Skip to content. Skip to navigation
Personal tools
Sections

THE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES AND THE PLURALITY OF RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES

Document Actions

Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
October 4, 2002

Diana L. Eck, Harvard University

It is a great pleasure and honor to be here at this conference to address the question of religious pluralism in the context of Christian churches. There could be no more important question in our world today than the question of how we negotiate our religious differences in a world in which all of us now live together in greater proximity than ever before. We all have new responsibilities now --as theologians, as church leaders, as educators, and as participants in multi-religious societies throughout the world.

As we think about the movements that have reshaped the world in which we live in the past half-century, even in the past decade, there are many key words that come to mind. Among them is the term "globalization" which has many meanings, both positive and negative. Globalization has made all of us more acutely aware of the ways in which our currencies, our economies, our political fortunes, our attempts at waging war and our attempts at building peace are all inter-linked, although the policies of our governments and the vision of our churches may be slow to recognize this fact.

Along with the globalization of world systems has come the movement of people as refugees and as economic and political migrants. The demography of our world has changed, and our way of looking at a world of religious, cultural, and ethnic difference must now begin to catch up with those changes. One of my colleagues at Harvard has described the post-cold war world as one that will be marked by rigid adherence to civilizational identities, and ultimately a "clash of civilizations." Some people believe that his dire predictions of a clash of Islam and the west has been borne out in the events of September 11 and their global aftermath. Perhaps one could make a persuasive case for this analysis, but it is missing any critical perspective on the changing demography of our world. It is missing any critical analysis of the global currents of culture and religion that have come with this new reality.

Just where, we must ask, are the so-called Confucian, Islamic, and Hindu worlds that will be the forces with which the West must reckon? They are everywhere, today. It is precisely the interpenetration and proximity of great civilizations and cultures that is the hallmark of the twenty-first century. The map of the world in which we live cannot be color coded as to its Christian, Muslim, Hindu identity, but each part of the world is marbled with the colors and textures of the whole. This is a fact with which we are grappling anew in the United States, for America has become, over the past forty years, a truly multi-religious society. New immigrants have come to American shores from all over the world and have become citizens. They have brought with them not only their luggage and economic aspirations, but their Qur'ans and Bhagavad Gitas, their images of Krishna and Murugan, their incense to light before the Bodhisattvas on their Buddhist altars.

Speaking as an American today in 2002, 1 would like to make clear to all of you that the "Islamic world" is not somewhere else other than America. No indeed, the United States is part of the Muslim world. Chicago with its seventy mosques and half a million Muslims is part of the Muslim world. Washington D.C., where the Islamic Society of North America gathered thirty thousand strong for their annual convention just a month ago, is part of the Muslim world. Los Angeles with its multitude of Buddhist communities spanning the whole of Asia --its Chinese temples, its Korean and Japanese temples, its Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao temples, its Euro-American Buddhist communities-- partakes of the cultures and religious ways of all of Asia. Cities like Pittsburgh, Nashville, Atlanta, Boston, and Houston have splendid Hindu temples and have seen the magnificence of temple consecration rites most of these new immigrants had never witnessed in India. They are part of whatever one might mean by the "Hindu world" in which new American immigrants move back and forth from India to the Silicon Valley with a fluidity my own immigrant grandparents could never have imagined. And there are Sikhs who have built gurdwaras from coast to coast and litigated for their right to wear a turban on a hard-hat job or on the Los Angeles police force. And there are Jains, too, who have trained their children in a curriculum of nonviolence and insist that school cafeterias have clearly marked vegetarian options.

I speak to you today about the United States, not because America has the answers, but because America has struggled with these issues of religious tolerance and democracy from the very beginning. The Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed the seas to establish communities in a new world wanted to be free to practice their religious faith. They were not thinking about a wider ethic of religious freedom when they clung to the shores of the Atlantic south of here in Plymouth, and when they created the Massachusetts Bay Colony. History reminds us that they were concerned primarily with religious freedom for themselves and did not see religious freedom as a foundation for common life with people who differed from them. In seventeenth century Puritan Boston, for example, Solomon Franco, a Sephardic Jewish merchant, was "warned out" of town. An anti-Catholic law was enacted stating "that no Jesuit or ecclesiastical person ordained by the authoritie of the pope shall henceforth come within our jurisdiction…." The Puritan establishment of Boston put four Quakers to death on the gallows on Boston Common. Dissenters like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison had to flee the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of their non-conformist religious beliefs, settling in what is now Rhode Island.

