On the whole, after this last year, I'm optimistic about what is happening,
because all over this country there has been a kind of engagement with the
religious dimensions of our world -- both our world globally and our world
locally -- that has taken us many steps ahead in the project of religious
pluralism and the creation of a pluralistic society.
There's been a tendency in the recent past to compartmentalize
intellectually, to put religion aside in a category by itself, and a lot of
so-called "serious" people haven't given religion much thought. You seem to be
saying that we don't have that luxury any longer.
Well, there certainly are people who would say, "I'm so disgusted with
religion. The world would be better off without religions and their chauvinism
and their violence." You know, there are times when you could not agree more
with that kind of sentiment. The only problem is that it's so unrealistic; a
sort of realpolitik demands something else. We cannot do away with
religion, so we do need to engage with it.
That does not mean that we have to be religious ourselves. But it does mean
that as citizens of the world, and of our own country, we need to know a lot
more about religion than most of us do. And so in that sense, yes, take it
Now, there are two ways in which Sept. 11 has jolted us into the seriousness of
religion. One is the whole question of personal faith and doubt that Helen
Whitney addresses so well in the FRONTLINE film, the personal level of what it
means to take seriously our faith and the faith of others. The other dimension
is what it means for us in a civic and political and societal sense to take
religion seriously, whether we happen to be religious or care anything about
religion for ourselves.
You stress the importance of what you call "interreligious encounter" --
of Christians and people of other faiths learning about and from each other.
As a Christian, does this kind of encounter and dialogue affect the way you
understand what happened on Sept. 11? Can that dialogue, that interreligious
encounter, teach us something of value -- not just in social and political
terms, but in personal and theological terms -- about the big questions?
Questions like "Where was God on Sept. 11?" or "What kind of God would allow
this to happen?"
Yes, and I think recognizing the ways in which people of other faiths --
Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus, those that I know best -- have struggled within
their own traditions to live authentically and to combat those elements of
violence that are part of every tradition, I think that experience is very
heartening in one sense. One of the real gifts of interreligious encounter is
the encounter with people who are people of faith. So the moment one
hears of the deeds of violence and brutality that are done in the supposed name
of God, or in the name of faith, one immediately has a set of colleagues to
think with -- people who are friends and relations and "serious-minded"
believers, you might say -- who are Muslim or who are Sikh or who are Hindu,
and whose voices are not represented by the publicly violent acts of their own
Interfaith dialogue always puts people in the picture, and puts the complexity
of every faith in the picture, and enables those of us who are deeply involved
in our own faith to recognize that some of our closest friends and allies in
working towards the things we care about most deeply -- peace and justice and
reconciliation -- are not simply people in our own religious tradition, but are
people across the spectrum of religions. And that's an important realization --
that the encounter with people may not produce the ultimate answers, but it
produces a set of relationships that are terribly important.
I remember, a few days after Sept. 11, reading an account in the Los Angeles
Times that moved me very much. It was about a Muslim who was one of the
stalwarts of the mosque in downtown Los Angeles. He was closing up the prayer
room late at night, and someone came to the door and wanted simply to come in.
It was a man who had friends who had been lost in the tragedy at the World
Trade Center, and he was a Christian. And he had never met a Muslim. He came
to the mosque, he said, not really to learn about Islam, but just because he
wanted to actually meet someone who was a Muslim so that he did not have to
associate this whole religious tradition with the things that he read about in
the newspaper. And the person at the mosque, the Muslim, said, "I cried on his
shoulder, and he cried on my shoulder."
Now, that sort of contact, it's not necessarily about coming to understand God
in a great or different way, or anything like that. It's about the kind of
relationship that we need with our fellow human beings, to reach out and touch
real people rather than simply live with the ideas that are in our heads.
How about the theological questions?
Well, if you're talking theologically, of course, the other thing I feel very
strongly from the experience of interreligious encounter is the need for a lot
of theological humility -- that the one I call "God" is not a God around whom
my particular tribe can circle its wagons and say, "God is ours, and God is on
our side." That's not what God is about. And anyone in another religious
tradition who is looking seriously at their own theology will say the same.
We're not in the position, as human beings, to figure out the mind of God.
