One nation under . . . which God?

The Pluralism Project began out of my work teaching the religious traditions of India. In the early 1990s the children of the new immigration arrived at our university—and in my classes. I remember one day a student, a young man named Mukesh, questioned some of the material we were covering in my course on Hindu myth and image. He felt it was in tension with some of the things he had learned at Hindu summer camp in the Poconos the previous summer. I don't remember what I replied to his actual question, but my main response was, "I had no idea there was a Hindu summer camp in the Poconos."

This was just one of the many expressions of a presence of the very religious traditions I was teaching about, emerging not just in my classroom, but all across the United States. As we know now, the Hindu tradition has developed a strong American presence and a dynamism in the U.S. context. The Islamic world is no longer just somewhere else in the world, it is in Chicago, Minneapolis, and many other cities in America.

So at the beginning of the Pluralism Project was my interest in finding out more about the scope of America's new religious reality. I had my students research and map the presence of the many religious traditions, first in the Boston area. We did field work at ornate Hindu temples, some of the area's dozen mosques, at Jain and Sikh temples, and at Buddhist temples and meditation centers. The variety was breathtaking.

From there we expanded the project by having students research their own hometowns. When they'd go home to Oklahoma City for the summer or to Denver, Detroit, or Houston, they did the same kind of field work we had done in Boston.

What did the students discover? What was most surprising?
I think most surprising to them was that the moment they began looking for the Vietnamese temples and Cambodian monasteries, the communities they thought they had known all their lives became completely different worlds to them. They discovered aspects of religious life that they had not tuned into before.

How are people changed when they experience other religions firsthand?
It puts a human face on differences that we otherwise only imagine or read about, and it enables us to see something of the complexity and variety of religious traditions we might think of as monolithic.

We also develop relationships, which really is the most critical aspect of the work of the Pluralism Project. Over the past 10 years, we've managed to develop not just a database of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and other religious communities all over the country, but a set of relationships with people.

In visiting other religious communities, what are some of the dos and don'ts people should observe so they won't intrude or be disrespectful?
The main thing is to be clear about who you are. Most communities are very welcoming of guests. So you present yourself as a guest who would like to know more about this religious community. Introduce yourself to people. Ask if you can talk to someone. Ask if it's all right to participate as an observer in whatever is about to happen. Whether it's Friday prayers at a mosque or an abhishekha (sprinkling rite) for Lord Vishnu, you need to determine, both from your own religious grounding and from the religious standpoint of the people who are there, what would be appropriate to participate in and what wouldn't.

For example, if you find yourself standing before the altar of Vishnu as the offerings are being made and the priest then turns around and passes those offerings to the people, and the people next to you are taking a sip of the holy water that has been used to wash the feet of Vishnu, then you have to know: Is it all right to take these from the Hindu standpoint, which is yes. But just as importantly: What does it mean for you to take these if you're a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim? That's something you need to think through beforehand.

What is the impact of the presence of the non-Judeo-Christian religions in the United States today?
A good place to start is the Muslim community. Muslims today are entering into participation in the American public sphere in a way that is virtually parallel to the way the Jewish community established itself—through Muslim political action and civic advocacy groups and through volunteer organizations like the Islamic Society of North America. They are beginning to have a significant impact on American life. And over the past decade Muslims have also made remarkable advances in becoming players in the U.S. political process. No one would have dreamed of this 10 years ago.

How do ordinary Christian Americans experience the impact of these "other" religions?
One example is when new religious neighbors establish places of worship. Today, zoning boards and city councils have become contentious battlegrounds and forums for discussions about whether we want "these people" as neighbors.

The Chicago suburb of Palos Heights made national headlines last year when opposition by local residents caused an Islamic foundation to abandon its plans to convert a church building into an Islamic center. In Garden Grove, California, Vietnamese monks encountered zoning issues when they set their regular ranch-style house up as a small temple. Does the Sikh gurdwara in San Diego have to give up its plans for having gold domes in order to fit in with the architectural style of San Diego?

Another place where the rubber hits the road is the public schools. All of them deal with the "December dilemma" around Christmas. When I was growing up in Montana, it was simple: Public schools had Christmas festivals and pageants. In fact, it still happens in a lot of public schools, but the truth is it's illegal and it's unconstitutional.

We have to be able to make a distinction between the observance of our religious holidays and the educational mission of our schools. It's an extremely good thing for students to learn about Christmas, about Hanukkah, about Kwanzaa, about the Buddha's Enlightenment Day and about the Hindu Festival of Lights, Diwali—about the whole panoply of festivals that public school children might observe in their family life.