During the long argument that produced a nation out of thirteen colonies, there were those who wanted to establish a state religion in the new world and those who urged tolerance and freedom for all religions. The principle of religious freedom eventually won the day and was written into the Bill of Rights: that there shall be no establishment of any given religion, no sect of Christianity, not even Christianity itself, and that there shall be no infringement of the free exercise of religion. The freedom we seek for ourselves, we must also cherish for everyone, even those with whom we disagree. Interestingly, they argued their case for a secular Constitution on religious grounds: Our freedom is grounded in the God-given freedom of the mind to think and to choose. Standing for religious freedom --even freedom from any form of religion-- is grounded in the very freedom ordained by God. A state that would enforce uniformity of religion is against the very principles of God's sovereignty and ultimacy. God did not propagate truth by coercion, so why should we?

Such a vision of religious freedom was not part of the heritage of most European newcomers to America. In England and France there had been state established and supported religion. And there had been a ghastly legacy of bloody wars in the name of religion. The new American democracy turned away from that legacy toward the separation of church and state, and the free-exercise of religion.

Interestingly, religion in the new country became stronger precisely because the churches no longer had any support from public tax coffers; they had to compete with one another in the free market of Christian ideas in order to thrive, and one of the consequences of this unprecedented approach to religious freedom was the proliferation of churches. When the Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville traveled around America in the 1820s, he discovered, to his surprise, that severing the ties between church and state seemed to make religion stronger, rather than weaker. Unlike France, where the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom seemed to march in opposite directions, in America they seemed "intimately united" and "reigned in common over the same country." 1 Churches needed to win the support of parishioners in order to survive, and the spirit of voluntarism inspired a lively and intense competition in religion and the creation of a multitude of "denominations" that have become a distinctive feature of American religion. Toqueville called religion the "first of political institutions," astutely discerning that while the churches were not supported by the government and were not directly involved in politics as such, they were nonetheless extremely influential in the political sphere.

As we know, the history of making this unprecedented vision of religious tolerance and religious freedom into a firm foundation for a complex society is actually a very rocky one. If you want to know just how rocky it has been, look at our 19th century history. Ask the Catholics and Jews, whose history here has included bitter periods of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Ask how the Chinese were received, who built makeshift temples on the west coast and in the Rocky mountains in the 1850s and 1860s, or ask how it went for the first Sikhs who built their first places of worship in California in the 1910s. Ask the Japanese Buddhists who were imprisoned in America's own concentration camps during World War 11. Ask the Native peoples of America, who did not win the clear right to practice their religious life-ways until the passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act in 1968.

The transformation of America's religious landscape in the period since the 1965 immigration act was past has been gradual. For many years, you still had to look for it. The Hindu temple might be in a former convenience store in Sunnyvale, CA or in a former church at the corner of Polk and Pine in Minneapolis. The mosque might be in a former U Haul office in Pawtucket RI or a gymnasium in Oklahoma City. A two-car garage in Claremont, California became a Vietnamese Buddhist temple room. For the most part, we could drive right by and not notice anything new at all. But the distinctive visible presence has gradually become apparent over the last two decades, with dramatic architectural statements that enunciate that presence. The huge white dome of a mosque flanked by its minarets rises from the cornfields just off the interstate outside Toledo. A great Hindu temple with elephants carved in relief at the doorway stands on a hillside in the western suburbs of Nashville. A Cambodian Buddhist temple and monastery with just a hint of a southeast Asian roofline is set in the farmlands south of Minneapolis and on a suburban road outside Washington D.C. In suburban Fremont, California, flags fly from the golden domes of a new Sikh gurdwara on a street renamed Gurdwara Terrace. These are the architectural signals of a new religious America.

Over the past few years, speaking across America with students, civic leaders, religious congregations, I discovered how surprised many of us were to find that there are more Muslim Americans today than Episcopalians, more Muslims than members of the Presbyterian Church USA, probably as many Muslims as Jews. We are astonished to be told that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world, with a Buddhist population spanning the whole range of the Asian Buddhist world and with a multitude of native-born American Buddhists. We know that many of our internists, surgeons, and nurses are of Indian origin, but we have not stopped to consider that they too have a religious life, that they might pause in the morning for few minutes' prayer at an altar in the family room of their home, that they might bring fruits and flowers to the Shiva-Vishnu Temple on the weekend.

