Alan Race Interview with Leonard Swidler

A. You have been involved in dialogue for over 40 years – what inspired you to get involved in
the first place?
I am the son of parents who were like the subject of a 1930s radio program coming out of New
York called “Abie’s Irish Rose,” which was a comedy about the encounter of a Jewish family
(Abie’s) and an Irish Catholic family (Rosie’s, Abie’s Irish Rose). My mother, Josephine Duffy
Reed, whose Catholic ancestors came to America in the late 19 th  century from Ireland, married
my father, Samuel Swidler, who himself as a 16-year old Jewish boy came all alone to America
from the Ukraine in 1913 In my case, however, there was no Jewish family, for although my
father regularly received mail from his mother, the letters suddenly stopped in 1932, the year that
Stalin unleashed the brutal collectivization of the farms in the Ukraine, resulting in the murder of
some five million Ukrainians.
Sidenote: Almost out of the blue in the fall of 2019, I received an email from Swidler – in an
alternate spelling of Swidler – who with her husband are long-time immigrants from the Ukraine
living for some time in Buffalo, NY, and found me on the web! My two daughters Carmel and
Eva, along with granddaughter Willow, then pursued the “roots” trail vial the internet and
located a number of relatives in the U.S. and some still in the Ukraine and Byelorussia. I then
learned that my father’s younger sister, Eva, along with her Mother and husband were captured
by the Nazis in 1942, and were to be shot with hundreds of others. Through a bribe of a
Ukrainian Nazi, he looked the other way while the three of them ran for the woods. Sadly, my
grandmother was too slow, and was shot dead. Fortunately, Eva and her husband escaped and
two days later she asked a Christian Ukrainian woman friend if she would hide them—she did.
A footnote to that glad/sad tale just a few years ago outside subsequent to Ukraine became
independent after the break-up of the Soviet a Union: The Israeli Museum, Yad Vashem, outside
of Jerusalem, has a division devoted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the
Holocaust. They sent an emissary to the mayor of Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine to publicly
establish to a memorial in her honor.
I was raised as a devout Catholic, attending Catholic primary school, secondary school, college,
university, and seminary (but not ordination). It was only as I studied for my Ph.D. in Philosophy
and history at the state university of Wisconsin that I moved into “secular” education. It was in
1956 when I was looking for a doctoral dissertation topic in the field of European intellectual
history that I came across a contemporary movement of dialogue between Protestants and
Catholics in Germany—the land of the Reformation—the Una Sancta Movement. Research on it
led me and my wife Arlene Anderson Swidler to Germany in 1957—newly married that May 11.
After returning to America in 1960, it was her brilliant idea to launch the first scholarly journal
devoted to intra-Christian, and then quickly interreligious, inter-ideological dialogue, the Journal
of Ecumenical Studies.
B. Can you tell me what has given you most joy as a theologian about this involvement, and what
remains disappointing? I have to say that living through the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was, except for the
present, the most exciting period of my life. As I indicated, I had been most thoroughly educated
in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Hence, the extraordinary “five-fold Copernican turns” that I
and fellow Catholics experienced with Vatican II was incredibly stimulating and liberating.
There was 1) the turn toward freedom, epitomized by the Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty;
2) the turn toward this world, which unleashed Liberation Theologies; 3) the turn toward a sense
of history, which lifted up change at the heart of all things human; 4) the turn toward the self-
reform of the Catholic Church, with Saint John XXIII leading the way by “throwing open the
windows of the Vatican; and 5) the turn toward Dialogue with other Christians, other religions,
other ideologies, which became the focus of the rest of my life.
The greatest disappointment has been, first the weakening of Pope Paul VI in his commitment to
the great renewal of Vatican II, and then vastly worse, the massive authoritarian roll-back by his
successor Pope John Paul II. To the Jews and much of the rest of the outside world, he was a
hero who stood up for human rights, but inside the Catholic Church he was hyper-authoritarian,
who in a tragically long-lasting move over his twenty-seven year pontificate appointed almost all
the current bishops of the world largely as loyal duplicates. I believe that is why the latest Pew
survey shows that there are 65 million Catholics in the U.S., and 30 million former Catholics!
