Interreligious Studies: Dispatches from an Emerging Field presents an impressive volume of what editor Hans Gustafson calls “dispatches,” a collection of succinct reports by the who’s who in interreligious/interfaith studies (hereafter IRS) on the “most salient contemporary issues in interreligious studies” (ix). For those familiar with IRS, this book complements a recent edited volume titled Interreligious/Interfaith Studies: Defining a New Field (Beacon Press, 2018) by going beyond the boundaries of North American academia and inviting leading thinkers from multiple continents into the wider IRS discourse.
What began as a vision for a roundtable for the field of IRS led to an anthology of thirty-four dispatches (around five pages each) by global contributors who address the need for essays that focus on “defining the field for research and that ask questions about its object(s) of study, histories, methodologies, challenges, opportunities, ethics, and politics among others” (xiv). Hence, this book has a central project of providing various perspectives on an emerging field of inquiry, taking on the task of critically analyzing how IRS contributes to the academy in research, study, and practice.
Despite what may seem like an unconventional volume with sundry topics, this book is rich and substantive in content. The dispatches are thoughtfully organized into five parts: “Sketching the Field,” “History and Method,” “Theological and Philosophical Considerations,” “Contemporary Challenges,” and “Praxis and Possibility.” Part 1 begins by providing a brief synopsis of the emergence and development of the academic field and how various scholars identified and tested the parameters of the growing field. Oddbjørn Leirvik and Eboo Patel’s reports serve as a strong starting point for the book, as they provide some context regarding the field and highlight the importance of interfaith studies and academic programs that are aligned to engaging social issues.
Part 2 takes a closer look at the historical precedents of interreligious dialogue and how it “bears significance for contemporary theory and practice” (69). For readers who are interested in the various methodologies researchers use to study interreligious encounters, the essays by Nelly van Doorn-Harder, Hans Gustafson, and Ånund Brottveit in part 2 will be most beneficial, as they aim to provide some of the framework regarding ethnographic, lived religion, and empirical approaches. Building on the notion of employing various approaches and methods in this complex field, experts in theological and religious studies tackle some of the important questions regarding “theological and philosophical truth-seeking in the context of interreligious encounter” (6) in part 3. This includes an essay by J. R. Hustwit, who makes a compelling case that IRS has “helped support, give rise to, and provide valuable data for four important theological subfields: theology of religions, missiology, comparative theology, and transreligious theology” (129).
The final two parts consider some of the more contemporary challenges and future possibilities in the field of IRS. The reports in part 4 are particularly notable, as they aim to address some of the recent, trendier issues such as decolonization and religious identity. “Decolonizing Interreligious Studies” by Paul Hedges, a scholar teaching in a southeast Asian context, argues that it is critical that IRS wrestles with questions of colonialism, postcolonialism, neocolonialism, decolonization, and orientalism in its early stages due to how “Western norms, values, experiences, cultural perspectives, and agendas have been placed upon the rest of the world in terms of how it is studied, interpreted, understood, and explained” (164).
The chapters in the final part underscore the importance of praxis within IRS, as it has the potential to “provide knowledge of the deep value roots of each region’s culture founded in its traditional dominant religion but also generate important insights that can lead to greater understanding about how to engage in intercultural encounters more respectfully and effectively” (213). The concluding essay by Deanna Ferree Womack turns to the issue of gender and Christian-Muslim relations, which demands more attention within IRS.
This volume is timely, as the field of IRS has been gaining much attention in recent years, slowly becoming an “emerging field approaching maturity” (ix). One should not be intimidated by the numerous contributors and essays, as this volume does not present itself like conventional edited monographs. Rather, this book is an outstanding contribution to the multidisciplinary field of IRS that catalyzes examination of the works of scholars in diverse contexts. Readers should also pay careful attention to the references at the end of each chapter, as they provide a rich resource for academic conversation on IRS. And as Anna Halafoff rightly points out in her foreword, it is imperative for IRS conversation to include more voices from the periphery, especially scholars from the Global South and East. Gustafson has put together a volume that includes a broad array of perspectives that will provide valuable guidance for both interfaith practitioners and IRS scholars.
Byung Ho Choi is a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Byung Ho Choi
Date Of Review:
September 25, 2021
Hans Gustafson is Director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interreligious Studies and Adjunct Faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas.
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