Are there specific things that you take theologically from other
traditions that apply here in the face of Sept. 11? From Islam or Hinduism or
Well, one of the reasons that I'm a Christian, actually, is that the most
specific theological affirmations that I make, in the face of the worst of
times, really do come from my own tradition. And they have to do with what I
call a "theology of accompaniment." The way I would put it is surely not that
God has "disappeared," or that my faith in God has crumbled because of this
horrible thing, but that the whole point of the Incarnation, as I understand it
in the Christian context, is that the one I call "God," with all the vastness
that that term implies, is also the one who emptied himself, so to speak,
became human in the way in which we describe in the Christian story. Not in a
literalistic way -- I don't have to have all of the literalism of it -- but
that God actually shares the condition of humanity. God became one of us, and
poured himself into our experience so that we are never alone, so that God is
with us even into the worst of times, even when we do not know it. God is
What I mean by the Incarnation is a kind of presence and companionship that
Muslims describe as, "God is closer to you than your jugular vein." Now, what
does that mean? That means God is as close as the heartbeat of your life. God
is as close as what we in the Christian tradition speak of as the Holy Spirit,
the very breath that is within us, there unto our last breath and even beyond,
there even when we forget about it, as we so often do forget about our breath.
And it's that sense of presence that I see as very real, and something that is
certainly part of the Islamic tradition. It's something that is also part of
the Hindu tradition in a multitude of ways.
So I would be with those people who said, "Where's God? Well, God is in the
building. God is on the gurneys being carried out. God is there with the people
who are helping. God is there with the people who are suffering and fleeing
and dying." It's that kind of God, who isn't in some distant far-off place but
is really in the midst of the city, that I believe in.
One of the themes in "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" is the question of
evil, and the way President Bush and others have used the term "evil" as a
noun, evil as this thing. Do you think that an effort to unpack this
term, to think about what we mean by it, is a helpful exercise as we try to
enter into a new dialogue with people of other religions? Or does it become a
I think it's very useful to think about the question of evil -- what we mean
when we use that term as a noun or when we use that term as an adjective -- but
I am not at all in agreement with the notion that we need to personify evil, in
terms of persons and in terms of empires, and that sort of thing. I think
actually we deceive ourselves when we do that. But I do think that the
discussion of what we mean by evil could be very productive as a way of
beginning to unpack the use of that term in our time by people of Jewish and
Christian and Muslim faiths, all of which share a sense of Satan in one way or
another. And, of course, Hindus and Buddhists, especially Tibetan Mahayana
Buddhists, are very lavish in their personifications of just about everything
-- the personification of divinities and of the obstructive forces is very
common. And we might actually learn a lot about one another that way.
But I am less inclined to want to approach the whole question of Sept. 11
through the use of terms like evil. I mean, I think we can describe deeds as
evil, and this certainly was an evil deed. But the more we describe persons as
"evildoers," and think we know what we mean, the more we alienate all the
things that are abhorrent to us from our own understanding. And I think that
it is very important for us to try to understand what has been happening in the
world, and what may have been the motivations behind the people who have taken
us as evildoers. Mind you, the term evil is one that's very reciprocal.
And clearly, Al Qaeda and the bombers of Sept. 11 had a very forceful sense
that we ourselves are evil and were perpetrating evil in the world. So I'm not
sure how much it helps us simply to label them as evil. I think we need, not
necessarily to psychologize or politicize, but to try to understand what it is
that we're encountering here.
What were the aftershocks of Sept. 11 for relations between Americans of
One of the things The Pluralism Project was trying to track for quite a number
of months was the increase of violence against Sikhs and against Muslims and
against South Asians and people who simply looked different. So the
aftershocks, at least in the United States, left many people looking around and
wondering who we are as Americans. That's a very serious aspect of the
whole event. And it wasn't just that day. When you start looking across the
United States, there was an unprecedented wave of hate crimes. We had a kind of
wave of xenophobia.
But the most interesting thing to me is that there was what I sometimes call
the "backlash to the backlash." That is, these incidents of hate speech and
hate acts and hate crimes all precipitated a kind of civic outcry and an
outpouring of goodwill, although the outcry was perhaps not always reported as
extensively as the first instance of violence.
