“Pluralism & Religion in America”
all the biblical words I carry closest to my own heart, the most
important is the succinct teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
“What is the greatest commandment?” he’s asked. Jesus answers without
hesitation, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you
shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And
you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’m a lifelong Methodist and I’ve spent most of my life studying and
teaching about the religious traditions of India, the faith of Hindus,
Muslims, and Sikhs. As we well know, with the new immigration, these
are not only the faith traditions of people half way around the world
in India, but of our neighbors here in Chicago, or in Boston where I
as a Christian, I often ask myself how I put it all together. How do I,
how do we, think about the one we call God and the many ways of faith
that we call “the religions?” This is not just a question of the
theological ivory tower, but it’s a question that takes us right into
our cities and neighborhoods, right into the workplace where we
encounter neighbors of other faiths. In my hometown in Bozeman,
Montana, I didn’t grow up with Muslims as neighbors, but I certainly
have Muslim neighbors now: Ali, Leila, and Shabab, my Muslim colleagues
at Harvard; Zeba and Ayat, my students this semester; Salma, Lizzie,
and Imam Basyouni at the Islamic Society down the street.
is increasingly part of the religious landscape of the U.S., as Muslims
have come to America from South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. They
have come with dreams of prosperity and security, and with their
religious faith. Many were surprised to find we have our own home grown
African American Islam.
Over the last
forty years, we’ve seen the growth of diverse Muslim communities here.
At first the Islamic Center might have been a bowling alley in
Hartford, Connecticut; a former U-Haul dealership in Pawtucket, Rhode
Island; or a former movie theatre in downtown Chicago. But our Muslim
neighbors eventually made their way through zoning boards and city
councils, responding to sometimes skeptical and hostile neighbors, to
build beautiful Islamic centers.
During the past
five years, I have watched a large, new, New England redbrick mosque
rise at one of the busiest intersections in Boston. As soon as the
shell was up, my friend Salma, wearing a hard-hat over her hijab showed
me around inside. When the minaret was capped with a copper finial, I
was there with a thousand Muslims, cheering as the crane lifted up the
copper cap to the top of the minaret. When the prayer hall first opened
for evening prayers during Ramadan, I went with my students to be
In America, we understand all too little
about Islam, and much of what we think we understand is shaped by acts
and images of violence. No wonder some people are still fearful of what
they do not know. A Gallup survey recently found that 87% of Americans
think Muslims are very committed to their religious beliefs, but 56%
confess to knowing little or nothing about Islamic beliefs and 39%
admit to having negative prejudice toward Islam.
the 1990s, Muslims, Christians, and Jews began to make connections,
across town or across the street. Our work to build relationships was
made all the more difficult and all the more important after September
11, 2001. By mid-afternoon of that terrible day, I had already
received email statements from all of the major American Islamic
organizations denouncing the attack, both as Muslims and as Americans.
But those voices were not really heard, then, or in the years since
then. Too often only extremist images and extremist voices make the
front page. So how do we really hear what Muslim religious leaders have
So it was a profoundly important moment
when, not long ago, 138 Muslim leaders from across the whole spectrum
of Islam—Sunni and Shi’a, Salafi and Sufi, from Nigeria to Uzbekistan,
Indonesia to Canada—wrote a letter to the Christian world. Called, “A
Common Word Between Us and You,” this letter was addressed to leaders
of Christian churches all over the world and in turn to all of us who
are Christians. It was an unprecedented move, boldly reaching out to
Christians in a world in which mutual negative stereotypes of one
another are common, and reaching out together in a world in which
Muslim ecumenism is quite new.
letter began, “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half
of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two
religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the
world…The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is
part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the
One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and
over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity.”
letter recognizes how important the love of God and neighbor is for
Christians. And it emphasizes the importance of this in the Qur’an as
well. And I quote, “God says in the Holy Qur’an: ‘So invoke the Name of
thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion.’ Of the
necessity of love for the neighbour, the Prophet Muhammad said: ‘None
of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for
“Thus,” they write, “in obedience to the
Holy Qur’an, we as Muslims invite Christians to come together with us
on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most
essential to our faith and practice: the two commandments of love.”
Now these are not footnotes or sidebars in our respective faiths. These are really at the heart of who we truly are.
Without minimizing very real differences between Islam and
Christianity, there is much common ground and finding this common
ground, they say, is “not simply a matter for polite ecumenical
dialogue between Christians and Muslims,” but this is a matter of our
very survival, our common future is at stake.
letter closes with a sense of urgency, acknowledging that “those who
nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or
reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, those people
exist. To them we say, ‘Our eternal souls are all also at stake if we
fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in
Now, when we receive a letter of such deep
significance, we have to respond. There have been many individual and
denominational responses to “A Common Word.” You can see them online on
And there have been church-wide responses but these take longer. Now
there is an ecumenical response from the National Council of Churches
of Christ, representing a wide spectrum of Protestant and Orthodox
churches in the U.S. I was involved in that process through four
drafts and, believe me, it was thoughtful and prayerful work. There can
be no doubt of the importance of this kind of collective responses from
the churches, for Muslims around the world have felt that in America
respect for Islam has been assaulted by a growing American
Islamophobia. Our letter also underlines how important it is that we
move beyond polite conversation to deep relationship as neighbors in a
world plagued by violence and poverty. Indeed, our very souls are at
Of course we differ in the
ways in which we speak of the One God. We as Christians include in our
understanding of God the call of Christ to engagement and
reconciliation, and the power of the Holy Spirit to teach us new things
about God and about ourselves.
