We too often stand in almost mute astonishment before the lineages of the Muslim Brotherhood, the thousands of religiously based NGOs, the liberation theologies of South America, the religious energies of American Christian nationalists, the wayside healing shrines of the Balkans, or the fifty million Hindus who converge in pilgrimage to bathe in the River Ganges during the Kumbh Mela. Our understanding of our fellow human beings as they gather in communities, live their lives, proclaim their visions, and die their deaths must keep pace more adequately with the velocity of global change. That is one of the challenges of a multireligious divinity school. I will discuss three:
The first challenge is simply to discern what is going on: taking the time to dig more deeply than the shallow sound bites of the evening news. People of many perspectives and faith communities here at Harvard are committed to this task of understanding in the company of one another. This is the intellectual challenge of the greatest magnitude for our world today.
The second challenge is to study the connections. The religious communities of humankind are not separate chapters bound together in a “world religions” book, or separate courses in a catalog; they are deeply involved in one another’s history, bound together as neighbors in the villages and cities of the world. This has always been the case, but it’s true vividly in the world in which we live today, where migration has literally changed the face of the world. It’s true in our nation, which has become a multireligious nation over the past fifty years since the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened the doors to immigration from all over the world. It’s true of our universities, which have become multireligious. The face of Harvard University has changed radically over the last two and three decades.
What we call “religions” are in a constant process of change, and one of the ways in which they change is in connection and encounter with one another. We must study these connections in the emerging field of interreligious studies. We must take into our scope as scholars not simply one religious community, but the way communities have intersected, both in tension and in cooperation.
This constitutes a new paradigm in religious leadership: a requirement that one become not simply religiously literate but interreligiously literate. We must study the shape of pluralism and develop a pedagogy of pluralism that fosters relationships between leaders of both different faith communities and secular society. To work on global, national, and university issues, it is critically important to study the interfaith infrastructure of the United States.
A third challenge is to move into the methodological terrain of dialogue, a way of working in which the voices of the people we study become integral to the process of our understanding. We ourselves, of course, come to our studies with a particular historical, intellectual, and religious context. This is a problem only if we are not self-conscious about it. Gaining increasing clarity about our own situatedness, our own forms of questioning, our own position—whether religious, secular, even antireligious—is critical, lest our own subjectivities become thoughtlessly, unwittingly universalized in our work.
This is also a kind of theological reckoning . . . a new kind of theological thinking that we are beginning to develop here, that would take seriously the voices and visions of equally rigorous religious thinkers who are not of our own tradition.
Diana L. Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Faculty of Divinity, and the founder and director of the Pluralism Project. Watch this talk in its entirety at bulletin.hds.harvard.edu.