Now that outcry, to me, is a measurably more positive response than the initial
negative response. And the manifestation of goodwill, even if it's just holding
hands around the mosque and saying a prayer in solidarity, is very, very
This is really one of the messages of Sept. 11. And this is why I say that
there is a way in which we are stronger, the fabric of pluralism is stronger.
The murder of the Sikh man in Mesa, Arizona -- it's heartbreaking for the
citizens of that part of the U.S. And there were hundreds and hundreds of them
who came to his gas station and left flowers and candles in this sort of
makeshift shrine that expressed something of a collective need to say we're
sorry about what's happened. And there were a couple of thousand people who
came to his memorial service in one of the big auditoriums in Phoenix. And most
of these people knew nothing about who the Sikhs were. Probably 99 percent of them
had never met a Sikh. They were just beginning to discover that there's a Sikh
community in Phoenix and Mesa.
So as hard as it is, we learn. And we have learned from this terrible incident.
Editor's Note: For more on this question, read Diana Eck's preface to the paperback edition of A New Religious
America, published earlier this year.
So you've noticed not only an increased awareness of other religions
among Americans, but an increased interest in learning about other
Yes. The outreach to other religious communities has been extraordinary during
this period of time. If you look at the number of civic forums, of educational
programs by churches, by schools, by civic groups, by rotary clubs, there's all
of this outreach that says, "Now is the time we need to get to know each
other." And the outreach has been mutual. During the same period of time in
which we were sending bombers to Afghanistan and were experiencing a wave of
Islamophobia in this country -- a time when American Muslims, I have to say,
were feeling pretty vulnerable -- mosques all over the U.S. were having open
houses, inviting neighbors to come and learn more about Islam.
And I would like to see a lot more of this kind of mutual exchange. One of the
things that's very interesting, as we think about the upcoming Sept. 11, 2002,
is that the National Council of Churches USA has put out a nationwide call to
have open houses to invite Muslims and people of other faiths to come to
churches and learn more about Christianity. And the Presbyterian Church USA, I
think, has done some of the same thing. And the American Muslim Council has now
published a call for remembering Sept. 11 through interfaith activities. So
there's a lot of goodwill here.
But one of the upshots of some of this, in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, is
that the flurry of interfaith activity in the United States left some people
very disquieted. There were conservative Christians across the board who were
very unhappy with interfaith services. I think that there has been, at least on
the part of many Christian conservatives, a huge amount of theological
confusion that has come out of this event. You have a prominent Southern
Baptist clergyman saying things like, "Allah is not God, is not the same God as
we worship. Allah is not Jehovah. These are different Gods." And yet "Allah"
is really just Arabic for "God." It means God with a capital "G" in whatever
sense we mean God with a capital "G." And if you think that it's a different
God, then you have to think, well, how many Gods are there in heaven or on
So there's been a tremendous sense of what I can only call theological
confusion over how to address the fact of our multireligious world, and the
apparent fact that we all now take pretty much for granted that Sikhs and
Hindus and Muslims all pray to God in one way or another. And then one has to
get into the patently theological question of the status of these prayers to
the one we all refer to as God, or the divine, or the limitless Buddha. And
these conservative folks, they don't help. Because they even imply that
there are a lot of different Gods in the heavens, and we prefer ours, which is
the right one. Or that our God is the only one there is, and the other people
are just, you know, mouthing words.
I want to read you something that your Harvard colleague Harvey Cox wrote
in The Nation back in December. "We
as religious thinkers must stop simply making nice about this age of ecumenism,
interfaith dialogue and fuzzy feelings among priests, imams and rabbis. We need
to take a step toward candor. In response to a secularized intelligentsia, at
least in the West, we have tried too hard to put a positive face on religion,
when the truth is we know that all religions have their demonic
underside. ... Telling just the children's version will no longer do." How do
you respond to that?
I couldn't agree more. My definition of religion is basically that these are
long, historic arguments about certain symbolic and terribly important stories,
human stories, divine stories. But no religious tradition speaks with one
voice. Every religious tradition has extremists, has people who use that
tradition in chauvinistic and violent ways, for political and economic and
personal ends. There's a whole range of religious chauvinism and violence and
ugliness that we cannot hide.
