The Future of Religious Leadership

World Religions in Conversation

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Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Interreligious Reflections
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf and Stock
    , August
     218 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This collection of essays, The Future of Religious Leadership: World Religions in Conversation, edited by Alon Goshen Gottstein, and the product of the Jerusalem-based Elijah Interfaith Institute’s scholars’s panel, is notable for its effort to host significant conversation among thinkers representing six religious traditions, focusing on the concept and content of religious leadership. Interfaith collections such as this often promise much and deliver less, as the attempt to offer substantive but legible descriptions of both thought and practice in our complex, nuanced, ancient, and always-renewing traditions gives way to over-generalized claims, or over-simplified summaries. Concentrating on just one aspect of religious knowing—in this case, religious leadership—and doing so in a particularly fraught moment for institutions and their leaders, supplies this project with admirable gravitas and real urgency. As someone who teaches a course entitled “Community, Leadership and Change” in an (aspiring) multi-religious graduate program that prepares students for various forms of spiritual leadership and community engagement, I was pleased to know about this work, and eager to read these authors.

Gottstein should be commended for the title’s level of organization and content. Bookended by the editor’s summary chapters, the bulk of the collection offers serious and thoughtful treatments of the telos, history, typology, and contemporary challenges of “leadership” in each of the six religious traditions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Writing from within their own epistemologies and language systems, and deeply rooted in the histories and practices of their traditions, each author (or, in the case of the chapter on Christian leadership, a pair of authors) presents the wisdom and practice of leadership with accents and emphases that are particular to each community. From this reader’s perspective, the most engaging and thought-provoking aspect of this project lies in the distinctive flavor of each account of leadership: the image of Christocentric servanthood that can be at such odds with the prosaic work of church administration; the multiple, nuanced types of Islamic leadership that have arisen in response to the demands of historical and political realities; the necessary tension between the teaching of the law and the activity of prophecy in Judaism; the embodiment and transmission of practical wisdom that characterizes the Hindu gurus alongside the practical devotion of Hindu priests; the preservation of a distinctive Sikh culture, with its commitment to moral conduct, despite global migrations; and the Buddhist insistence on the balance of contemplation and compassion, and the challenge of maintaining the integrity of the “triple gem”—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It was instructive to note that the present challenges of religious leadership were just as nuanced—as each tradition is situated differently with respect to its relationship with modernity—and by its own historical and geographical contingencies.

A close reading of each tradition’s assumptions, expectations, and challenges concerning religious leadership heightens the reader’s awareness of the embodied and situated nature of all religious life, and made me both more appreciative of this multi-dimensional practice and more curious about the essential and necessary multiplicity of leadership in my own community. At the same time, given the very nature of the volume’s task and the project’s own “telos,” the book does not entirely avoid the familiar and frustrating liabilities of most multi-religious conversations. The editor of the volume, Alon Goshen Gottstein, is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, which is described in the book’s flyleaf as “a multinational organization dedicated to fostering peace between the world’s diverse faith communities through interfaith dialogue, education, research and dissemination.” Two chapters of the volume—the introduction (chap. 1) and the last chapter (chap. 8) entitled “Religious Leadership: A Composite Picture”—are contributed by the editor and make the strong and often reiterated claim that “what unites us is more, and also possibly more significant, than what divides us” (1). Over forty pages of the volume are devoted to making this case, more pages than are devoted to any one of the traditions themselves. It is unlikely that religious leaders who do not already subscribe to this notion would choose this volume as elective reading material, nor would a classroom adopt World Religions in Conversation as a text if such a conversation was not already a commitment. As these bookends seem to be preaching to the interfaith choir, it might have been more useful for the art and teaching of leadership if the volume’s framing made space to honor and investigate our traditions’s necessary differences, imagining new possibilities for religious life and practice as an outcome of taking our diversity moreseriously, and seeking to understand what we might owe to each other givenour distinctiveness: how we might be in more reflexive solidarity in service of the flourishing of one another’s communities.

A volume spanning six world religions in less than 300 pages will inevitably fall prey to the limitations of such a collaboration, and these are evident here as well: who speaks for whom, and in what order, and towards which questions? The scholars featured in this book are all respected and accomplished in their traditions and their academies, and they strive to describe the genealogies and practices of their traditions in both depth and breadth. Yet, context and embodiment cannot be denied: each thinker speaks from a thin slice of their tradition; the Abrahamic traditions speak first; the term “leadership” itself lends the project a western, monotheist, male accent at times; and the accounts of women and the traditions that embody shared or non-hierarchical patterns of leadership are underrepresented. Various authors point to these liabilities, and these observations buttress the book’s credibility, making us grateful for this volume’s attempt to do something new and needed in the religious landscape, and inspire us to engage our own communities in ways that will empower more voices and more bodies for robust religious engagement–both within our own traditions, and in the increasingly multi-religious ecologies in which we are all entangled.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia G. Lindner is Director of Ministry Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
January 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. A noted scholar of Jewish studies, he has held academic posts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University and has served as director of the Center for the Study of Rabbinic Thought, Beit Morasha College, Jerusalem.


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