Participants

Denis Lacorne is Senior Research Fellow at CERI (Centre d’Etudes et des Researches Internationales), Sciences Po. He has written extensively on religion in the United States and the politics of toleration in general. He turns to history to trace the development of modern conceptions of toleration and to find precedents for new ways we can understand and apply it. In his recent book The Limits of Tolerance (2019), translated from Les frontières de la tolérance (2016), Lacorne distinguishes the “modern” definition of tolerance from predecessors and alternatives. He associates this modern account with European thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, including Locke and Voltaire, who rendered tolerance a necessary condition to uphold a right to religious belief, practice and conscience. This approach drew from older practices of tolerance, including the commercial toleration in Venice and the imperial pluralism of the Ottoman Empire, while insisting that its protections be expanded to individuals. He uses this history to mark the uniqueness of the “multicultural” regimes of toleration that have become common for nations that have seen considerable influxes of immigration from minority religions since the last decades of the twentieth century. In these, forms of group identification and schooling have become particularly important.

Rajeev Bhargava is Director of the Institute of Indian Thought at the Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. He works primarily on religion and secularism in Indian democracy. His research covers a wide span of the history of the subcontinent, and he used historical examples to understand the dynamics of toleration in India today. In his essay, “Beyond Toleration: Civility and Principled Coexistence in Asokan Edicts” (2014), Bhargava focuses on the example of Asoka, an emperor from the 3rd century BCE, to recover forms of “toleration” that do not conform to norms from 17th-century European Christendom. He shows that Asoka, who is well-known in Indian and in world history for his edicts intended to support religious coexistence, responded to deep divisions between Vedic and pre-Vedic religions in his empire, including Buddhism, Jainism and others. Bhargava argues that Asoka’s edicts went “beyond” modern standards of toleration as restraint on interference against minority religions, and instead sought to change people’s attitudes. In particular, his edicts demanded restraint on speech, both critical of other religions and in excessive praise of one’s own. This toleration based in speech and its restraint made sense in a program to change people’s sentiments toward other religions by bringing them to recognize value in difference, rather than a threat. This regime of toleration, or more accurately civility, was not an early version of the 17th-century standard, but, according to Bhargava, fundamentally different from it. 

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is Director of the Institute of African Studies and Professor of Philosophy and French at Columbia University. He has written widely on Islamic intellectual history, African philosophy and their engagement with Western thought. In his recent book, Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with the Western Tradition (2018) [translated from Comment Philosopher en Islam?], Diagne illustrates through examples spanning several centuries how Muslims have engaged religious questions posed by other Muslims and non-Muslims through philosophy. This dialogue has led Muslim thinkers make themselves more “open” to philosophical critique and religious difference. 

In one short chapter on “Pluralism,” Diagne reads canonical Muslim thinkers like Al-Ghazali alongside the nineteenth-century Sufi writer Tierno Bokar to trace a strand of islamic thinking about sectarianism that valued the capacity to accept the possibility that no sect could claim ultimate knowledge of true religion. This tradition, taking a hadith on the splintering of the umma into 73 sects as its primary text, does not interpret the division as proof that only one of the branches among many competitors could claim legitimacy. Rather, a reading informed by sufism focuses on the imagined seventy-fourth sect, which stands apart from those divisions and is defined not by its doctrinal content but rather its disposition of openness to the others. This position led them to accept the possibility, and the necessity, of an openness to other religious claims. For Tierno Bokar, that meant even a willingness to accept the “infidel,” whom Al-Ghazali had cautioned against.

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. researches the intersections between philosophy and religion, particularly Christian theology, in politics during the period of the late Roman Empire. Her most recent book, A Threat to Public Piety: Christians, Platonists, and the Great Persecution (2012) traces these connections to explain why a particular set of policies known as the “Great Persecution” were enacted against Christians in the early fourth century CE. This regime of sometimes violent suppression was sparked in part, Digeser argues, by debates among philosophers and theologians over the nature of religion and political order. In an article that lays out some of this argument, “Lactantius, Porphyry, and the Debate over Religious Toleration” (1998), Digeser shows in particular how the influential neo-Platonist philosopher Porphyry developed an argument for the need to suppress Christian on account of their deification of a human and their refusal to engage in some public rituals. She suggests Porphyry’s justification for persecution under those particular circumstances may have influenced the decision to enact the Great Persecution. Digeser also shows that the early Christian philosopher and theologian Lactantius directly responded to this argument by claiming that Christians were actually the ideal Roman citizens, and the true philosophers, given their reverence for priestly authority and monotheism. She shows how Lactantius argued for toleration of Christians within the framework of Roman law and Platonist philosophy. 