So the first important thing to recognize is that people in every religious
tradition are battling for the soul of their own religion, with their own
co-religionists. I mean, my strongest arguments are with other Christians, not
so much with Muslims and Jews and Hindus. So that's the first important thing
-- we argue amongst ourselves, and our most serious dialogues are often within
our own traditions, with the people who are taking them in directions that we
find totally at odds with the highest ideals of our own faith.
The second is that interfaith dialogue is not simply about "making nice." I
described it 10 years ago as the "real encounter of commitments" -- the need
to move beyond simply being happy with the things that we discover are common
ground, and to really explore the areas where we differ. And not only in our
speech, in our language, but where we differ in our values and in our
fundamental ethics. So we move beyond just the encounter of commitments to the
encounter of criteria. By what criteria do we evaluate the things that we feel
are just and that make for peace and human well-being?
There's plenty of dialogue that is sort of a symbolic hand-holding -- usually a
lot of guys in their outfits representing the spectrum of religious traditions.
But I think there also is a lot of hard-hitting criticism. And that needs to be
self-criticism as well as mutual criticism. We are at a point in our world
where we can't afford dialogue that turns from criticism.
I am not a hand-holder. As a woman in this field you can't be much of a
hand-holder. There are too many people you disagree with.
There's a phrase we've heard over and over during the past year, and
that's the idea of a "loss of innocence" on Sept. 11. I wonder if one
definition of "innocence," in the context of our conversation here, might be
the fact that America has been spared, historically, from the religious wars
and conflicts that have plagued other parts of the world -- that America has in
fact been a haven from those kinds of conflicts. Is that one way to look at
"loss of innocence" in the context of Sept. 11? That like it or not, and ready
or not, Americans are now thrust as a society into the world history of
religious conflict? That our religious isolationism is over? That we are now
living in an unprecedented era of globally politicized religion?
Yes, and the important thing is that we do accept, to some extent, the reality
of the language of globalization. We do live in a world in which our currencies
are linked, our economies are linked, our political lives are linked around the
world. We share the same weather and climate and the same deterioration
thereof. So there is a way in which we now realize more powerfully than ever
before that our borders don't mean what they used to mean. And that is part of
the reality of globalization.
And our interdependence, humanly speaking, is really a concomitant of
globalization. But the United States has somehow thought we could have
globalization without interdependence. And we can't. I remember a chapter in a
book by a Buddhist writer whom I like, called New Jersey Doesn't Exist,
about how we develop working names for lots of things in our world that do not
finally have the solidity of entities once you get far enough above the ground
to look at them from on high. And it's true that we don't have borders that are
what we imagined them to be. There's a way in which borders have become much
more permeable, and that's part of the interdependence.
And yes, there's a religious dimension to all of this. Our religious
communities are not simply "here" or "there." The "Islamic world" is not
somewhere else -- America is now part of the Islamic world. Just as
Christianity is part of the landscape of Lahore and Jakarta, so Islam is part
of the landscape of Chicago and New York. The Hindu and South Asian world, and
all of its turbulence, is not somewhere else; it also is part of our
environment. We are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh
-- and secular and atheist.
Of course, one of the real strengths of America is this sense that we can
flourish with religious freedom, that religious freedom goes hand-in-hand with
pluralism. That's what religious freedom is about. If you have religious
freedom, you're going to have a lot of different kinds of religion. And that's
what we have.
The other thing I would say about loss of innocence is that there are many
Christians, and here I speak as a Christian, who have a very naïve sense
of God -- you know, God is good, and God is in the perfect white church on the
green, if anywhere, and God's presence is cultivated in nature and flowers and
sweetness and life -- and who are not as accustomed to understanding God's
presence in disaster, as buildings fall and as horrible things happen. They
think of the absence of God. But I think of the presence.
Hindus are better at this part, perhaps.
Hindus are very good at this. I think of the goddess Kali, for example, who is
depicted as mother, who is prayed to as mother. Millions of Hindus come into a
temple and press their hands together and say, "O Mother, O Mother." And yet
this mother simultaneously is wearing a garland of severed heads and a skirt of
severed arms. And for many people who look at this, they're just repulsed by
it. But what it really brings home to us is that this mother is present not
simply in the vibrancy of life, but in the gruesome reality of death -- that
she will be there at death as well as at birth. And that's a great comfort.
That's why a lot of people find solace in her.
home + introduction + questions of faith and doubt + our religions, our neighbors, our selves + interviews
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