Interreligious and Interfaith Studies in relation to Religious Studies and Theological Studies

The emerging academic field of interreligious and interfaith studies (IIS) has burst onto the scene relatively recently and will be, I suspect, coming to a college or university near you soon. Currently there are only a few undergraduate programs and several graduate and seminary programs. The number of these programs are rapidly growing in addition to the number of academic journals and organizations devoted to the field. Those on the forefront of crafting this field have deemed it an inherently interdisciplinary field, which I believe is accurate. However, a particular challenge remains: the clear articulation and demonstration of how this field relates to, and is distinct from, the academic fields of religious studies (RS) and theological studies (TS).

Religious Studies (RS)[1], in the conventional sense, is the academic study of religion that “aims to understand religions, religious groups, religious practices, and religious ideas, across traditions, time periods, and geographical regions.”[2] RS attempts (successfully or not[3]) to do this from an outsider and/or secular perspective without self-implication or confession.

[Religious studies] does not promote or undermine any religious perspective. Religious Studies is by its very nature interdisciplinary. The field, from its earliest inception, combined historical analysis of the religion and culture of specific groups with a study of their foundational texts. With the growth of the social sciences, the field later incorporated the approaches of anthropology, sociology, and psychology to study the “lived religion” of specific groups. More recently, the field has embraced a variety theoretical approaches to the study of religion.[4]

Theological Studies (TS) can be understood in a number of ways. When placed in relation to RS, it is most often understood to be of a confessional nature in which the agent (theologian) stands within her or his tradition (thus it is self-implicating) striving for truth about their own tradition (whether it be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Paganism, etc.). Theologians often commit (to varying degrees) to the truth-claims of their own tradition in an effort to correlate them with truths about God (or the Gods, the divine, the transcendent), world, and what it means to be human. To be clear, the object of study for theology is theological truth and insight whereas IIS (which may include the fields of TS and RS along with many others) examines interreligious relations with an eye to more than theological truth and insight. This is not to say that theology cannot draw on other disciplines. It certainly does, but the object of study differs from ISS. Comparative theology is a good example here. There is no perfectly agreed upon definition of comparative theology,[5] but most describe it as a field which employs RS to study other religions in an effort to deepen the theological understanding of the religious tradition to which she or he remains confessionally committed to.

Interreligious and Interfaith Studies (IIS) is similar to RS in it’s a) interdisciplinary approach.  IIS is also similar to TS in its recognition of b) self-implication. For this reason, Paul Hedges places IIS at the “interface between a more traditionally secular Religious Studies discipline, and a more traditional confessional theological discipline.”[6] IIS does not focus on one tradition, rather it c) examines the “spaces between and among” religions and religious persons.[7] Finally, IIS is d) descriptive, prescriptive, and experiential.

a) IIS is interdisciplinary

With many of the researchers in this emerging field, I contend that IIS is, like RS, inherently interdisciplinary. Oddbjørn Leirvik articulates this with regard to the subject (the researcher) and contends “that interreligious studies are by nature interdisciplinary as the multidimensionality of interreligious relations can only be grasped by a combination of cultural, analytical, legal, social sciences, religious studies, and theological approaches.”[8] IIS can include TS, but goes well beyond it in its inclusion of many disciplines in order to grasp as full as possible the encounter, conflict, tension, and constructive learning that can take place in the “space between and among” religions and religious persons. Eboo Patel even suggests that RS and TS are not necessarily the primary fields in IIS, but rather he contends that history, political science, and sociology are. History offers “instances where diversity has become coexistence or cooperation.”[9] Political science and theory help to clarify the question “under what political and social conditions can communities who have very different ideas of what is good and lawful on Earth, based on a set of cosmic convictions, live together in the same society?” Sociology provides data from those “doing empirical work, both ethnographic and quantitative, about how communities who orient differently around religion might get along.”[10]

b) IIS examines the “spaces between and among”

