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Len Swidler– the Quest for a Deeper Dialogue

On These Shoulders

The indefatigable Leonard Swidler, now in his 87th year and best known for founding the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, is renewing two of his Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) initiatives. This good news coincides with the publication of a lively biography, There Must Be You (2014) by River Adams, and Swidler’s own Dialogue for Interreligious Understanding (2014), which summarises much of his thinking.

At a time when the word ‘dialogue’ is often used to describe superficial conversation, Swidler recalls the profound transformative power of what he calls “Deep Dialogue.” He identifies Dialogue of the Head, which is intellectual and verbal communication. But it is sterile unless it leads either to Dialogue of the Hands (requiring joint action for a better world) or to Dialogue of the Heart, which encourages a deeper spirituality. Head, hands, and heart – together these three forms of dialogue are integrated into “a holistic, ‘holy’ Way.”

Swidler insists that “all knowledge is interpreted knowledge.” For example, a Chinese Buddhist woman and an American Catholic male experience different facets of reality; by sharing their insights they enter into a life-transforming dialogue. Indeed, Swidler suggests that Dialogue, “understood in its broadest sense as the mutually beneficial interaction of differing components,” is at the very heart of the Universe, of which humans are the highest expression.

Deep Dialogue, Swidler explains, requires Critical-Thinking, Emotional-Intelligence, and Competitive-Cooperation. His new book devotes attention (and requires close attention from the reader) to the theoretical background of dialogue, its implications and potential applications. In doing so it updates Swidler’s thinking on subjects which he has addressed over the years.

His conversations with River Adams, recorded in the biography, bring all this to life. The text highlights many of the issues with which Swidler has been passionately concerned, such as feminism, the subject of his widely read Jesus Was a Feminist (2007), or challenging Christian anti-Jewish teaching, especially in a revision of the text of the Oberammergau Passion Play.

Swidler was born  January 6, 1929 in Sioux City, Iowa. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, his mother a Catholic from an Irish family. Swidler started researching Christian ecumenical dialogue with the pre-Vatican Catholic-Protestant group called Una Sancta. Interreligious dialogue got a big boost from Vatican II. Whilst the Council was still in session, Len and his wife Arlene launched the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (JES). With the appointment of associate editors of other faiths, JES and its founder moved beyond Christianity and became interreligious in their interests – thus reclaiming the original meaning of “ecumenical” as worldwide.

Leonard Swidler is professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University, Philadelphia, where he has taught since 1966. – Photo: Wikipedia.

Indeed dialogue with Marxists was part of the agenda. Len spent considerable time reflecting on the nature of dialogue, publishing twelve books on the subject between 1990-1992. With Ashok Gangaden he came up with the term Deep Dialogue “to indicate that we were talking about something much deeper than mere conversation, something life transforming.”

Len has certainly achieved one of his goals in life – to become an intellectual. His other goal is to become a saint, but after time in a seminary he was asked to leave because “he was too pious.” As Charles Péguy said, though, “In the end the only sadness is not to be a saint,” so Len still keeps hoping. “I guess a saint I would like to be,” he said recently, “is someone who takes his worldly obligations eminently seriously and tries to carry them out as thoughtfully as possible.”

The deepest dialogue is with Reality, which Len senses as personal – “the Ocean of You.” So he hopes he is “on the way,” and his biographer suggests that by definition Len is a saint, though he may be delayed because he confesses, “I think I am going to be very reluctant to die.” His many friends and all who have benefitted from his wisdom will hope that he is as late for this appointment as he has been for so many appointments during his lifetime.

Swidler’s Blog has been resuscitated, its latest piece titled “Dialogue Permeates the Cosmos and Humanity.”  And his Interreligious Dialogue website has all sorts of resources and programs. Swidler has also launched an enlarged online course on “Deep-Dialogue and Critical-Thinking,” expanding it to include new components on emotional intelligence and competitive cooperation. If you want to participate, email your name and preferred email address to dialogue@temple.edu with an indication that you would like to join.