Specialist Seminar on Wagner and Syncretism in Religion

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Professor Johannes Smit of the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics (SRPC), recently organised a seminar conducted by Professor Ulrich Berner (Bayreuth University, Germany) on the topic of Richard Wagner, and Syncretism in Religion. It took place in the context of a research project on “Sacred Space in Durban and Beyond”, carried out mainly by Dr Magnus Echtler (PhD, Bayreuth), who has visited UKZN several times.

Berner arrived from Abu Dhabi where he presented a paper on “Richard Wagner and Islam”. Wagner was a 19th century German composer who was known for his interest in various religions, mainly Buddhism. In his early career he drafted an (unfinished) opera on the coexistence and co-operation of Christians and Muslims in medieval southern Italy.

Berner did not read the full paper but summarised some sections in order to raise questions of interest to scholars of Religion. The first basic question was whether it is legitimate or even rewarding for Religious Studies to deal with other fields of culture, for instance, opera or music theatre.

Another question referred to the contested concept of syncretism that might be applied to Wagner’s operas since he combined elements from various religions in his productions. Some studies have described his work as representing a “synthesis” or a “patchwork religion”.

These concepts are problematic, because they carry value judgements that are largely negative, especially in the case of syncretism. However, some PhD students from African countries who studied at Bayreuth have opted to use the notion of “syncretism” as their main critical theoretical lens. Examples are Meron Zeleke’s and Gemechu Geda’s work on religions in Ethiopia.

In his paper, Berner suggested that concepts such as “coexistence” and “cooperation” should be given more attention. “Cooperation” has been used in various disciplines, in trans-disciplinary ways, also in the natural sciences, with reference to the role of religion in the evolution of humankind. He illustrated his suggestion with examples drawn from medieval Latin and Arabic literature that report cases of interreligious and interfaith coexistence as well as cooperation.

The presentation was followed by a lively discussion.

Words: Melissa Mungroo 

Photograph: Nalita Masiza