Unlike RS, IIS is precisely interested in the dynamic encounter that occurs between and among religious traditions and persons, and not necessarily in only one tradition in particular.[11] In other words, whereas the object of study for RS may be an aspect of one or more traditions (e.g., prayer, sacrifice, hospitality), the object of study for IIS is interreligious relations. Thus, the object of study for IIS is not interfaith dialogue alone, but can also include conflict, confrontation, tensions, and “othering discourses between religions, and within them.”[12]

c) IIS is self-implicating

Like TS and unlike RS, IIS is self-implicating. It involves the examination of encounters that one is already a part of. For this reason Leirvik argues that “interreligious studies should be carried out with the openness to reflect critically on one’s own position in the spaces between different traditions. When studying a separate religion, it has been commonplace in religious studies to claim that you need not – or should not – be implicated yourself in the object of study.”[13]  Lerivik contends, however, that since interreligious studies includes the complex spaces “between religion and secularity” where all persons are positioned as agents, then there is no one who is not a part of the studied field. For this reason Patel places strong emphasis on the researcher’s agency in IIS by suggesting that the question “how would you lead” be at the heart of all classroom discussions.[14] For instance, he puts forth a hypothetical case-study on how YMCA directors and school principals in Minneapolis ought to educate themselves and respond to the “faith practices of the Somali Muslims, Hmong Shamanists, and Native Americans of the area.”[15] In other words, the field implicates the researcher by placing him or her in concrete situations were religious identities intersect and calls for sensitivity and action. Therefore, IIS goes beyond descriptive approaches by embracing prescriptive and experiential approaches as well.

d) IIS is descriptive, prescriptive, and experiential

Like RS, IIS is descriptive. This element is indispensable for IIS “because it records and documents the dialogue process for the present and future generations.”[16] Further, IIS needs “the critical outside perspective of religious studies in order not to be controlled by the dialogue of the insiders who are well aware of their role as agents but perhaps not always able to see themselves from a critical distance.”[17] Like TS, IIS is prescriptive. This element is necessary for IIS for reasons described above (e.g., Patel’s core question of “how would you lead?”) in that it “introduces students to more thought-provoking questions, such as “can interreligious dialogue play a role in resolving religious conflicts and healing past injustices?”[18] This prescriptive element exists in similar interdisciplinary programs, such as the Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), which centers on the principle that “new perspectives and knowledge aren’t worth much, however, unless we act on what we are learning.” Therefore, they not only equip students with the “tools to analyze the dynamics of power, wealth and cultural misunderstanding that create conditions of violence and injustice,” but “invite students to develop the moral vocabulary and commitments they need to engage diverse worldviews in debate and collaborative work towards greater justice and a more peaceful world.”[19] IIS is also experiential because experiential study (e.g., service-learning) “helps students to understand the dynamics of interreligious dialogue in a more existential way that has practical implications for their own lives.”[20] A key role of IIS, as Patel understands it, is to “recognize the importance of training people who have the knowledge base and skill set needed to engage religious diversity in a way that promotes peace, stability, and cooperation – and to begin offering academic programs that certify such leaders.”[21]

Image: California redwoods (© Hans Gustafson, 2008)


     [1] Religious Studies here includes comparative religion, which may be similar to IIS in its examination of the spaces between and among religions but may differ in its non-self-implicating approach.

     [2] “Religious Studies” program website at the University of Minnesota, on Dec. 18, 2015 []

     [3] Oddbjørn Leirvik draws on Gavin Flood’s chapter “Dialogue and the Situated Observer” from Flood’s Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion (London:, Cassell, 1999) to critique “the idea of ‘the detached, epistemic subject penetrating the alien world of the other through the phenomenological process.’ Instead, Flood writes, ‘the subject must be defined in relation to other subjects.’ Flood goes as far as to say that religious studies thus become ‘a dialogical enterprise in which the inquirer is situated within a particular context or narrative tradition, and whose research into narrative traditions, that become the objects of investigation, must be apprehended in a much richer and multi-faceted way” (Flood, 143) [Oddbjørn Leirvik, “Interreligious Studies: a Relational Approach to the Study of Religion” Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, issue 13 (Feb. 2014), 15].

