“Pluralism & Religion In America”

“Pluralism & Religion in America”

Of 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 live. 

So, 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.

Islam 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 present.

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. 

Throughout 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 to say?   

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.      

The Muslim 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.”

The 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 yourself.’”

“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.

The 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 harmony.’”

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 www.acommonword.org. 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 stake.

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.

So together 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 neighbors?

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.’”

As 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.

Lillian Daniel: 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.

Daniel Pawlus: 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?

Diana Eck: 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.

Lillian Daniel: 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?

Diana Eck: 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.

Diana Eck: A great privilege to be here! Thank you very, very much.   SOURCE