Harvard Pluralism Project’s Diana Eck retires after decades of research, promoting dialogue

(RNS) — Diana Eck, for decades, has been the academician-activist who has delved into the world’s religions and encouraged others to discover and learn about the faiths of their neighbors.

Now, 49 years after she arrived as an instructor at Harvard University, the professor of comparative religion finds herself answering the same question she posed to her “Ritual and the Life Cycle” class on its last day in late April.

“What is the hardest thing that you’ve ever encountered and how did you face it?” Eck, 78, asked the class.

Weeks later, in an interview with Religion News Service, she realized it was a good question for her to answer as well.

“I think the hardest thing has been the realization that though we have — I have and my students have — been very involved in trying to lift up the ways in which people in our society are coming together — in interfaith initiatives, interfaith councils, interfaith projects, literally all across America,” she said, “but to realize that despite our vision of how important this is, there are many people today who are still very surprised that all of these strangers are here with us, and, basically, would like them all to go home.”

RELATED: Harvard religion professor Diana Eck on pluralism’s changes, challenges

After founding the Pluralism Project at Harvard University — through which Eck, her part-time staff and scores of student researchers mapped “the new religious landscape in America” — she realizes that “unfortunately, a lot of people are still waking up to this in some way.”

Professor Diana Eck, center, stands surrounded with students from one of her religion classes near the end of the spring 2024 semester. (Photo courtesy of Harvard Divinity School)

But she hasn’t given up and remains convinced that exploring and engaging across faith lines helps individuals, communities and democracy.

Since 1991, her project has moved from discovering religious communities, such as a Hindu temple meeting in a Friendly’s restaurant, to creating a CD-ROM used in school systems, to having a website whose home page links to information about 17 religious traditions — from Afro-Caribbean to Zoroastrian.

Eck, with dual expertise in Indian studies and comparative religion, invited students to visit the Boston-area temples, gurdwaras and mosques near Harvard but also those in their hometowns. At first, the terminology for those religious communities, many of them birthed in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act, was little known.

Jonathan Ebel, who graduated in the ‘90s after attending Eck’s “World Religions in New England” class and is now a professor of religion at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, embarked on a project in Chicago under her direction through a Pluralism Project grant.

“I was the one who had to open up the Yellow Pages and look under C for churches because it turned out that’s where almost all of these places were listed — Buddhist temples and Hindu temples and mosques and Sikh gurdwaras,” he recalled in an interview.

(Cambridge, MA - Monday, September 15, 2003) (from left) His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama speaks with Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, and others inside Loeb House at Harvard University. Staff Photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard University News Office

The Dalai Lama, from left, speaks with Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, and others inside Loeb House at Harvard University on Sept. 15, 2003, in Cambridge, Mass. (Staff Photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard University News Office)

Current and former faculty, interfaith leaders and former students of Eck — via the classroom or through her books — speak of her work as changing the trajectory of their academic life or careers.

“Diana was superb at bringing her vision for a better comprehension of the vast religious diversity of the USA together with the diverse array of talent in our university students to build a long lasting research and idea base from which she could realize the project’s goals in very tangible ways,” said William Graham, a former graduate-student colleague who later was dean of Harvard Divinity School.

After studying practices used at Harvard Business School, Eck and her team built a case for the viability of religious pluralism — using the “case study” method, with examples that now fill the project’s website.

One of the first was what she considered a “failure,” where a Muslim organization’s attempt to buy a church that was for sale was met with negative reaction by hundreds of residents at a city council meeting in the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights. But a few years later, another initiative led to the building of an “Islamic house of prayer” in another suburb, Orland Park, with a unanimous council vote.

Emile Lester, author of books about teaching religions in public schools, said the project’s resources have been received well among possible critics. The University of Mary Washington political science professor cited a conservative evangelical teacher who, despite preconceptions, “thought that it was completely legitimate as a subject for public school.” 

Professor Diana Eck, far left, talks with panelists during an event. Photo courtesy Ellie Pierce

Professor Diana Eck, far left, talks with panelists during an event. (Photo courtesy of Ellie Pierce)

Though much of her work is based on research, Eck, who also is a professor at Harvard Divinity School, also has taught and learned through relationships.