But actually celebrating Christmas or posting the Ten Commandments or conducting religious prayer in the context of our public schools is—and always has been—constitutionally inappropriate.

These controversies and discussions are now emerging in all kinds of different forums such as our workplaces, hospitals, universities. Interreligious dialogue is not just happening on interfaith councils where people sit down to talk about their faith, but in various public contexts where we encounter each other.

Interreligious tensions as well as creative solutions are surfacing more and more today not because Christians are not in the majority—we are—but because our republic does not operate by majority rule when it comes to religion.

You identify three different responses to increasing religious diversity: exclusion, assimilation, and pluralism. Let's start with exclusion.
Exclusion has been a part of our immigration policy. Whom we mean when we say "we the people" has always been a source of contention.

In the 19th century it took the very pointed shape of "Asian exclusion" in immigration law, which was part of our immigration policy all the way up until the post-World War II period. There are still people who think the way to deal with so much diversity is exclusion. There certainly is something of that attitude in some of the anti-immigration sentiment and legislation today.

For more information:

The Pluralism Project

Pluralism Project links

The International Interfaith Centre in Oxford, England

The North American Interfaith Network

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

Catholic Church documents on non-Christian religions

Catholic Church documents on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue

Dominus Iesus
: A declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church

Magazine's commentaries and editorial on Dominus Iesus

Then what about assimilation?
The assimilationist view is: Everyone is welcome to come, but if you come, be like us. It's the "melting pot" model of assimilating diversity by shedding difference.

There's an extent to which that happens in the United States willy-nilly, without having to adopt it as a policy. Assimilation happens over the course of generations and today more swiftly than ever before because of the very strong dominant cultures of consumerism, sports, and entertainment that tend to absorb the attention of people—immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.

But you favor the model of pluralism.
Yes. Pluralism insists on the right to be different. You don't have to shed difference to become an American.

Yes, we do need to insist on some common framework for our life together as citizens. But it doesn't have to be our life together as religious people; rather it should be a framework for citizenship based on the constitution and, in terms of religion, based on the free exercise and nonestablishment of religion.

What's the dominant attitude about religious diversity today?
I think the reigning attitude was for a long time assimilationist. Until fairly recently, the general religiousness of America was assumed to be basically Protestant with adequate space carved out for Catholics and Jews.

But that is changing. Even public officials in their speeches don't just talk about churches and synagogues anymore without adding mosques as well. The State Department and even the Pentagon have hosted Ramadan events, and the governor of Arizona has issued a proclamation for the Buddha's Birthday.

These changes are clear signs that our public consciousness of who we are is shifting. Most people now recognize that our cultural lives have changed with the new immigration, and gradually the recognition of what that means religiously is beginning to dawn.

On the other hand, I still see my new book and the work of the Pluralism Project as a necessary wake-up call. We do not necessarily register our religious difference as readily as we have registered the fact that there are lots of Indian and Korean restaurants.

There are lots of Indian doctors in our hospitals, but few Americans are curious about what kind of altars they might have in their homes. Most of us have never actually visited a mosque or a Hindu or Buddhist temple.

So you'd like to see people take the step from acceptance in general civic life to inquiry?
Yes. In the United States today we have a unique opportunity to create a truly democratic multireligious nation. With that opportunity also comes a tremendous responsibility, because it's very possible, given the level of religious illiteracy in our culture, for our differences to unravel into stereotyping, bickering, and ghetto mentalities. That would be very unhealthy for our society, in part because we now live so close to one another.

If I'm holding rather ugly views about Hindus on the other side of the world, it may not affect either me or them very much. But now that Hindus live across the street, my ignorance can be extremely harmful and lead to situations like the mosque arsons and the vandalism at Buddhist and Hindu temples that we see all too frequently.

Last year's Vatican document Dominus Iesus issued a warning about relativism as a great danger in interreligious dialogue. Are you concerned about relativism?
To me, pluralism involves an engagement of our differences that is aimed at both mutual understanding and potentially mutual transformation. When we truly engage with someone else and listen to that person or that community express who they are in their own terms, it will likely change our minds and hearts in certain ways.

But pluralism is not just relativism. It doesn't mean that you leave your beliefs at the door or that in the last analysis all cats are gray and that no one can really believe anything any longer. It's important not to get pluralism mixed up with a kind of wishy-washy relativism in which everyone has to agree on a watered-down version of something.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has moved forward very significantly in interreligious relations on several fronts. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has done some very careful work on thinking about proclamation and witness in relation to other religions. And the church has also made great strides through participation in intermonastic dialogue.

