The idea of interfaith studies is often pegged to the notion of religions in dialogue – over conflicts, settling differences, towards a “mutual understanding” of worldviews that often happen to be widely misunderstood. But interfaith studies is a field with much greater depth, and at McGill, is growing larger through institutional engagement with wider audiences, local and international connectivity, and a commitment to global justice. The importance of contextualizing religions as the object of study cannot be understated, while its scholarship should guard intellectual autonomy as though it were a sacred artefact. In a way, that is exactly what it was:
“In the period of the Axial Age, all the way to the times of ancient Christianity and Islam, religious scholars and philosophers were spiritually and intellectually independent”, says Armando 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.”
Against the grain of xenophobic and anti-religious discourses that are part of this modern society,understanding religions through their cultural, intellectual, and philosophical interactions is an important piece of academic religious studies. At McGill’s School of Religious Studies, this engagement with religious interactions and discourses includes propositions for dialogue, but looks beyond to identify their impact on our moral economy, social institutions, and subcultures as well as hegemonic ones.
A sociologist and scholar of comparative religion specializing in the study of Islam’s interfacing with both Western and Eastern civilizations, Professor Salvatore sees many current issues as reminiscent of the social, intellectual, and political 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 in the launch of Interfaith Studies at McGill an opportunity to link the past to the present via research, education, and dialogue:
“I’m not the only one who sometimes thinks that the old Axial Age 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 centre piece of a $5 million donation made from the Keenan Foundation to the School in 2013.Coming to McGill in 2014,he is the Chair’s inaugural holder, and with the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Department of Anthropology, is 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.
In addition to funding graduate and undergraduate studies, the gift of the Keenan Foundation also finances 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, the religious-secular dichotomies in social and legal institutions, religious violence, the suppression and revitalization of indigenous world views and the endeavors to bring justice to victims of settler colonialism all over the world. The organizers, made up of academic staff and graduate students, hope that ideas procured from the event can provide testing grounds to the prevailing notions of our political and social order.
Expanding its horizons with a commitment to interfaith studies and establishing international connections has also shown promise for the growth of the SRS in other ways. 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, a success that is likely due in part to its expansion that crystallized in May 2016, when the Faculty of Religious Studies became a School under the Faculty of Arts.
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.