“Interreligious Studies: A Relational Approach to Religious Activism and the Study of Religion,” by Oddbjørn Leirvik (a review)

In this welcome addition to the growing and emerging interdisciplinary field of interreligious studies, Oddbjørn Leirvik draws on his rich experience as both a pastor and scholar in Norway working with religiously diverse communities, especially the Christian and Muslim communities. Leirvik serves as professor of interreligious studies at the University of Oslo and, although his academic training is in the field of theology, demonstrates great breadth of knowledge in drawing on philosophy and the social sciences in presenting his work. Not only does Leirvik predictably include interreligious peacemaking and comparative theological learning within the book’s scope, but appropriately includes within this rubric “hard-nosed clashes [between and among religions] as well” (2).

As the title suggests, the book makes a successful attempt at bringing definition to the field of interreligious studies. The most original contribution Leirvik makes, in this regard, is his proposal that interreligious studies (drawing on Martin Buber) is essentially relational in its examination of the spaces between and among religions. Further, Leirvik concludes, this includes the “complex spaces between religion and secularity” (10), and thus no one is left outside the realm of interreligious studies. The field then, as most involved with it contend, examines all who identify or orient around religion differently (which includes virtually everyone).

The book not only makes strides in situating interreligious studies within the context of higher education (chapters 1 and 9), but offers plenty of theory and practice as well. In chapter 2, he discusses philosophies of interreligious dialogue by distinguishing between philosophies of spiritual and necessary dialogues, as well as introducing the idea of religious dialogue in secondary schools (mostly in the context of Norway, Sweden, and the U.K.). Chapter 6 returns to this latter theme of incorporating interreligious dialogue in the schools. It primarily examines the concepts of tolerance, conscience, and solidarity as key principles in the religious education that takes place in the schools. Chapter 3 gets to the heart of the importance of the question on the relationship between religion and secularity within the context of interreligious dialogue. Leirvik argues that “dialogues about religion and ethics must also include a critical conversation between religious and secular-minded citizens,” (34) and then uses chapter 4 as a springboard to demonstrate this. His Norwegian context of dealing with the influence of secularity on the tone of Christian-Muslim dialogue provides a helpful concrete platform to give the reader a sense of the relational and dynamic situation that can exist between secularity and an interreligious dialogue.

Chapter 5 turns to the political sphere in its examination of how various political aspects can influence interreligious relations. In the process, he helpfully distinguishes between the many (sometimes very different) approaches to the political aspects of interreligious dialogue. To set the scene for the chapter, he draws on the two very well-known 1993 documents (at different ends of the spectrum): 1) Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and 2) Hans Küng’s “Declaration towards a Global Ethic.” Chapter 7 turns to the important topic of interreligious hermeneutics in the context of dealing with one’s own sacred texts and the other’s sacred texts.  In particular, and perhaps most importantly, Leirvik focuses primarily on critiquing the ethics of a text and the issues that stem from such a process.

Chapter 8 turns to the fields of the theology of religions and theologies of religious pluralism in an effort to very briefly propose Leirvik’s own “relational theology of religions.” It is structured on his home tradition (Christianity) according to a “Trinitarian scheme of reasoning.” In this manner, it asks “How can essential elements of the Christian belief in the Creator, in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit give sense in a dialogue” (127), and to demonstrate he locates it in the context within which he has the most experience: Christian-Muslim dialogue. Drawing on several thinkers (both Christian and Muslim), Leirvik articulates an intelligent theology of religions which certainly can promote understanding across the two traditions, but not without removing various “stumbling blocks,” which can sometimes be aspects of each tradition.  However, it is a question of whether or not these stumbling blocks are indeed necessary and if they are not, then they can either be removed, rethought, revised, or nuanced in a manner that opens up conversation between the two traditions.

This book represents only a beginning, I hope, of texts to come that contribute to interreligious studies.  Leirvik shows, in both theory and practice, that the field can be approached any number of ways and is almost overwhelming in its complexity, but in a good way.  In particular, this book offers something to those interested in an overall understanding of the field in the academy, the place of interreligious dialogue in secondary schools, the relation between secularity and interreligious relations, and the growing phenomenon of Muslim-Christian dialogue in the West. This book, to be sure, deserves a place on the short list of texts about interreligious studies. It is a must-read for the scholar of interreligious studies.  Additionally, it could be appropriately used in upper level undergraduate courses, but is especially well-suited for graduate students (in many fields) who seek an introduction to the field.

Review of Oddbjørn Leirvik, Interreligious Studies: A Relational Approach to Religious Activism and the Study of Religion (Bloomsbury, 2014). Pp. 196. Hb, $112.

*Note: This review was originally submitted to the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies in March 2015. Due to staff turnover at the journal, they were unable to publish it this past year or in the next year. Given the importance of keeping book reviews timely and relevant within two years of their book’s publication date, I decided to withdraw it from consideration and publish it here in order to get it out faster. I believe this is an important book that needs to be known by as many people as possible as soon as possible.

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