Sidenote: I would add that his successor, Joseph Ratzinger, was much the same – without the
redeeming factor of significantly helping to bring freedom to Poland from the agony of
Sovietism, and deep dialogue with Jews and Judaism, as did Pope John Paul II.
I might note that the first issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, which appeared in 1964,
contained articles by both Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Küng (who, incidentally, Hans, then dean
of the Catholic Faculty, hired him on the Tübingen Catholic Theology Faculty), which Pope
John Paul publicly stated that he could no longer be considered a Catholic theologian, and
therefore he could not teach on the Catholic theology faculty at the University of Tübingen!
I might note here three interesting historical bits concerning Ratzinger, Küng, and me:
1)    I had an exchange of letters about various ecumenical matters an exchange of letters
with Joseph Ratzinger;
2)     I met with him while he was the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich about the
Oberammergau Passion Play, which, of course happened in his archdiocese—which I
helped over thirty years to cleanse of antisemitism and promote philosemitism (on the
ground, that Jesus was a Jew, a rabbi and all of his followers were also Jews!
3)    Hans was the successor at Tübingen of Professor Heinrich Fries, my “Doktor
Vater”; hence, Hans had to oversee the publication of my Thesis at Tübingen —which is
how we first met and became life-long friends. Fries had moved to the University of
Munich, where they set up an Ecumenical Institute for him.  4)Chronologically Joseph, Hans, and I—the three of us being on the Catholic
theological  Faculty of the University of Tübingen at the same time—are each a year
apart biologically: I, in 1929, Hans 1928, and Joseph 1927—but our experiences of the
World War II were each  dramatically different!
5)    I graduated from high school in June, 1946, again as Salutatorian (got in a kind of
rut, it seems, as the same had happened to me at primary school graduation, then in high
school graduation), and then, at age 17, enlisted in the US Navy Air Force, rather than
be inducted in the Army infantry (the universal military draft was still in effect in the
U.S.)—having spent three years in high school Reserved Officers Training Corps.
However, as it turned out, I went to the university in the fall, 1945, and four years later
(again as Salutatorian!), and commissioned 2 nd  Lieutenant in U.S. Army.
6)    Hans had the good fortune of being born in a neutral country, Switzerland. Joseph,
however, Hans had the good fortune of being born in a neutral country, Switzerland, and
consequently avoided military service—but of course, the war raged at all the borders of
his homeland: Germany, Italy, Austria.
7)    Third, Joseph had it worst. At the bitter end of the war, spring, 1945, Germany was
dragooning all able-bodied “men” at both hyper-young and hyper-old ages. Joseph was
fortunate to be assigned to an anti-aircraft unit, from which he escaped in the last days of
the war.
C. You once said that dialogue represents a 'whole new way of thinking' – can you say what you
mean by that?
Until the period of Modernity, starting with the 18 th century Enlightenment in the West, the world
in general lived in an Age of Monologue, meaning that we all talked only with those who thought
as we did—or who should! Starting with the late 18 th  century and on into the 19 th  and
20 th  centuries, we underwent a radical shift in understanding how we humans understand, our
epistemology. We increasingly began to realize that truth was not something absolute.
Since we normally use the word “true” to refer to our statements about some aspect of reality, we
began to see, for example, with the development in the early 19 th  century of “scientific” history
that a statement, a text, can only be correctly understood within its con-text. Hence, that text, that
“truth,” is limited, not absolute (remember, the word ab-solute, coming from the Latin ab-
solvere literally means un-limited). Then we went on to learn that some of our claims about
reality, our “truths,” were at times significantly affected by our economic status, and then also by
our social place in the world, and later even by the fact that we are asking questions sometimes
in historical thought categories, in legal categories, in symbolic categories, etc.—all of which
means that our “statements about reality,” our “truths,” can always only be partial. Not false, but
necessarily partial, and related to our place in the world, to the kind of language we use, to the
presuppositions we all bring to our view and description of reality, etc., etc.
In the end, then we can never fully see and describe reality, even though the part we see may be
accurately enough described. But we humans are never satisfied with what we now know. We
always want to know more, and more, and more, endlessly. However, when we understand that