Many people, perhaps some of us, are still surprised to learn about America's new religious diversity and reluctantly challenged to think about what this diversity means for the American pluralist experiment. Muslim voter registration drives? Hindu temples being built in the suburbs? Turbaned Sikhs going to court over job discrimination? A faith-based initiative that might provide support for the Hare Krishna food program along with others? At least until last fall, these were relatively new considerations for most of us.

But on that brilliant blue September morning a year ago when hijacked planes exploded into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a new era began for us all. Within hours an unprecedented rash of xenophobic incidents began -from low level harassment, ethnic slurs, broken windows, and threatening calls, to arson, beatings, and murders. While the roster of hate crimes was growing, so were prodigious efforts at local and national outreach across religious boundaries -- interfaith services and interfaith education programs. It is too soon to gauge the climate of the new religious America in which we all now live. One thing is certain. The challenge of relations between and among people of different religious and cultural traditions, both here in the United States and around the world, is moving to the top of the agenda.

Over the past ten years, the Pluralism Project has documented the ways in which today's minority religious communities have experienced the violence of attacks on their visible religious institutions. For example, in February, 1983, vandals broke into the newly constructed Hindu-Jain Temple in Pittsburgh and smashed all the white marble images of the Hindu deities. The sacred scripture of the Sikhs, housed on a side altar, was torn to pieces. The word "Leave!" was written across the main altar. In 1993, the temple of a tiny Cambodian Buddhist community in Portland, Maine was vandalized with an axe, its doorjambs hacked, its doors broken, its altars desecrated and the words "Dirty Asian Chink, Go Home!" written on the walls. In September of 1994, an nearly-completed mosque in Yuba City, California was burned to the ground in a fire that the sheriff deemed to be arson. There have been dozens of these incidents every year and they are now documented by such groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The documentary register of acts of violence is easier to assemble than the register of new initiatives of cooperation and understanding. Yet assembling the evidence of new patterns of interreligious encounter and relationship is also important in discerning how the "we" is being reconfigured in multi-religious America. Looking back through the 1990s, we see the 1993 ground-breaking for a new Islamic Center Sharon, Massachusetts brought Jews, Christians and Muslims together from the greater Boston area. There on a hillside overlooking the fields of a former horse-farm, rabbis and priests, imams and Muslim leaders each turned a shovel of earth for the Islamic Center of New England. Two weeks later, across the country in Fremont, California, St. Paul's United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of the East Bay broke ground together for a new church and a new mosque, to be built side by side. They named their common access road "Peace Terrace," and they are now next-door neighbors. "We want to set an example for the world," said one of the Muslim leaders.

The past year has amplified the record of hostility to difference and outreach efforts to bring religious communities together for dialogue and common work. [See the "In the News" section of our website: http: w ww.pluralism.org] On the side of hostility, we can see the record of violence and suspicion, not only against Muslims, but against anyone who has the look and feel of different. On September 13th, men entered the Colorado Springs mosque and threaten to burn it down; a crowd approached the Bridgeview mosque in Chicago shouting anti-Arab slogans; a man smashed his car through the front entrance of the mosque in Cleveland; a firebomb landed in a mosque in Denton, Texas; and rifle-fire pierced the dome of the mosque in Toledo, Ohio. A Sikh was shot and killed in Phoenix in his gas station and convenience store; a Coptic Christian grocery store owner originally from Egypt was shot and killed in his store in San Gabriel, California; a Pakistani Muslim grocer was shot and killed in Dallas. And there were a multitude of smaller incidents, many of them not reported: obscene graffiti on the walls of the mosque in Stirling, Virginia, or bricks wrapped with hate messages thrown through the windows of an Islamic bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia. And, of course, there have been the ongoing violations of the basic civil liberties of American Muslims, some of whom have been incarcerated for months, without and due process of law.