At the same time this has made some people like Cardinal Ratzinger very nervous. Like his office's earlier document condemning Buddhist- or Hindu-oriented meditation for Catholics, Dominus Iesus is meant as a word of caution in a church that actually is not at all cautionary in other ways.

The Catholic Church and the Vatican, like all communities, can sometimes seem like a hydra-headed being—with one mouth it's producing Dominus Iesus while another head is profoundly engaged in intermonastic encounter. To some extent, the response of Dominus Iesus is a barometer of the fact that interfaith encounter is a major issue in the Catholic Church today.

What about the traditional Catholic claim of "no salvation outside the church"?
We have to distinguish between our theological language and our civic language. In a civic sense, we can—and, in fact, we must—create a civil society and a national polity that is premised on the pluralism, the engagement, the mutual understanding that is ours as citizens in a multifaith society. That means that as a Methodist or a Catholic or a Hindu, I do not at the end of the day finally agree with all of the other people around the table, but I defend and cherish the fact that we are around the table creating a society in which all of these traditions are free to be themselves.

Now, from a theological standpoint, there have been different approaches. I think the inclusivist theological stance is something of a cop-out, because it enables me as a Christian to include within the vast spectrum of God's providence the Hindu whom I declare saved by Christ "behind his back" so to speak, as the German theologian Karl Rahner might have put it.

As an "anonymous Christian."
Right. The anonymous Christian approach includes, with a kind of benign tolerance, people who have not yet seen the light of Christ, but who are on the way in some sort of gradation of closeness to the final truth. That kind of "generous" inclusivism, in fact, does not hear the voice of the other; it tries to include without any attempt at understanding.

To me, taking pluralism seriously means that I can't make up my mind about whether Hindus or Muslims are or are not saved without some genuine understanding of what it is they say about themselves and how they understand their own salvation. If my friend, who is a Shaiva Hindu in South India, witnesses to his experience of having been saved at the feet of Lord Shiva, I need to probe what he might mean. I actually have to hear the different voice. I can't just preemptively decree that either no one else is saved or that all are saved by the God of Christ who extends grace to all who call upon his name in whatever name that might be. Pluralism is premised on a kind of respect that is also inquiring.

I think the question of who's going to be saved is a very misguided, narrow, institutional question and leads to a dead end. It's God's business, not ours.

What then about the mission mandate?
Should we no longer go and convert other people to what we believe is the truth of our faith?There is certainly that sense in some religious traditions, though not in all, that it is our obligation to bear the Good News that we've heard or to speak of the truth of the Qur'an to other people and to try to get them to see it, too.

My primary issue is not so much with mission as such, but with an understanding of mission that is one-way, that is "all mouth and no ears," that does not acknowledge that other people have something to witness to us, too. And, speaking as a Christian, I need to confess that a lot of Christians throughout our history have borne false witness against their neighbors of other faiths in ways that have been extremely destructive.

How did "mutual transformation" work for you as a Methodist who is active in interreligious dialogue?
Methodism is my home base. But the study of the religions of India also enabled me to think about my own religious tradition in a theological way that was much broader and more open to what I might learn of the one I call God through the lives and traditions and insights of people who are not Christian.

In my book Encountering God, I describe this learning in trinitarian terms: I believe that having read the Hindu Upanishads, which basically are a long meditation on the question of ultimate reality, has given me a deeper sense of God's ultimacy and mystery. My understanding of incarnation is enriched by a tradition that sees God's presence prolifically in human beings, in nature, and in a range of manifestations. It expresses the conviction that God's presence as Emmanuel with us here is limited only by our capacity to recognize God with us—from the stranger on the road to Emmaus to the stranger we might meet in an ashram in the Himalayas. And finally I've come to understand the Holy Spirit as the real liberation of the gospel, the liberation of an understanding of God that is not tethered to the church. The Holy Spirit really is the freedom and mystery of God in breath and fire, in bird and wind, and in all the icons that tell us we cannot capture and control the one we call God. We can't put God in our pocket and on our side.

My experience in looking through the lens of other religions helps me in trying to articulate what I believe. It has reshaped what I believe, and even though I try to express it for Christians, and even though I use the language structure of Christianity—which is why I talk about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—I don't believe that theologically we ought to limit ourselves to that.

All active news articles