- Reviewed by
I read this book virtually in one sitting. This was partly because of the author’s alluring prose style and highly imaginative lay-out of the book’s content and partly because I have been a fellow-traveler on the interreligious dialogue [End Page 618] road that Leonard Swidler has so indefatigably helped to shape and from whose scholarship I have learned much. He once confessed to me that the greatest challenge he felt as a writer was to come up with a decent smattering of bon mots in any composition. However, if he felt fitting bon mots to be forever elusive, the same cannot be said for the author. The whole book is itself a bon mot.
But, this book is not a usual biography. Biographies are intended to provide a reflective account of a person in their life-settings over time. Here the reader receives a life, as it were, in sideways glances: through a timeline in broad-brush strokes, through interludes describing historical contexts and background, directly through conversational interviews with the subject himself, and via the impressions of friends, colleagues, and students who have benefitted (but not necessarily followed 100%) along the way.
The author is clearly an admirer of her subject, though by no means a sycophant. She seeks to bring out the best of the man, and seems to me largely to have achieved her goal. Two features of his character are exploited in this account: his unbounded energy for life and work, and a certain absence of guile in his dealings with both people and theological truth. He is all of a piece in whatever setting he has been placed and is driven by a desire to do the good and seek the truth. These are traits that correspond to his lifetime’s joking desire to be a saint and an intellectual. By his own and his biographer’s admissions, he has managed the latter but fallen short of the former. For liberal Catholic Swidler, the fact of Vatican II was an undoubted historic miracle. Perhaps a more personal miracle has been the vastness of the published material marking his significant intellectual achievements—whether struggles with traditional Catholic theology and ecclesiology, reflections on interreligious dialogue and global ethics, or simply commending Christian faith fit for intelligent adults living within present-day “modernity,” all of which are canvassed in this book.
The author writes delightful prose that helps the reader feel the humanity in the story of one man’s intriguing journey. The book is a woven patchwork of historical memories, warm conversations (some of them teasing), students’ and colleagues’ pleasures and frustrations in response to a determined mind, and intellectual musings by the subject himself. The author portrays a historian and theologian of almost naive single-mindedness: One is left with the impression that Swidler must have emerged from the womb with the word “dialogue” already on his lips! [End Page 619]
Dialogue is what Swidler has given to the world. For that we must be grateful and now not least because of this eloquent bon mot from a critical friend. She has done us a service by sending us back to read again the voluminous output of her subject’s written passion, which is necessary given that the inclusive liberal scholarship of the kind championed by Swidler seems increasingly to be in short supply. [End Page 620]