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

(RNS) — Diana Eck, longtime Harvard University comparative religion professor and founder of its Pluralism Project, is retiring on July 1.

After concluding her last class in April, Eck, who also was a professor of Indian studies, has a busy farewell tour of sorts that has included an honorary lecture on “Teaching India in a Changing World.” She’s preparing to be honored at numerous other May events, including receiving an award from Harvard Divinity School, where she also is a professor, and being a featured speaker at the 50th anniversary celebration of Harvard’s undergraduate concentration in the comparative study of religion.

She spoke with Religion News Service in a Monday (May 6) interview about the state of religious pluralism, how the language about religions has changed, and her personal connections with different faiths.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

You mentioned in a Nieman Reports article back in ‘93 that houses of worship were named “Churches: Buddhist” and “Churches: Islamic” in the Yellow Pages. How have things changed as far as the language that’s used about non-Christian religious communities in the United States since you started the Pluralism Project?

Professor Diana Eck will retire at the end of the spring 2024 semester from her role with Harvard Divinity School. (Photo courtesy of Harvard Divinity School)

We refer to them as religious communities and the language becomes people of faith — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. The language of our leaders has changed from the time when Barack Obama in his first inaugural said we are a nation of Christians and Hindus and Jews and Buddhists, and people drawn from every faith on Earth and also, people of no religious tradition, because you do not have to be a religious person to be an American.

In the introduction to “Pluralism in Practice: Case Studies of Leadership in a Religiously Diverse America,” your longtime colleague Elinor Pierce described your book “A New Religious America,” which was written in 2001, as being at a “hopeful moment.” But her book, published last year, reflects in its postcripts what she called a “decidedly darker” mood. Do you think we’re at a darker moment in religious pluralism in this country?

I do think that “A New Religious America,” when it was published in 2001, was at a hopeful mode. I had to quickly write a new introduction to the paperback when it came out, because shortly after it came out, we had 9/11 and the backlash against Muslim communities in particular, but also that involved Sikhs and Hindus. People were really pretty indiscriminate about all the various brown people they wanted to blame for this. I think the more fearful moment in which pluralism practice has come out is really because of the kind of exclusivist rhetoric that has developed around former President Trump and the MAGA movement and the sense that somehow there is something vital about white America and the Christian nationalism movement. You saw Christian nationalism on display on Jan. 6. That was a frightening time.

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And I think the presidency of Joe Biden has begun to take some of the air out of that. But, still, these issues of how we, whoever we are, respond to the strangers among us or the people we think of as strangers is critical.

Is there something that interfaith leaders are doing to defuse some of these tensions? Is there language that they’re using that you taught over your years at Harvard that may be making a difference?

I think the main language of interfaith relations is dialogue, which is to say, listening carefully to what people have to say, listening to their communities, not just individual people. Speaking, but speaking in a way that is not trying to undercut them, but to understand, and that sense that the give and take of dialogue doesn’t mean you’re all going to agree. It’s not about agreement. It’s about coming to see another point of view. That’s really critical.

How did your views of religions in India transform your perspectives of religious pluralism in the U.S.?

Diana Eck in 1981. (Courtesy photo)

Diana Eck in 1981. (Courtesy photo)

It’s interesting because India and America are both very complicated multireligious democracies. And both have had sort of the rise of certain authoritarian leaders and that certainly has been the case with Prime Minister Modi in India that has become threatening to Muslim minorities and Christian minorities in India — not only threatening but deadly in some cases. One of the great strengths of Indian civilization was the fact that it had managed over the course of many centuries to become the home, a real home, to a whole spectrum of people who would call themselves Hindu, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Zoroastrians — the whole lot — that it had become a civilization that was multireligious and multicultural and that is beginning to dim, at least in the current moment, with the rise of what they call Hindutva, Hinduness, as the essence of India.

Hindus have very successfully, since the 1965 Immigration Act, come to the U.S. and put down roots, have built landmark temples from coast to coast, have created summer camps for their kids, have participated in politics, have sort of been the engines of the Silicon Valley. But one of the interesting things to me is they have not become as outreaching and involved in interfaith affairs as I might have expected and sometimes they need to be invited. Sometimes we might say they don’t have a leadership structure that is like that of clergy and rabbis and imams. But their presence here, I think, is extremely important. They are by far, the most educated and the wealthiest of America’s new immigrant groups, and some of that wealth actually has transferred itself back to India, in support of some of the Hindu movements there.

But I do think America’s multicultural multireligious democracy is one that now is among these experiments in national life that needs to be recognized and protected because we could fail. We could fall into fractious divisions as well, could extend the sort of ethic of pluralism to recognize that what we have is something enormously precious. And frankly, it is not going away, no matter how authoritarian any new regime might be. I mean, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh Americans, Buddhist Americans are here to stay. They’re not going anywhere.

You have many titles: academician, mentor, scholar. Would you add to that list activist or advocate?

I think the Pluralism Project is an activist project. I mean, to actively go out and map the changing religious landscape of America. We were looking for things and found a landscape of America that people didn’t even know was there. So I happily accept the title of activist.

Given your faith being influenced by religious pluralism, how do you describe yourself?

I still think of myself as Christian in the sense that that’s my family of origin. There are other families I feel I belong to as well. I do feel at home in the Hindu families I’ve been part of, and in the Hindu temples I have visited so many of, and the same with Islam to a great extent. I’ve been to the Islamic Society of Boston here many times. And I feel it is not my natal tradition but these are close cousins. When I go to the Sikh community, which I do, and I bring my students there too, one of the things I love about them is that it is a religious tradition that basically sings from beginning to end. The Guru Granth Sahib is not just read; it is sung. And when I go to a Sikh gurdwara, I feel like it’s sort of another version of Methodism, that is totally immersed in song and hymnody. And, as for Buddhist, I think Buddhist practice has become so much part of my life and many people’s lives through Thich Nhat Hanh and mindfulness and the ability to focus one’s self in the present, whether walking or breathing or conversing. So, I feel I am a person who has grown up in one tradition that I still cherish and that has given me relatives and access to many other lifeways and ways of faith.

You mentioned your wife, Dorothy Austin, and that the ordination process in Methodism for you in particular would have been harder than the tenure-track race. Could you explain what you mean?

I was very active as a United Methodist kid, you know, I went to the March on Washington with the Methodist Youth Fellowship in 1963. I was on my way to college. I was involved very much in that movement in my high school and early college years, I was very involved with Methodist youth. We were going to Washington my freshman spring break to lobby for the civil rights bill. So it is not inconceivable that I would have decided to become a Methodist minister. But in fact, what really happened was that I spent my junior year in India, and I ended up with a very expansive view of what religion was and is.

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