste (Interreligious Office, Duisburg), Peter Schreiner (2005), Martin Jäggle (2002), Clauss Peter Sajak (2005) and Helga Kohler-Spiegel (2002).

No doubt: In our rapidly integrating Europe inter-religious and intercultural learning have become an indispensable necessity. It has on the one hand contributed to a differentiated knowledge of the other religions and cultures, and has on the other hand revealed existing difficulties and conflicts. As "learning" is altogether a laborious task that we like to avoid, so inter-religious learning will probably become a strong challenge for the future European society. In this learning process religious education could lead the way and get even higher acceptance for this school subject, which in the meanwhile has become popular.



    {*} The meeting of religions presupposes inter-religious and intercultural learning. STEPHAN LEIMBRUBER, professor for pedagogy of religion and didactics of religious education at the University of Munich, is on the track of religious learning in church documents and asks for current challenges.


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