Paderborn looks to new milestones in comparative theology

Editor’s Note: The Christian-Muslim Studies Network partners with organizations worldwide that share similar aims and approaches. This post highlights the past achievements and ongoing progress of one such organization in Paderborn, Germany.

Paderborn is a small German city that boasts of meetings between Charlemagne and Pope Leo III. Known for a beautiful cathedral and ancient Christian art, it has recently become a centre for comparative theological research across the world’s religions.

This photo shows the annual Paderborn Conference on Comparative Theology (PCCT) (27-28 June 2019). The conference explored comparative perspectives on the concept of authority. Photo courtesy Cornelia Dockter.

At the University of Paderborn, a Centre of Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies opened in 2009. Beginning life with a purely research focus, the Centre explored interreligious and intercultural dialogues among the diverse histories and adherents of worldwide faith.

‘This is what we do here, we try and implement the idea of comparative theology’, said Dr. Cornelia Dockter, a researcher at the Centre of Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies.

The study of comparative theology in which the Centre of Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies specializes is not about cheerfully assuming that another faith is benignantly indistinct from one’s own. Rather, students and researchers apply their knowledge to critically evaluate presumed similarity and difference together. In this way, understanding the levels of diversity among religious adherents becomes a practical tool for creating realistic opportunities for common ground.

A New Milestone in Islamic Studies

An important milestone for the programme came in March 2019 when the University began preparations for an Institute for Islamic Theology. This meant plans for two new academic posts – one in Islamic Jurisprudence, and one in Quranic Exegesis – in addition to the existing expertise in Kalam.

The Institute is designed to not only promote academic study for interested Muslims, but also to train them as teachers in Islamic study. They will take their knowledge and skills outside the University, to students in primary and basic secondary schools.

‘This is so important’, Dr. Dockter explained, ‘We have so many Muslim students in Germany, but they often don’t receive any religious education in their schooling. There is a shortage of qualified teachers because so few places offer proper instruction in Islamic Theology’.

Establishing an Institute for Islamic instruction has long been a goal for the Centre of Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies. The new Institute for Islamic Theology is only the second such institution in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous Bundesland in Germany, and it will serve a large and growing Muslim population in the region.

Promoting Dialogue Structurally

Although it began life as research centre, the Centre of Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies never aims to restrict activities solely to academic life.

‘It’s always our aim to integrate the interreligious dialogue between Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other faiths into the education of the religion itself’, Dr. Dockter said.

Students interested in Christian theology, for example, are required to take an additional course on another faith. The same requirement would also apply to students of Islam.

‘This ability to understand how their faith can interact with others will become a competent skill that they have’, Dr. Dockter said. ‘It’s not just an education in their faith itself, but also knowing that it’s important to have dialogue, and knowing how to have a dialogue’.

This idea, she said, remains foreign to much of German society, despite the ongoing presence of Muslims from Turkish, Syrian, and other backgrounds. Obstacles are created when people develop very strong ideas about another faith before making contact with the texts or adherents of the faith.

‘It would be nice if people could understand that within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, there is a plurality, a diversity, and there is a discussion about what it is from within the religion itself’, she said. ‘It’s important to know who the representatives of the religion are you are talking with, and where they are coming from’.

The centre has an innovative and important feature within its own structure to ensure it practices what it preaches. Each office is designed to accommodate researchers and staff from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds. For example, Dr Dockter, a practicing Catholic who studied to become a teacher of theology, shares offices with Dr Nadia Saad, a Muslim researcher from Tunisia.  

‘This provides ongoing opportunities for dialogue, and not just in formal settings’, Dr. Dockter said. ‘We go to lunch together, we spend the evenings together, sometimes we talk about normal life and sometimes about theological issues’.

The structure of the Centre itself creates opportunities to not only craft comparative theology in the academic sense, but also to practice interreligious dialogue in varied settings.

‘Members of other faiths are just part of your everyday, working life,’ she said. ‘It’s a really good atmosphere, and I have really good friends here. We all try and orient ourselves around these principles of comparative theology’.

These friendships, in turn, bear fruit in a research context. Dr. Dockter trained initially to become a teacher in Catholic theology, but she was puzzled as to why her training included no instruction in other religions. Contact with Klaus von Stosch, professor of Catholic systematic theology and chairman of the Centre of Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies, persuaded her that full engagement with another faith, without loss of one’s own, was possible. Her doctoral thesis explored Christology in Christian-Muslim theology. She compared a Christian understanding of the divine Word and Spirit with Quranic texts about the word and spirit of God.

‘It is challenging to have to not only talk about your own faith, but also develop enough expertise to discuss someone else’s’, she said. ‘Without counsel from my Muslim colleagues – another form of dialogue – it would not have been possible to write my doctoral thesis comparatively’.

The Centre has also explored projects in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as Islam and Christianity.

This photo shows the annual Paderborn Conference on Comparative Theology (PCCT) (27-28 June 2019). The conference explored comparative perspectives on the concept of authority. Photo courtesy Cornelia Dockter.