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Our Religions, Our Neighbors, Our Selves

Harvard's Diana Eck, in a Web-exclusive FRONTLINE interview, talks about the challenge of interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding after Sept. 11.

Diana L. Eck is a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University and the director of The Pluralism Project, an ambitious effort she launched in 1991 to document and examine the growing religious diversity of the United States and its effects on American society and culture. She is the author of several highly regarded books, including Banaras: City of Light (1982), about Hinduism's holiest city, and Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (1993). Eck's most recent book, A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (2001), grew out of her work on The Pluralism Project. It was issued in paperback earlier this year with a preface written after Sept. 11. As a Christian, Eck has been involved in the United Methodist Church, the World Council of Churches, and Harvard Divinity School. She was interviewed by Wen Stephenson, managing editor of FRONTLINE's Web edition, on Aug. 2, 2002.

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A New Religious America, which was published a few months before Sept. 11, ends on a strikingly optimistic note. You write, "The opportunity to create a positive multireligious society out of the fabric of a democracy, without the chauvinism and religious triumphalism that have marred human history, is now ours." Do you still feel that way? Has the project of religious pluralism become more difficult since Sept. 11?

I think the urgency of the project of religious pluralism in the United States has become all the more apparent after Sept. 11. And in one sense, that makes the project more doable. Because people realize now that we cannot simply roll along in isolation from -- and ignorance of -- neighbors of other faiths with whom we're in the process of creating a new American society. We actually need to go to work on this. And if anything, Sept. 11 has made quite clear how much we need to go to work on it. Not because we have sleeper cells of Muslim radicals in our own country, or anything like that -- though we do have the possibility of that, and probably the reality of it -- but because the very fabric of the United States is now multireligious, and we need to engage with that. That's really what pluralism is: the engagement of our differences in the creation of a common society. And the need for that has been demonstrated by Sept. 11 and the American responses to it.


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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.

Interfaith dialogue is not simply about 'making nice.' We are at a point in our world where we can't afford dialogue that turns from criticism.

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 seriously.

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 co-religionists.

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 Buddhism?

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 there.

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 stumbling block?

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 different religions?

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 important.

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.

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So you've noticed not only an increased awareness of other religions among Americans, but an increased interest in learning about other faiths?

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 earth?

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.

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