Christians and Muslims, we say, must ask the questions that lead us
deeper: How do we understand Gods oneness as communities of faith that
call upon God’s name? What does it mean to respond to God’s love in the
world of suffering, strife, and division we see? Who is our neighbor in
a world in which Christians, Muslims, people of other faiths, and
secular people as well, live together in the same societies? In a world
of deep and fracturing differences, of majorities and minorities, and
of urgent human needs, how do we respond to our obligation to love our
In our letter, we conclude, “Therefore, our
churches, commit themselves to actively seek, together with you, ways
to take up the challenge you have presented to us in ‘A Common Word.’”
part of that active seeking, a working group of the Islamic Society of
North America and the National Council of Churches has set a common
agenda: to encourage local churches and mosques to engage with each
other in new and positive ways; to educate each other about ourselves;
to foster the healing of painful memories that our two communities have
of one another; and to establish a mechanism for response in times of
violence or emergency.
In a world in which religious
truth claims often divide us, these letters stake out common ground
where our truth claims unite us at the very core of our faith. Building
on this common ground, rather than focusing on the theologies and
politics that divide us, provides a way ahead for both Muslims and
Christians in a deeply fractured world. Alas, these letters back and
forth may not make the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe,
but they are the kind of news that will begin to reshape relationships
between the two largest and most widespread religious traditions on
earth. May it be so.
Conversation with Diana Eck
Daniel Pawlus: Diana, thank you for joining us today.
Diana Eck: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me!
Daniel Pawlus: It’s
a delight to have you and to talk about this fascinating subject of
pluralism. I thought we might try to start in a macro kind of way.
You’ve been studying this for a long time. What has the effect of
globalization had on this dialogue over the years? Because we’ve
certainly expanded our world as we know it.
Diana Eck: We
sure have. One of the things that globalization has meant is the
migration of peoples from one part of the globe to another and we’ve
felt that in the United States. That’s why we do have so many new
people in the U.S., relatively new people who have come here in the
last forty years with the change of our immigration laws and also with
the tragedies and yearnings of people in other parts of the world. So
we do have our own religious diversity: Muslims and Buddhists and
Hindus and Sikhs and Jains. All of them right here! That’s certainly
one thing that’s happened. The other is that globalization has meant
the rapid communications revolution. That means that we know so much
more about people in other parts of the world and also, they more about
us. We can transmit our understandings as well as our prejudices over a
heartbeat. That’s both a gift and a problem.
Speaking of that, I was struck by your comment that on September 11
there were these emails sent out by various Muslims condemning the
events of the day and yet that didn’t get covered. I had the same
experience of reading those emails and then looking on the news for
that. There were so many people who were saying, “Where is the voice of
the Muslims who are outraged by this?” Well, they were there but not
picked up. What do we do about that?
Diana Eck: Well,
it’s a difficult thing. I mean, the media, as you know, is “if it
bleeds, it leads!” There was a lot of violence and lot of pain and
suffering that people were experiencing and there was just so much to
hear, not just then but in the months and really the years since then.
We don’t ordinarily send people out to find out how folks are
cooperating with one another and searching for understanding; although,
local news media do this. One of the things we’ve done at the Pluralism
Project is try to create a news source called Religious Diversity News
where we kind of go around and read local newspapers all over the
country and look for not only where there might be a fire bomb at a
local mosque or something, but the ways in which people have really
developed new relationships with each other. And that is happening all
over the country. It’s just that we don’t know enough about it.
You mentioned American’s lack of understanding with Islam and the
Muslim faith. Do you think that this is a generational thing you’re
seeing? Are your students having a different understanding, a different
openness to this than perhaps their parents or grandparents have?
Absolutely! You’re so right. I mean it is true that some of it’s
generational because students come to my university these days and
they’re likely to have a Muslim roommate, or a Hindu have a Jewish
roommate, or something like that. There are so many people who have now
hit college age and are really in a very clear multi-religious context.
So whether they go to the trouble of really studying much about Islam,
that’s another question. Although I must say that our classes in Arabic
and in Islamic studies are booming and bigger than ever. But they do
know people, face to face, and so they’re not likely to carry the
prejudices of another era into the future.
Daniel Pawlus: So you’re seeing that as a good sign in your students?
Diana Eck: I
see it as a very good sign. And if we’re looking at where the places of
interfaith activity are happening in the U.S., they are happening on
our college campuses. In the last ten years this has been a growing
phenomenon on college campuses.
Don’t you think so much of the key to this, though, is having real
relationships with folks? I’ve had the experience of taking courses on
Islam but getting to visit the mosque and meet colleagues there and
building relationships and friendships, that’s what changes life for me
in my little village.
Diana Eck: It
really does. And one of the things that I really insist on with my own
students is that we don’t treat Islam as if it’s happening in the
Middle East or around the globe or somewhere else. It’s part of our own
community and we do go to the mosque. We do go to the Hindu temple. We
do the kind of things that the young man at the beginning of the
program was yearning to do, to hit the road and find living faith. And
it’s so important to do that.
Lillian Daniel: What are the big surprises you’ve encountered?
Well, one of the things that one is surprised by again and again is
just the enormous hospitality of religious communities. My work and my
researchers’ work in the Pluralism Project has been a little bit like
calling up people you’ve never met and inviting yourself to dinner: I’d
like to come to the gurdwara during this festival, or something like
this. Of course, you go and they are so welcoming and warm. And they do
have dinner, also! Or to ask if you can come and be part of the
community. I mentioned the evening prayers during Ramadan. This was
such a special time for the Muslim community in Boston. It was the only
time at the outset that the mosque was open, so to be received there
and be able to participate, in a sense, in those prayerful, powerful
evenings in Ramadan was really a gift.
Daniel Pawlus: We could talk so much longer about this wonderful topic. Thank you for joining us today, Diana. We appreciate it.