     [4]”Religious Studies” program website at the University of Minnesota, on Dec. 18, 2015 [].

     [5] For instance, Keith Ward, Francis Clooney, and John Renard all have slightly different understandings of comparative theology.

     [6] Paul Hedges, “Interreligious Studies,” in A. Runehov and L. Ovideo ed. Encyclopedia or Sciences and Religion (New York, NY: Springer, 2013), 1077.

     [7] Many scholars, such as Leonard Swidler, promote dialogue with non-religious persons under the heading “interideological dialogue.”

     [8] Oddbjørn Leirvik, Interreligious Studies: A Relational Approach to Religious Activism and the Study of Religion (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 10.

     [9] Patel suggests, for example, Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World.

     [10] Eboo Patel, “Toward a Field of Interfaith Studies” in Liberal Education¸ Vol. 99 (fall 2013), no. 4.

     [11] Hedges, 1077.

     [12] Leirvik, “Interreligious Studies: a Relational Approach to the Study of Religion,” 15-16.

     [13] ibid., 16 (italics his).

     [14] Patel.

     [15] Ibid.

     [16] Scott Daniel Dunbar, “The Place of Interreligious Dialogue in the Academic Study of Religion,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35:3-4 (1998), 462 (cited by Leirvik, “Interreligious Studies: a Relational Approach to the Study of Religion,” 16).

     [17] Leirvik, “Interreligious Studies: a Relational Approach to the Study of Religion,” 17 [drawing on David Cheetham’s article “The University and Interfaith Education” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 15:1 (2005), 16-35].

     [18] Scott Daniel Dunbar, “The Place of Interreligious Dialogue in the Academic Study of Religion,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35:3-4 (1998), 462 (cited by Leirvik, “Interreligious Studies: a Relational Approach to the Study of Religion,” 16).

     [19] “Justice and Peace Studies” department website at the University of St. Thomas on Dec. 18, 2015 []

     [20] Scott Daniel Dunbar, “The Place of Interreligious Dialogue in the Academic Study of Religion,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35:3-4 (1998), 462 (cited by Leirvik, “Interreligious Studies: a Relational Approach to the Study of Religion,” 16).

     [21] Patel.

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

4 thoughts on “Interreligious and Interfaith Studies in relation to Religious Studies and Theological Studies

  1. As someone long active in Interfaith work, I appreciate the outline here and would highlight the terms “relational,” “collaborative” and “cooperative” to stress the essential movement away from distractive theological wordplay (as I see it) and ancient texts, toward a “moveable center” that respects diverse communities.

    As a secular teacher and social worker (and former ordained minister), I continue to work with colleagues and clients of many faiths and no faith. When faced with the pressing needs of our area, it is not so much faith that matters but reasonable co-working that does. It seems to me any relevant university or seminary courses should begin and end with that pragmatic base.

    Noting the photo of towering redwoods, I would simply ask what would happen to all these otherworldly discussions if students met under those trees? Interfaith is one bridge to inter-relation–the more sustainable goal.

  2. I agree with Chris that this is a very useful outline. You hint at this, but I’d like to bring it further into the light. For me a major difference between RS/TS and IIS is an emphasis on the practical. The goal of studying the “spaces between and among”religions and religious people (and I add nonreligious traditions and people) is as much about understanding as it is about learning and confronting the practical obstacles in building bridging communities.

  3. Thank you for helpfully and clearly distinguishing the differences and similarities in these fields. This is especially important in an emerging field that is still finding its place academically and in the cultural lexicon.

  4. This is an extraordinarily useful outline – especially for students drawn to interfaith dialogue and drawn to identifying how that “dialogue” extends beyond interpersonal and theological communication and into active study and leadership and community engagement. I am particularly intrigued by the intersecting threads of thought in comparative theology – and that still its field cannot be decisively defined.

Comments are closed.