The amplification and strengthening of interfaith connection has also been part of religious America in the past year. While one misguided would-be patriot shot and killed a Sikh in Arizona, thousands poured out to the gas station he had owned and to the civic arena where his memorial service took place to say, with one voice, "This is not who we are!." By January 2002, the family of this Sikh man had received more than 10,000 letters and messages of support. In Denton, Texas a circle of interfaith leaders assembled immediately at the mosque for prayer and protection. The Palestinian bookstore owner in Alexandria, Virginia, stunned by the shattered glass and its message of hatred, soon discovered hundreds of supportive neighbors he did not know who sent him dozens of bouquets of flowers and hundreds of cards expressing their sorrow at what had happened. In Toledo, as Cherefe Kadri, the woman who is the president of the Islamic conu-nunity told it, "That small hole in the dome created such a huge outpouring of support for our Islamic community. A Christian radio station contacted me wanting to do something," she said. "They called out on the airwaves for people to come together at our center to hold hands, to ring our mosque, to pray for our protection. We expected 300 people, and thought that would be enough to circle the mosque, but 2000 people showed up to hold hands around the mosque. I was amazed!"

Not surprisingly, the interfaith networks and councils that had grown in America during the 1990s sprung into action with immediate civic leadership, and cities that had never had an interfaith civic council formed one. Virtually all of the community services in cities and towns across America involved leaders from a wide spectrum of religious communities. At the National Cathedral in Washington, Muzamil Siddiqi, leader of the Islamic Society of North America, was among those offering prayers. The Episcopal Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon said, "Those of us who are gathered here -Muslim, Jew, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu-- say to this nation and to the world that love is stronger than hate." At an interfaith service in the Bay Area, the Governor of California, Gray Davis, put it clearly: "Our enemies have failed to divide us. We are one people. We are Americans. We don't care if you were born in the Mission District or the Middle East." The anniversary observances of September 11 likewise expressed this strengthening interfaith connection.

Education and outreach, fundamental to building relationships in a pluralist society, has been another positive prognostic of this period. As our huge bombers were leaving an airforce base in Missouri to fly non-stop to Afghanistan, mosques all over America were holding open-houses, inviting neighbors in to learn more about Islam in the face of a wave of Islamophobia. The Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, for example, published an open letter to their neighbors, saying: "'We utterly condemn the use of terror to further any political or religious cause. As Muslims, we abhor the killing of innocent civilians. Our holy book, the Qur'an, teaches: 'If anyone kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity. And if anyone saves a life, it is as if he has saved all of humanity' (Ch. 5, verse 32). The letter announced a community open house to be held the following Sunday. It closed, "God willing, we can lend one another strength to find hope in these uncertain times." More than seven hundred people came to the open house, many of them visiting a mosque for the first time. The story was the same across the country. In Austin, Texas, for example, hundreds showed up for the Sunday afternoon open house. A woman interviewed by the Austin American- Statesman put the matter plainly and succinctly for all of us when she said, "The time of not getting to know each other is over."

Getting to know each other also has profound theological dimensions, and never has theological confusion and bigotry been expressed so openly and publicly. Following an interfaith memorial in Yankee Stadium last September, ,the conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran Church suspended the leader of its Atlantic district for participating in the event and demanded that he apologize to the Lord and to all Christians for offering a prayer on the same platform with "pagans." Many people, including those in the national television audience, were clearly moved the event, as was a participating Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, the Reverend David Benke. As he looked out on 20,000 people holding the pictures of their lost loved ones, he referred to everyone there as "sisters and brothers." He said that "God is love," and asked them to take the hand of a neighbor and "join me in prayer on this field of dreams turned into God's house of prayer." He closed his prayer in the name of Jesus, which no doubt made some non-Christian participants uncomfortable, but from them there was no protest. The protest came from his own church. They charged him with "an offense both to God and to all Christians." The event wrongly signaled, they said, that "'all religions pray to the same God." Equally offensive, however, was "to give the impression that there might be more than one God." The only satisfactory conclusion seemed to be that there is only one God, and that God is ours, perhaps a Missouri Synod Lutheran, to boot. No one seemed to wonder if the one they call "God" just might be expansive enough to receive the prayers of all people.