my partial grasp of reality is my grasp, not yours, and even when accurate, is always partial, the
only way that I can constantly know more is by being in constant dialogue with those who think
differently from me. Now I want to talk to those who think differently not so they can begin to
think as I do, but so I can learn from them about reality that I cannot learn from my perspective
alone. Thus dialogue is a whole new way to endlessly learn more about reality.
D. Some Christians think that dialogue represents some sort of betrayal of Christian faith.  How
do you respond to that accusation?
There are many dimensions to this question, so let me reflect just a bit about one aspect. I start
with empirical data: that of all the persons I know who have been seriously involved in
interreligious dialogue, less than a fraction of 1% have as a result ceased being Christian, Jewish,
Muslim…. So, as far as the religious institutions are concerned, the churches, mosques,
synagogues, temples…. relax, you are not going to lose out quantitatively. In fact, you will gain
massively qualitatively, for your adherents will become much deeper, more authentic Christians,
Hindus, Muslims…. than they were before. I have been engaging in intra-Christian,
interreligious, interideological dialogue for over half a century, and I am convinced today in
2008 [2021] that I have a deeper grasp on what it means to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth
than I did forty or fifty years ago, or indeed, three months ago before I engaged in my last
Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue in Amman, Jordan.
E. The religions have the reputation for inspiring violence in the world – do you think this is
Sadly the facts bear this perception out! Think of the places where there has been horrible
communal violence in recent years, and in almost all, if not all, religion plays a central role.
Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Macedonia, Bosnia…. Why is this so
sorrowfully so? It goes back to what I was speaking about when talking about dialogue, about
our epistemology, our understanding of how we understand. All the major religions of the world
developed before Modernity. They were created in the mentality of Absolutism:    We have the only absolute, unlimited grasp of reality.
If you do not follow our way, you are lost. Hence, we
will save you, whether you ask us to or not, by making
you into our image—or, you are obviously not worthy
of salvation, and so we can destroy you.   Put in other words, much of the world still lives in the Age of Absolutism, the Age of
Monologue. The encouraging news is that now the world is painfully, with squinting eyes
stumbling out of that darkness into the dawn of the Age of Global Dialogue.
F. A common view among ordinary people outside of the church is that the many religions are
simply different routes up the one mountain.  Is this a good picture for the dialogue movement?
Of course this is a better image to have than the old too often destructive absolutist one that I just
spoke about. It portrays the impression that God or  the Ultimate is really out there, like the mountain, and that we humans are simply taking different paths on different sides of the
mountain, all aiming to arrive at its pinnacle, which we know is there, though we cannot see it,
for it is wrapped in clouds. Unfortunately this metaphor is not the most helpful, for, for example,
neither Buddhists nor Taoists have the same kind of notion of the Ultimate or God “out there” as
many theists do, for example.
Rather, what we have in common is our searching. In fact, our Christianized English language
gives us broad hints in this regard. In English we say that we are seeking salvation, which comes
from the Latin salus, meaning “health,” “wholeness,” as in terms like “salutary,” “salute,”
“salubrious.” We also find it in our Germanic rooted cognates for salvation. In German one
speaks of being whole, heil, from which we get hale, heal, health, whole, and other related
words. Further, Jesus in German is called the Heiland, savior.
Still further, we Christians say that our goal is to be holy—in German, heilig. We want to be
“whole.” It is this search for wholeness, for holiness, that all of us humans have in common. It is
a search that comes from within us, not “out there.” We find it clearly stated by Jesus when he
said that the goal—he called it the “reign of God”—is not here or there, but is entos hymon in the
New Testament Greek, meaning both within you and among you. I find this metaphor of Jesus
more helpful.
Sidenote: We now have enjoyed eight years of the pontificate of Pope Francis.  He has done
much to help heal the world—but has had great difficulty with many of the hierarchy, who were
appointed over the several decades of the intra-church hyper-conservatism Pope John Paul II
and Benedict XVIII (Joseph Ratzinger). He has been trying to make over the episcopal
leadership to be open-minded, and concerned the oppressed in Youth, Church, and Society. I
wish him Ad multos annos!

One comment

  1. I agree that we are still just waking from a Dark Age whose hierarchy gave unhelpful monologues from personally undeveloped mindsets. I think that beyond hierarchy it’s natural for humans to mature into other-centered stages of life. All mammals do this with their young but our human minds can direct our compassionate motivations toward whomever and whatever we choose to identify with. Learning, maturing, wisdom etc., seem to say all humans have the highest dignity. That human cannot lack this. But the hierarchy seems to approach life in a state of arrested development where in a narcissistic rage they oppress others whom they perceive to lack dignity or to have offended theirs. It seems that all hierarchies, be they political, economic, or religious, try desperately to fight “the reign of god”… We always must prepare ourselves for today and change accordingly to live Our dignified lives. I wondered if you thought about how an understanding of that which is “entos hymon” could help the challenge we have created for ourselves in ecological overshoot.


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