School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

Specialist Seminar on Wagner and Syncretism in Religion

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.
Professor Ulrich Berner (middle, front) with Professor Johannes Smit (middle, back) and colleagues and postgraduate students who attended the seminar.
Professor Ulrich Berner (middle, front) with Professor Johannes Smit (middle, back) and colleagues and postgraduate students who attended the seminar.

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 cooperation 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.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
The LGBTI virtual contextual Bible study collaboration.

UKZN hosts LGBTI Virtual Contextual Bible Study

The Gender and Religion Programme and the Ujamaa Centre within UKZN’s School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics partnered with Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) to host a virtual Contextual Bible Study with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people from across South Africa that are engaging in lived realities during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Heidi Matisonn

Is Absolute Free Speech a Plague in the Time of Coronavirus?

As I write this, the US has recorded its 40 565th COVID-19 death (and 764 265th infection), and South Africa (SA) its 54th death (and 3 158th infection) ( Given their populations (as of January 2020), of 331 million and 57 million respectively, the US’s mortality rate is 129 times that of SA’s.