Interreligious Wherewithal: Cultivating a Leadership Virtue


Consider the following scenarios:


The term “wherewithal” is a curious word, especially given the fluidity with which we use (and abuse) the English language today. The term has been in usage since the 16th century, and now can function as a pronoun, noun, conjunction, and perhaps more. It was probably originally used exclusively as a conjunction bringing together “where” and “withal.”[2] The most current usage of the term is employed as a noun to refer to “the means or resources one has at one’s disposal,” [3] most often referring to financial resources.

Here, I propose a particular usage of “wherewithal” set within the context of interreligious encounter. I aim to capture its spirit to articulate a certain posture, approach, or attitude in our world of increasing religious diversity, especially when we find ourselves in (inter)religiously complex situations, like those bulleted above.

While retaining the essence of the word, which I understand to be “possessing what one needs to make something happen,” the term can be used to connote being present in a particular place and time (one’s specific context) with others; that is, where-with-all. This is obviously a departure from its historic and intended usage, but no less instructive. In this sense, having wherewithal means to be aware of and sensitive to the needs, concerns, and desires of others—particularly those not regularly or adequately seen or heard—in a given context. Truly being with-all of them is to remain conscious of their needs while having the foresight to surmise how particular actions might produce particular consequences down the road.

However, simply being aware or having such a posture is not enough here to qualify as the virtue of wherewithal. It is not just about being conscious of the concerns and circumstances of others, but also requires the ability to do something about it, to make something happen. Further, this involves the ability to lead others to do something about it as well. In this way having wherewithal is a leadership virtue.

Interreligious Wherewithal

Wherewithal, as defined above, is having both awareness of something (e.g., a problem, tension, conflict, or opportunity) and the ability to do something about it. “Interreligious Wherewithal” is that virtue of being aware of a potential tension or opportunity in (inter)religiously complex situations and having the skill to do something constructive about it through thoughtful action, leadership, and motivation of others. Cultivating interreligious wherewithal entails developing this virtue in ourselves and in others in service to our communities, places of work, governmental agencies, and beyond.

Those with interreligious wherewithal will recognize the potential problem with serving only pork products at the company picnic; they will be aware that many Buddhists have different beliefs about death and end-of-life care that might conflict with the standard practices of Western hospice providers; they will foresee the implications of not providing adequate religious accommodations to employees; they will be able to navigate the complexity in the aftermath of perceived preferential treatment based on religion; and they will have the interreligious wherewithal to know and understand the circumstances of selling particular products in regions dominated by particular religious and cultural beliefs and practices.

Like any virtue, interreligious wherewithal is cultivated over a lifetime, and the process is never finished. In my work directing an academic center for interfaith learning and teaching (inter)religious studies to undergraduates, I have the honor to work with and learn from college students and members of the general public from many professional fields, backgrounds, generations, cultures, and traditions. With the increasing religious diversity of our cities and towns, cultivating interreligious wherewithal will become increasingly important for our personal and social flourishing at home, in community, and at work.

Photo: © Hans Gustafson, 2005


[1] This issues has sprung up in Sweden, New York, and perhaps elsewhere. See Elisabeth Braw, “Sweden Stirs Debate with Women-only Swimming in Nod to Muslims,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 30, 2016, accessed 26 October 2017, and Karen Matthews and Rachelle Blinder, Associated Press, “No Men Allowed: Women-only Pool Hours Draw Complaints in NYC,” June 6, 2016, accessed 26 October 2017,

[2] “Withal” is an outdated term, which can simply mean “with.” The conjunction “wherewith” can also mean ‘that with’ or ‘by which,” which is similar to the usage of the pronoun function of wherewithal. For instance, the King James Bible preaches “So shall I have wherewith to answer him that reproacheth me: for I trust in thy word” (Pslam 119:42).

[3] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “wherewithal,” accessed 26 October 2017,

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