Elaine M. Fisher is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. She has focused primarily on precolonial “Hindu Pluralism,” which is also the title of her monograph from 2017. In a brief article that explains that outlines of her research and its significance for contemporary scholarship on pluralism and space, “Hindu Pluralism: a prehistory,” Fisher argues against interpretations of religious “sectarianism” as necessarily violent, combative or unstable. She argues that in the case of Hinduism, it was only in the late nineteenth century that European (most British) scholars began to condemn Hindu sectarianism as deviations from the religion’s original, unified Brahminic form. These scholars did not recognize that adherents of the “sects” dedicated to Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism has occupied overlapping public space and debated their religion for centuries. She suggests that they could share space, sometimes mediated by precolonial states in the period before, and engage in polemic without resorting to violence. Fisher thus argues that the negative associations of sectarianism in the Hindu context only reinforce both a more recent view of the necessity of a unified Hinduism and very particular conceptions of the need for privatized religion in pluralist regimes.

Charlotte Fonrobert is Professor of Religious Studies and, by courtesy, German and Classics at Stanford University. She has written on Jewish and Christian interpretations of Biblical gender and works on Rabbinics more broadly. She is working on a project that focuses on neighborhoods and the Jewish diaspora. She lays out some of this argument in her article, “Diaspora Cartography: On the Rabbinic Background of Contemporary Ritual Eruv Practice.” She focuses on the practice of the eruv in Jewish neighborhoods and communities. This boundary designation allows Jews to move freely in public during shabbos, but it also functions to mark out space. Fonrobert shows that early Rabbinic commentary on this practice illustrates how it has consistently been understood to mark space that is shared with other neighbors and with non-Jewish jurisdictions. That renders the eruv a practice with a long history in the diaspora, defined by the expectation that space is shared and overlaps with other neighbors. 

Fonrobert has also written for more general academic audiences about the study of rabbinics and contemporary understandings of Jewish diaspora and “assimilation.” She argues that the study of Jewish thought from late antiquity on illustrates how literary and intellectual production must always be studied within its wider context, including that outside of Judaism and the Jewish experience. 

Sam Berrin Shonkoff is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He is the editor of Martin Buber: His Intellectual and Scholarly Legacy and co-editor of Hasidism: Writings on Devotion, Community, and Life in the Modern World. Shonkoff’s current book project will offer the first major hermeneutical study of Buber’s Hasidic tales vis-à-vis the original sources.

He has written on the twentieth-century philosophy Martin Buber, and in his article, “Metanomianism and Religious Practice in Martin Buber’s Hasidic Tales” (2018), Shonkoff analyzes Buber’s attitude toward Jewish religious practice as a form of “metanomianism.” His skeptical position that the observance of Jewish Law had a tendency to become routine and disconnected from one’s relation with God did not translate into an anti-legal (antinomian) position. Rather, it led him to a recognition of the significance of the law, and a prescription that one always respond to it in the particular circumstance. Shonkoff gives examples that show how that metanomianism led him to follow law in specific circumstances, especially when he was around observant Jews, as a sincere expression of his attitude toward it.

Francesco Spagnolo works at UC Berkeley as the Curator of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and an Associate Adjunct Professor in the Department of Music. His research focuses on ritual performance and synagogue life. His recent work focuses on Jewish-Christian interactions and cultural production in the Italian synagogue, particularly in the age of the ghettos. Among his publications are Italian Jewish Musical Traditions (Hebrew University, 2001), The Jewish World (Rizzoli, 2014), and numerous journal articles and book chapters. 

In his article, “Sounds of Emancipation: Politics, Identity and Music in 19th-Century Italian Synagogues,” Spagnolo analyzes all of these together to illustrate how the emergent genre of Jewish musica sacra connected Jews together in synagogues, and laid a bridge for non-Jewish audiences as well. Spagnolo shows how the emancipation of Italian Jews in 1848 and the gradual unification of Italy up to 1870 brought Jewish communities out of ghettos, rendering the synagogue a particularly important gathering space. This process accompanied the development of a broad genre of musica sacra, which combined Hebrew liturgical works with Italian popular songs and patriotic tunes. The proliferation of this music represents a shared commitment to the nationalist project, and the shared spaces between Jews and non-Jews it encouraged

Lev Weitz is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Director of Islamic World Studies at the Catholic University of America. His research focuses on the religious community and practices of particularly Syriac Christians under the early Islamic Caliphate. His monograph, Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam (2018), explores how these Christian communities adapted to political and legal rule by the Caliphate and the cultural and religious hegemony of Muslims. He focuses on tthe ways in which Chrsitain communities codified their own laws on sex, marriage and the family in order to insulate Christian communities and families from influence from Muslims. He also demonstrates how in the process those Christians and their clergy instituted legal regimes that clearly marked religious identity and imposed rules that were comparable to those that Muslims applied through their courts, a process he refers to as “Christian Sharia.”

In 2019, Weitz wrote an article describing related dynamics, particularly in Egypt between the 5th and 11th century CE. He read a substantial corpus of legal documents to show how Christians in Egypt increasingly turned to a judiciary that relied more and more on Islamic law to govern inheritance, and turned away from autonomous coptic courts and mediators. This shows how a religious minority that had attempted to distinguish itself through law turned to new legal practices, and in the process contributed to the “Islamization” of Egypt in the period. 

