LOUISVILLE – The encounters we have with people of other faiths change us, religion scholar Diana Eck is sure – and increasingly, the United States is becoming a place of phenomenal religious diversity.
An example she gives: A Methodist student rooms in college with an Orthodox Jew, sees the Jew rising early each morning to pray, sees the student’s kindness and intelligence, meets the roommate’s family. They are in each other’s weddings.
“That knowledge changes us,” said Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University and founder of The Pluralism Project, which tracks changes in the American religious landscape. “The Christian student will never again go through Holy Week without thinking of his friend, and vice-versa.”
She spoke to students, faculty and people from the community at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on Feb. 15 in the first session of a five-part “Doors to Dialogue” program presented in partnership with the Kentucky Council of Churches.
Eck watches the world struggling to come to terms with this diversity. France is “ardently secular,” she said, yet has endured years of controversy over Muslim dress and whether to ban the wearing of a full Islamic veil in public.
In the U.S., religious freedom is celebrated – yet not without difficulty or complications.
“What does it mean that these three young people were slain in Chapel Hill last week?” Eck asked. “When I saw those pictures, I couldn’t believe it. These are my students; these are our neighbors . . . Yet their beautiful lives shattered with violence coming from fears.”
A question being asked around the world is: “How can we live with each other with our deepest differences?” Eck said. “What does the religious ‘other’ mean to me?”
Part of the answer is that “we need to stop talking” so much and begin to listen. “We need to pause and cultivate what political philosopher William Connolly calls a stutter in our own faith, a catch” of breath, a pause not to develop a new doctrine or a one-page agreement to sign, Eck said, but some “relational modesty” to begin to allow appreciation for the views of others.
These are difficult questions, she acknowledged.
Yet she is also aware of examples where interfaith relationships are being forged and questions explored together – some of them created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In Syracuse, New York, an interfaith group of women called Women Transcending Boundaries meets for discussion and service work. Louisville’s Festival of Faiths this year will focus on “Sacred Journeys and the Legacy of Thomas Merton” to honor the 100th anniversary of Merton’s birth. In Houston, interfaith groups meet for dinner in one another’s homes.
“Our cities and towns are our workshops,” Eck told the group. “We need to begin there.”
Religion in the United States continues to be transformed by immigration – with roughly 13 percent of those in the country having been born in other countries, according to statistics from the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey.
Immigrants arrive with their economic dreams and hopes for education, but also with their cultural values, their prayer mats and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Eck said. She showed photographs of mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples and Sikhs worshipping in places like Wisconsin, Montana, Florida and California. The U.S. Congress now includes members who are Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. “Islam is an American religion now,” Eck said. “America is part of the Islamic world. The Islamic world isn’t somehow somewhere else.”
That reality sometimes creates tensions and an array of public policy questions.
“How do we thrive as co-citizens?” Eck asked. Among the public policy questions communities have faced: “Can they build a mosque here –that big of a mosque? Should Eid be a holiday in the public schools? Can a Wiccan offer the invocation at the county commission meeting? Can a CEO accommodate Islamic prayer in the work schedule?”
And, for individual Christians, “how do I understand” the beliefs of other faiths? “Is Allah God – what I mean by God? What does it mean to speak of the Koran as the word of God, of Muhammad as the prophet of God? What hospitality should I offer when they come? Do they offer us hospitality, and what kind of world do we envision together?”
In a question-and-answer session, Eck was asked whether pluralism necessarily means watering down one’s own faith. Even within religious traditions, “we have multiple voices,” she responded. “I don’t think you can find a religious community small enough that they all agree.”
Even for those not comfortable with the questions, the issues will emerge in such a globalized, multifaith world, she said. “Eventually, your kids will go to school with the other kids” from other faith traditions. “Or you will have a neighbor – literally neighbors – who are of another faith. Or one of your own kids decides that she’s going to be a Wiccan, and you don’t even know what that is. These are things that eventually find us whether we decide we want to have them or not.”
Eck is the master of Lowell House at Harvard – which means she lives, day in and day out, with about 400 undergraduates.
“The young people that I live with are all about exploring the world” she said. “They really call into question what we ourselves believe… What is the great depth of our existence? Students, young people, live with this question.”
The decline of mainline Christian churches “requires a lot of boldness to really embrace the new situation – the new global situation of our planet,” Eck continued. “It requires visionaries . . . How is it we have not developed a sense of belonging and a sense of mutual trust and relationship with other religious communities ?. . . We need to boldly be in relationship. I think that is the commandment of the future.”
Here are some questions that Eck presented for small-group discussion for the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary group:
- What is the most significant encounter you personally have had with someone of another religious tradition?
- What is religious pluralism? Does pluralism mean a watering down of our own faith? How can one be a Christian and a pluralist?
- What might be the difference between affirming religious pluralism as a citizen and affirming religious pluralism as a Christian?
- What are some practical issues that face Christians in a world of religious diversity? How are Christians involved in outreach and dialogue with people of other faiths?
- Can encounters with people of other faiths lead one to be even more faithful in one’s own walk with God?