Birgit Emich: In my research group “Polycentricity and Plurality of Pre-Modern Christianities”, which is part of the network, we have been dealing for a long time with plurality, which in turn has a lot to do with comprehension and misapprehension. We are looking, for example, at confessional conflicts up to the wars of religion after the Reformation. And there we can see that research is becoming increasingly uncertain regarding how much people knew about each other and really understood about the confessional frontlines. For example, in the mid-16th century, midwives in Alsace were asked what they understood by the Holy Trinity referred to in the emergency baptisms they often had to perform. One of them replied: ‘Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar’. You can see from this that the level of knowledge among ordinary people was very low. Against this background, the question of why the confessional differences then played such a major role poses itself all the more.
But we can add the following: If there are already such problems within Christianity, then we can assume that between the religions there are quite different ones yet again. Why was the “Turkish scare” in the 16th century so enormous? Where did the fear of Islam come from if nobody had any precise idea of who they themselves were? Would more knowledge have helped to bring about comprehension? And vice versa: are misapprehensions always conflict-laden, do they always lead to violence? Obviously not.
Christian Wiese: Among others, we approached these questions of interreligious comprehension and misapprehension from the perspective of our LOEWE project “Religious Positioning”. This project was about the mutual perception of religions and dealt with the question of how people, based on their own religious position, encounter, confront and dialogue with other claims to validity and truth. In this context, we also came across phenomena of creative “misapprehensions”, such as the fact that Jewish scholars in the modern era adopted Protestant interpretations of biblical prophecy, but in the course of this appropriation reinterpreted them along the lines of their own self-understanding and used them to justify the continuing existence and to even claim the superiority of Judaism.
Wiese: That depends on who is in the minority or the majority. With regard to its own existence, European Jewry in the 19th century always argued from the perspective of a discriminated minority in the Christian majority society. But other processes were taking place simultaneously: Jewish intellectuals also looked for good examples and role models with which to modernise Judaism itself, and then found elements in Protestant concepts or forms that seemed culturally attractive. It was also about changing and strengthening one’s own identity.
Wiese: Bernhard Jussen, Ömer Oszoy, Rebekka Voß and several other colleagues are working on this topic in medieval and early modern contexts. They are asking: What happens when the Holy Scripture is translated into another language, for instance when Christian authors translate texts from the Koran into Latin, when terms and concepts are transferred into their own world of ideas? What forms of reinterpretation or appropriation are occurring in such a context?
Emich: We also understand “translation” in the broader sense of the word. You can express the same religious practice in images, describe it in texts and act it out. This form of translation, for example the textualisation of a religious custom or the pictorial representation of a liturgical law, are also translation processes that interest us. You could call them a change of medium.
Emich: The “glossary” takes into account that certain phenomena are called different names both in different scientific disciplines as well as by historical actors. And that we must first of all be clear about who actually means what. By God, truth, religion – not everyone always means the same thing.
Emich: Our original idea was to create a common research language. However, this would not do justice to the diversity of our empirical inventory. Our goal must be to use the glossary to develop a set of instruments to process this diversity. I would therefore rather speak of a thesaurus, a kind of historically comparative dictionary, than of a glossary. This step seems to us to be ambitious enough.
Emich: Yes, it starts with something as fundamental as the concept of God. What is God’s name? That is, of course, a very big problem in interreligious encounters. And if we look at mission history, we see that Christian missionaries use different names for God – depending on the cultural space in which they work. Jesuits working in China in the 16th and 17th centuries formulate things differently to those underway in the Americas.
Wiese: It is also interesting that these processes in turn have repercussions on one’s own language. In the course of her research on the Persian city of Isfahan in the 18th century, our colleague Catherina Wenzel came across an Italian missionary whose work took place in the context of Shiite Islam. His encounter with Islam and other religious groups clearly also had an impact on his own self-understanding, and that is also mirrored in his reports to Rome.
Emich: There is great permeability at the points of contact. Many missionaries say: Even if we don’t believe the same thing, we can all partake of the same Lord’s Supper. That is something that interests us: Does the everyday pragmatism in our interaction with each other perhaps not foster the religious understanding taught, but at least the willingness to interact with each other?
Emich: Yes, but not only that. Take market activities in the Caucasus, for example. In an ethnological project, Susanne Fehlings and Roland Hardenberg ask how people adhering to different religions can do business together. The answer is: by not mentioning their religions at all. At all times and in all religions, people have also always allowed themselves the freedom not to talk about certain things. We assume that if you do business long enough with someone who is said to be doomed to damnation, one day you will think differently about this.
Wiese: Interwovenness and interconnectedness are central concepts for us. The three religions have never been without points of contact, but instead have constantly interacted in their thinking and co-existence since the early Middle Ages. Judaism and Islam were interwoven in many ways, for example in their mystical traditions – the Kabbalah and Sufism. They asked themselves the same question: How do you actually do that, make contact with the divine – by immersing yourself in texts, through dance, ecstasy, through movement in prayer? There were numerous points of contact here.
Emich: Let us take another look at the example of the Caucasian markets: the fact that you don’t understand each other at all because you don’t know what the other person is thinking doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict. We must move away from thinking that we only have to know as much as possible about each other in order to understand each other.
Wiese: Nowadays, there is a tendency to consciously omit the topic of conflicts in relation to interreligious dialogue. The “Weltethos” project (“Global Ethic Project”), for instance, is partly based on this concept. Here, religions basically agree on the ideas and ethical values they all share. And they consciously play down what divides them. Because the difference is insurmountable.