ProLOEWE faces

Professor Dr Christian Wiese Conducting research into the dialogue of religions

© Uwe Dettmar/Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

Prof. Wiese, you are the spokesperson for the LOEWE Cluster entitled "Religious Positioning: Modalities and Constellations in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Contexts", which has been funded since 2017. What is the most important goal of your research work? The starting point for our research is the realisation that the three monotheistic religions, in addition to sometimes having exclusive traits and the potential for conflict that is inherent in their claims to validity, also display significant elements of pluralism and a capacity for dialogue. 

So, what general conditions are necessary to enable religious traditions to deal constructively with diversity, difference, and the contradiction between their own beliefs or ways of life without resorting to relativising their own religion or discriminating against others?

We want to explore this question from the perspective of different historical and empirical disciplines and at the same time open it for discussion on a broader basis.

If you look around Germany and see how many people are leaving the churches, religion does not seem to play a major role here any longer. Can you confirm this? Appearances might initially suggest this – at least with a view to the Christian churches. However, the real situation is often different. Religious sociologists talk about a post-secular society, in which diverse religious ideas, needs and desires can still be expected to exist. Pluralist religious phenomena, groups and ways of life have replaced less dominant religious institutions and people view this as enriching, but also as irritating.

Looking back on the past 75 years, how has our society changed in terms of religion, religiosity and openness towards other religions? Our society has become both more secular and religiously diverse in a way that brings new opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, we can no longer assume that people have some cultural knowledge about religion(s). On the other hand, in a city like Frankfurt am Main, countless different religious and ethnic communities live together alongside those for whom religion hardly plays a role at all. More than ever before, this constellation requires a culture of mutual recognition, openness and respect.

Much progress has been made in this respect, for example, in the field of Christian-Jewish dialogue;  dynamism here has become completely new since the 1980s. Nevertheless, religious prejudices against Judaism are still one of the complex causes of what is still virulent antisemitism. The widespread fears and resentments related to the presence of the diverse trends within Islam in Germany also place new demands on science, education and politics.

Multi-religiosity as a positive element within cultural diversity is just as much a reality as dealing with the religious and cultural conflicts that accompany it. 

In your opinion, what would have to change so that people could live together respectfully and peacefully in the longer-term future? The current political, social and cultural upheavals worldwide make it difficult for me to remain confident. Based on our research on "religious positioning”, the fundamental condition for constructively handling differences and conflicts in pluralistic societies is a combination of clarity about your own perspective and a sense of epistemic humility, which also expects to see some truth in the other religion’s point of view. Scholarship cannot achieve this alone, but I am relying on processes in education and society that promote insight into the fundamental humanity of all people. Humility, as I have just described it, undoubtedly forms part of this.

What was the crucial element persuading you to conduct research in the field of religious studies? Being confronted with the human rights situation in South America, where I spent a large part of my childhood and youth, gave me a strongly political motivation to study Lutheran theology. A year of study in Jerusalem provided me with crucial input to later concentrate on Jewish studies. All my research interests related to the diverse religious and cultural tradition of Judaism have their origins here, but also reflecting on the conditions for a serious, respectful dialogue between the religions. 

Can you name one personal highlight in connection with your research topic in recent years? In addition to the many different encounters and discussions in the course of the LOEWE project, one of the highlights was certainly the congress on the ideas of the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, which I organised in conjunction with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was a unique experience to spend five days in Jerusalem in February 2019 discussing Rosenzweig's famous work "Star of Redemption" with about 100 researchers from numerous countries. However, much smaller formats, such as the regular symposia on inter-religious dynamics in Cambridge, with conversations that shift to the city's pubs in the evening, have been just as important.  

What has 2020 been like for you? Have there only been negative effects or have there also been some positive ones for your work too? Personally, I have been worried about people and have been generally horrified by the loss of life worldwide. It is sad when students tell me that they have only been on campus once since they started their studies to pick up their library card and have never seen any of their lecturers in person. However, the need to share ideas and discuss matters also finds expression in the intensity of discussions held during the virtual seminars and lectures. The enforced digitalisation of my work is also opening up new ways of communicating my research results – and they will remain relevant after the pandemic - even if it's only my prfoessorship's YouTube Channel.

Four years of research funding from Hesse: what have you been able to achieve through the LOEWE funding that would not have been possible otherwise? And what about the future? I hope that I can speak for the numerous people involved in the project if I highlight the opportunity for several years of interdisciplinary cooperation across five departments and with numerous international fellows.

With our theological, religious studies, sociological, and educational theory research into the question of how to constructively handle plurality and the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which have sometimes led to conflicts, we have helped establish an area of specialisation at the Goethe University Frankfurt, which is opening up opportunities for intensified dialogue in religious research with other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences under the heading of "Universality and Diversity: Linguistic, Religious, and Cultural Dynamics". Starting from the part of the LOEWE Cluster devoted to the subject of the Jewish philosophy of religion, we have managed to acquire a 24-year digital academy project on the dialogical ideas of the philosopher Martin Buber as reflected in his correspondence and I am very pleased about this.

Would you like to tell us what you do in your spare time to bring some balance into your life alongside your work as a scientist? As a father of two grown-up sons and a proud grandfather of two small granddaughters, my family in Germany and England provides me with a source of strength and keeps my feet on the ground. I particularly get new ideas when I take my wife on long walks along the coast in the south of England, one of my places that I love to visit and where I enjoy a sense of escape, in addition to Jerusalem. I travel a great deal, but I also like being at home, enjoying the literary part of my library and my music and film collection.

About the Person

  •     Spokesperson of the LOEWE cluster "Religious Positioning: Modalities and Constellations in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Contexts"
  •     Holder of the Martin Buber Professorship for Jewish Philosophy of Religion at the Goethe University Frankfurt

Published in ProLOEWE NEWS

Issue 03.2020 / December


LOEWE projects are also facing major challenges as a result of the Corona pandemic. Find out how the scientists are dealing with this in the December issue of ProLOEWE-NEWS. But also what virtual reality has to do with the mobility of the future.

ProLOEWE faces

In the ProLOEWE faces portrait, you will get to know Professor Dr Christian Wiese, who is researching how the coexistence of the monotheistic world religions can succeed better as part of the LOEWE cluster on religious positioning.