Eck invited women from a range of faiths to gather at Harvard in 1983 and again in 2003 for a conference with the theme “Women, Religion and Social Change.”

She also brought women leaders of U.S. religious communities to the Harvard Club in New York shortly after 9/11 to find solace and develop strategies together for re-creating their initiatives that were disrupted by the terrorist attack and the ensuing backlash against Muslims, Sikhs and other faiths with which many Americans were still unfamiliar.

“We can speak honestly about what it is that is happening in our own community,” said Eck of the post-9/11 gathering of women in New York. “That’s not something that scholars are going to be able to penetrate very immediately.”

As Eck, the longest-serving woman professor at Harvard, is retiring, she has witnessed one of the most religiously driven global conflicts playing out on campus that is threatening interfaith relations and pluralism in real time.

A supporter of the pro-Palestinian protests by Harvard students, she acknowledged the deaths of Israelis and Jews in the Israel-Hamas war but focused on the deaths of the thousands of children in Gaza.

A student protester against the war in Gaza walks past tents and banners in an encampment in Harvard Yard, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Thursday, April 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

A student protester against the war in Gaza walks past tents and banners in an encampment in Harvard Yard, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on April 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

“When I look at the tents that have been in Harvard Yard, I think the most dramatic part of it —and the part that I believe the students care most about — is a long canvas that stretches basically from the gate of the university all the way to the administration building, on which students have written over the last months, the names and ages of the people who have been killed in Gaza,” she said.

And as a longtime member of the United Methodist Church, she celebrated as its General Conference made numerous historic steps for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in early May.

“It’s about time,” said Eck, a lesbian who married her wife, minister and psychologist Dorothy Austin, in 2004 in Harvard’s Memorial Church. “Thanks be to God. It was great to see that happen.”

Eck has modeled how a person can be a member of one faith but be supportive of people of other faiths, in and outside their houses of worship.

Her longtime friend and former student Ali Asani, whose Kenyan Muslim parents Eck once joined in prayer, called on his colleague to join him on a new task force at Harvard he is co-chairing that seeks to combat anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias.

Despite her plan to officially retire as of July 1, he said she has held listening sessions and he expects her to have a role in pending recommendations.

“I said: ‘You’re still part of the university; we’re not going to let you go,’” recalled Asani, a professor of Islamic religion and cultures. “We need you. We need you now more than ever.”

Eck, who noted that Harvard also created a task force on antisemitism earlier this year, also has encouraged people beyond the campus as they sought new ways to foster interreligious understanding.

Among her progeny are Eboo Patel, who once sat on her patio to discuss what would become Interfaith Youth Core, known for engaging college students in interfaith service projects, and is now Interfaith America, distributing grants to other cross-faith initiatives. Another is Simran Jeet Singh, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program. Both contributed to “Pilgrimage, Place, and Pluralism,” a volume published earlier this year to pay tribute to Eck, with Patel describing his mentor as “perhaps the single most influential figure in American interfaith work in the 1990s.”

From left, Paul Rausehnbush, then editor for the Huffington Post, Professor Diana Eck and Simran Jeet Singh stand together for a portrait in roughly 2018. Photo courtesy Simran Jeet Singh

Paul Raushenbush, from left, then editor for the Huffington Post, Professor Diana Eck and Simran Jeet Singh stand together for a portrait, circa 2018. (Photo courtesy of Simran Jeet Singh)

“Professor Eck’s sustained efforts demonstrate how academics can utilize their expertise — from a place of care and compassion — to help make our world a better place,” said Singh, who is a columnist for RNS.

Eck said she hopes the Pluralism Project, which has been a model for affiliates and organizations across the country, will continue to foster dialogue and engagement, even as she hopes to spend more time at home and pursue writing projects.

“I think we’ve kind of got the ball rolling, and we will try to keep what is on our website up to date,” she said. “People can use it, utilize it, build on it, teach from it, and all that stuff until we become that utopian pluralist culture.”

RELATED: White House’s Melissa Rogers affirms religious diversity as interfaith group expands

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