Sudipta Kaviraj is Professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. Kaviraj has written at length on the intellectual history of Indian political thought, particularly in the twentieth century. He has focused on the distinct ways in which Indian thinkers and political actors have thought about the State in the wake of British colonialism. Kaviraj finds a usable past in pre-colonial Indian religious history to identify alternative forms of toleration and practices “going beyond toleration” that did not fit the normative standard in modern social science. In his essay “Modernity, State, and Toleration in Indian History: Exploring Accommodations and Partitions” (2014), Kaviraj shows how rulers across the subcontinent dealt with the continual challenge of religious diversity, first posed by the Buddhist challenge to Vedic religion and then by wide-scale Muslim conversion, in ways that differed from their colonial and then nationalist successors. It was common, rather than exceptional, for rulers from many dynastic periods to distinguish state religion from the personal religion of the ruler, to patronize philosophy and literature of distinct religious traditions, and to encourage an openness to the multiple avenues toward true religion. In this way, he shows that these ancient and medieval precedents addressed the same question of how to govern a religiously plural society, but did so with distinct and sometimes more ambitious approaches to toleration.  

Eugenio Menegon is an Associate Professor in History at Boston University. He has written about Christian missions to China in the early modern period, and particularly on the ways in which Christianity became a local religion with its own forms specifically in the southeastern region. In his book, Ancestors, Virgins and Friars: Christianity as  a Local Religion (2009) Menegon shows how Christian converts and their descendents embraced the religion and incorporated it into their existing social relations. His chapter on the Chinese Rites controversy among Jesuit and Dominican missionaries in the seventeenth century shows how local Chinese, particularly in Fuan, responded to these theological debates in practice. He shows that Dominicans who objected to the Chinese ritual sacrifice to ancestors could not simply rely on coercion to change their practices. Rather, he argues, Chinese in Fuan largely abandoned many of their forms of ancestor worship because within a generation they embraced Catholic doctrines of salvation and the intercessory prayer for the dead that accompanied it. In this way, their ritual practices changed in response to Papal decree, but in part because they could incorporate alternatives. 

Menegon has also written a recent article, “Interlopers at the Fringes of Empire: The Procurators of the Propaganda Fide Papal Congregation in Canton and Macao, 1700–1823,” in which he describes how missionaries to China could use commercial networks and intermediary “procurators” to subvert formal prohibitions on Christian missions. This shows local-specific opportunities for Christian missionaries to incorporate themselves into the region.

Fabio Rambelli is Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Cultures, and the International Shinto Foundation Chair in Shinto Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rambelli has written at length about Shinto religion and Buddhism, particularly in Japan. He studies their historical relationship and close connections up to the twentieth century. He explores these dynamics in his article, “The Ritual World of Buddhist ‘Shinto’: The Reikiki and Initiations on Kami-Related Matters (Jingi kanjō) in Late Medieval and Early-Modern Japan” (2002). He argues that it was in the Meiji period and later that Japanese theorists on Shinto sharply distinguished it from any association with Buddhism, which they conceived as a corruption of “pure” Shinto. They drew that distinction in the same period when the Meiji government violently suppressed some Buddhist and hybrid Buddhist-Shinto practices. Rambelli demonstrates, however, that Shinto practice had never been “pure” from Buddhist influence in its late medieval and early modern development. He shows how it was through initiation ceremonies that had their beginning in Buddhist monastic practice that organized Shinto veneration took shape. He argues that Shintoism did not gradually move away from Buddhism through much of this time.

Jonathan Sheehan is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on early modern European intellectual history, particularly on theology and its relationship to other disciplines and fields of inquiry. His article, “Sacred and Profane: Idolatry, Antiquarianism and the Polemics of Distinction in the Seventeenth Century,” illustrates how Christian scholars increasingly accepted idolatry as one form of religion, albeit false religion. He argues that this process gradually led to the possibility of an anthropology of religion, which could study and compare very different religions within the same framework. It was Protestant theologians in particular who began to argue that people engaged in idolatry, particularly Jews, could still have the correct intentions but practice the wrong action. In response, scholars argued about the historical relation between idolatry and true religion, with some arguing that the former is a corrupted version that descended from the latter, while other argued that it was instead the primitive original. All of these arguments ultimately paved the way for an an account that saw religion and idolatry as the same “species” that could be compared over time. 

In subsequent articles and in his book in progress, Sheehan has written about the intellectual history of the category of “Sacrifice.” This work also traces the historical antecedents to modern ways of thinking about religion as a universal. He argues that sacrifice was not always understood as “useless,” nor that it was distinct from law. In both ways, Sheehan argues against narratives that see the secular as only either a fraudulent version of the religious or a vehicle for it.