This incident is instructive, for it gives us a sense of need for theological leadership that this new era requires, including the leadership of Christians with long experience of relationship with Muslim neighbors. How do we understand the one we call "God" in the prayers, presence, and faith of our non-Christian neighbors? Especially among those exclusivist Christians who have absolutized their "God" language, there has been an unprecedented burst of dissonant theological pronouncements. Prominent Southern Baptist clergy have averred that the God Muslims worship is not the same God known to Christians and Jews. A leader of the denomination insisted that "Allah is not Jehovah," while another insisted that Muslims worship a "different God than Christians," although he later said he had no time to learn anything about Islam. A prominent cabinet officer and member of the Assemblies of God church insisted that "Islam is a religion where you send your son to die for God, but Christianity is a faith where God sends his son to die for you." And today's New York Times cites an interview with the Reverend Jerry Falwell, calling Muhammad "a man of war."

There are many things Christians must find disturbing about such statements, and they must leave many a Baptist worshipper yearning for a more adequate understanding of God in the universe of faiths. Today our religious neighbors, whether Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist, are closer than ever before. They are not around the world, but literally across the street. And yet our ignorance of one another has become sadly evident. Allah is, after all, Arabic for God and is the same term Arab Christians use in their prayers and praises. The rash of restrictive pronouncements about God's presence, person, and names does no justice to anyone's understanding of God.

Pluralism is not an ideology, not a new universal theology, and not a freeform relativism. Rather, pluralism is the dynamic process through which we engage with one another in and through our very deepest differences. Through this engagement, new theological understandings may well emerge, and I for one, hope they do. In the meantime, let me close with three points on what I understand to be the nature of pluralism.

First, I would argue, that "pluralism" is not just another word for diversity. It goes beyond mere plurality or diversity to active engagement with that plurality. Religious diversity is a observable fact of American life today --from Flushing, New York where Sikhs and Jews worship across the street from one another, to San Diego, California where the Islamic Center and the Lutheran Church are next door neighbors.. On that stretch of New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland, the Vietnamese Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Muslim Community Center, the Disciples of Christ Church, the Cambodian Buddhist Temple, and the Gujarati Hindu Temple lined up one after another vividly dramatize the possibility of a new pluralism. One can study this diversity, complain about there being too much diversity, or even celebrate diversity. But the diversity alone is not pluralism. Pluralism is not a given, but must be created. Pluralism requires participation, and attunement to life and energies of one another.

Second, I would propose that pluralism goes beyond mere tolerance to the active attempt to understand the other, like the step taken by Milwaukee's Christians and Muslims last year when they signed that covenant pledging themselves to the process of mutual understanding. Although tolerance is no doubt a step forward from intolerance, it does not require new neighbors to know anything about one another. Tolerance comes from a position of strength. I can tolerate many minorities if I am in power, but if I myself am a member of a small minority, what does tolerance mean? Tolerance can create a climate of restraint, but not a climate of understanding. Tolerance alone does little to bridge the chasms of stereotype and fear that may, in fact, dominate the mutual image of the other. It is far too fragile a foundation for a society that is becoming as religiously complex as ours.

We ourselves may be very religious, yet we may have a very low level of religious literacy beyond our own tradition. Beginning to root out the stereotype and prejudice that bear false witness against our neighbors and form the fault-lines of fracture is critical for a society that has absorbed so much difference, with so little understanding of our differences. Still, few theological schools training leaders for churches require basic literacy in the world religions as part of that training.

Third, I would insist that pluralism is not simply relativism. It does not displace or eliminate deep religious commitments. It is, rather, the encounter of commitments. Some critics have persisted in linking pluralism with a kind of valueless relativism, in which all cats are gray, all perspectives equally viable and, as a result, equally uncompelling. Pluralism, they would contend, undermines commitment to one's own particular faith with its own particular language, watering down particularity in the interests of universality. I consider that view a distortion of the process of pluralism. I would argue that pluralism is the engagement, not the abdication, of differences and particularities.

As Archbishop Demetrios said so eloquently last night, it is this very process of engagement, mutual learning, and dialogue that will begin to produce a theology of pluralism. The power and dignity of speaking and listening are themselves creative and illumining. Orthodox theologians consistently remind us all that the realm of the Spirit has no frontiers. We cannot place limits upon the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and burns in the hearts of many. Today, may the freedom and fire, the creativity and guidance of the Holy Spirit enable us to meet the challenges of life and leadership in a world of many faiths.



1. Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, New York: Vintage Books, 1990, vol. L pp. 308.