Building the Future of Interfaith Studies

The School of Religious Studies at McGill reaffirms its dedication to intellectual growth and autonomy through a project of self-renewal.

Understanding religions through their cultural, intellectual, and philosophical interactions is an important piece of academic religious studies. Interfaith studies is often described as the study of religions in dialogue – exploring the ways in which religious traditions connect, conflict and interact. At the McGill School of Religious Studies, it is a field that is growing larger through the School's engagement with wider audiences, collaboration with local and international institutions and overall commitment to global justice. 

According to Professor Armando Salvatore, contextualization in religious studies is of utmost importance. He strongly encourages scholars to carefully guard their intellectual autonomy as though it were a sacred artifact. “In the times of ancient Christianity and Islam, religious scholars and philosophers were spiritually and intellectually independent”, says Salvatore, professor of global religion and culture at McGill’s School of Religious Studies. “They had an autonomy of conscience that came from their loyalty to the wider world of knowledge. This autonomy is still a mandate for scholarship and students – to be able to set one’s own agenda, with criteria of criticism and measuring success, while also having something genuinely individual that motivates the process.”

A sociologist and scholar of comparative religion specializing in the study of Islam’s interaction with both Western and Eastern civilizations, Professor Salvatore sees many current issues as reminiscent of the social and intellectual shifts that occurred in the first millennium BCE. The interactions between religious voices of the time, he says, formed part of a wider intellectual movement that changed the collective intelligence for the centuries that followed.

Coming from Europe, well-traveled in the Middle East, and also active in places like Singapore and Australia, Salvatore saw an opportunity in the launch of the School of Religious Studies to link the past to the present via research, education, and dialogue:

“I’m not the only one who sometimes thinks that this part of ancient history resonates with what we are living right now”, he states. “The global problems we are facing – fighting poverty, climate change, the risk of nuclear war and so on – cannot just be solved through conventional means. We have to test them from the perspectives opened up by the teachings of known and lesser-known sages, spiritual masters, and prophets who rebelled against the oppression of close-knit communities and literally created new and open cosmologies, emphasizing freedom of the self, solidarity with the other, and transcendent horizons of righteousness and justice.”

Professor Salvatore holds the Barbara and Patrick Keenan Chair in Interfaith Studies at McGill, a position that is the centerpiece of a donation made from the Keenan Foundation to the School in 2013. In addition to funding graduate and undergraduate studies, the gift of the Keenan Foundation also supports the Keenan Conference on Religions and Globalization, an interdisciplinary symposium bringing world-renowned scholars together at McGill to exchange and share knowledge relevant to, but not necessarily explicitly within, the field of religious studies.

The inaugural Keenan Conference, scheduled for October 2019, will include scholars from disciplines like history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology, and will explore topics such as cosmopolitanism, colonialism, indigeneity, religious mobilization, and evolutions of the self and community in modern times.

A goal of the Conference is to reconceptualise knowledge of historical religious interactions and applying it to the present, showing how religious history can be a means to help solve issues of wider public interest in the current age. As Professor Salvatore explains, the Conference will engage in “both classic and contemporary” topics, building the debates on: cosmopolitanism, religious-secular dichotomies in social and legal institutions, and religious violence. Also part of the discussion will be the suppression and revitalization of indigenous worldviews and restoring justice to victims of settler colonialism.

The organizers, made up of academic staff and graduate students, hope that ideas gained from the event can provide testing grounds to the prevailing notions of our political and social order.

As the Chair’s inaugural holder, and with the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Department of Anthropology, Professor Salvatore is also organizing a lecture series for the 2018/19 academic year. The lectures all share the theme “Islamic Encounters”, and feature guest speakers from Montreal, Ottawa, and prestigious international universities like Chicago, Berkeley, Columbia and Groningen.

Since its expansion that crystallized in May 2016, when the Faculty of Religious Studies became a School under the Faculty of Arts, The School has risen in the QS rankings of top universities for Theology, Divinity and Religious Studies, sitting at second place in Canada, and 22nd in the world.

The repositioning was part of a wider project of self-growth, indebted to former Dean and Professor of Early Christian History and Literature Ellen Aitken, who “anticipated the move out of self-entrenchment and towards public dialogue”, and whose commitment to interfaith studies is growing with contributions like the Keenan’s gift, the participation of thinkers from around the world, and cutting-edge research being pursued right at home.