Spotlight on Graduate Research: Luke Olsen

Luke Olsen is an M. Div candidate at Duke Divinity School. He is a fellow with the Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) initiative.   Here is his reflection on the 2018 INIRE Summer Program in Leipzig.

“Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority,” International Network for Interreligious Research and Education (INIRE) Conference and Summer School, Universität Leipzig, 7/23-7/29

The INIRE Annual Conference and Summer School were held concurrently this year at the University of Leipzig. The conference began on Monday afternoon and finished Tuesday evening. The Summer School ran from Wednesday to Sunday. The theme for the conference and summer school this year was “Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority.” The host and main organizer was Alexander Deeg, professor of homiletics and practical theology of the theology faculty at the University of Leipzig. Some effort was made to make this a truly interreligious dialogue, though Protestant (Lutheran) Christians were best represented. There were a number of Jewish participants-- of whom I think about half would identify as Orthodox and half would identify as secular. There was one Muslim participant. Unfortunately Imam Mustafa Abu-Sway was unable to join us. Dirk Hartwig from the Corpus Coranicum gave some informative and very popular lectures about the Qur’an and the Mushaf.  There were also some non-Protestant Christians-- Orthodox, Catholic, and Coptic. A few participants did not expressly identify with any of the Abrahamic religions.

The week was packed. Often events would begin around 9 in the morning and not conclude until after dinner. Every night of the week I went with some group of students to one or another local brauhaus, of which-- happily -- there are many in Germany, to continue discussions. This friendly environment, promoted by the warm welcome given to us from the students and organizers at the University of Leipzig, was one of the best aspects of the conference. I particularly enjoyed getting to know Svi and Omer, two of the graduate students from Bar Ilan University with whom I spent a lot of my free time in the city.


The lecture and paper topics were wide-ranging, though all loosely (some more than others) accorded to the conference theme of traditions and authority. Though “Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority” need not necessarily be about texts, there was an emphasis on textual traditions and the construction of canon. This emphasis seemed organic and, I think, reflected the Lutheran commitment to scripture. Indeed, Alexander Deeg framed the opening of the conference with a discussion of sola scriptura. I think it is fair to say that a general question of the conference -- at least for Christians-- was how to think about scripture as authoritative in light of the failure of sola scriptura as a normative authority. Implicit in this question is the question of interpretation: how do we interpret texts and how do these interpretations norm our religious life and experience? Does one interpretive community or institution have coercive or legislative authority? Or does the normative authority of interpretive communities arise organically and democratically? A related question which many of us -- Christians, Muslims, and Jews -- asked was in what sense we can speak of texts having their own implicit authority, and does such authority depend on internal or a historical unity?


Perhaps the intellectual highlight of the conference for me was a conversation with Alexander Deeg during a barbecue on Wednesday evening. I had asked Dr. Deeg what role he felt authority played in, especially, Protestant-Christians interpretation of Scripture and how he reconciles his own authoritative position as a professor of theology and as an ordained minister. This led to a very interesting and fruitful discussion of how Christian may think about the authority of Scripture and the role of the minister-priest in Christian worship. We discussed my sympathy with Catholicism’s more robust, episcopal authority structure and his desire for more democratic, local interpretive communities. We agreed that in both instances, the question of authority is inescapable. Despite our different perspectives, we found much to agree on in our discussion of the role of Scripture in Christian liturgy. I think Catholic homileticians have something to learn from the seriousness with which Lutheran preachers take their task. Similarly Lutherans may learn something from the Catholic representation of the Word of God in the Eucharistic offering which unfolds in the dramatic liturgy of the Mass. We agreed that Christian worship must invite the worshipper to experience, participate in, and perhaps enact the authority of Scripture. 


As I consider my own research coming out of the conference I am especially aware of the seriousness and inescapability of this question of authority. It is naive to think we can somehow bracket this question or otherwise avoid it. Authority is not especially popular, I think, in the western academy today. Though, of course, authoritative claims are made, they are often made in the name of kindness and justice. Authority as such is problematic and the exercise of it in interpretive communities is often associated with traditions of structural violence and marginalization. (And, it must be said, this association is often correct). So our discussion about authority is often a discussion of how marginalized readings, communities, or traditions are excluded from normativity. These conversations are necessary and important. Yet I feel they have become constitutive of our discussions of authority as such. And so authority, it seems, comes to be understood as necessarily pernicious and to be resisted. Thus the great appeal of post-structuralism and the democratic endlessly iterating interpretive communities. Democracy allows us to have a more modest, organic authority. 


I think there is much here with which one may sympathize-- not least the legitimate desire to resist authorities whose norming of traditions, texts, and language leads to practices which violate those bodies which (for whatever reason) do not fit the normative construction. (The conference’s location in East Germany underscored this point. So too did our journey to the Holocaust memorial in Leipzig and to the problematic Völkerschlachtdenkmal, from which the this picture was taken). And yet, I’m afraid that in this discussion we elide important differences. Furthermore, I lack confidence  in so-called democratic institutions as a sort of better, friendlier alternative to more hierarchical authority. Of course if hierarchical authority is necessarily naughty, a democratic authority is preferable to a sort of interpretive anarchy. However, as we know from history, democracy does not preclude the abusive use of power and sometimes enables new and creative abuses of power. Consider, for instance, how deep structural violences are often masked in democratic systems. It seems to me that as we think about normative religious traditions and their authority it may be better to push against the Protestant tendency to construe hierarchical, episcopal religious interpretive authority as necessarily corrupt or abusive. This is difficult in the current intellectual atmosphere that is (rightly) very suspicious about claims to normative authority which, we often assume, do violence to the non-normative. Still I think a more robust concept of authoritative normative interpretation of texts and tradition may enable us to better acknowledge and pursue what is true, good, and beautiful.