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From Bozeman, Montana, to the World

An Interview with Diana Eck – Part 1

This is the first in a series of three articles based on an interview TIO Correspondent Ruth Broyde Sharone recently had with Professor Diana Eck, founder of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, former president of the American Academy of Religion, and academia’s preeminent student of religious pluralism in America. Ed.

How does one account for the journey of a small-town Methodist girl from Bozeman, Montana, whose most adventurous field trip as a child was visiting the local Catholic church, who went on to become a scholar of Eastern religions and a professor at Harvard University, launching the most important academic study of multi-religious life in America?

Professor Diana Eck acknowledges openly, with gusto, that she understands her journey as a “calling,” not as a career.

“The work that I do in interfaith endeavors, also as a scholar and studying religion, is something I feel I was meant to do, a sense of vocation.” This sense led to her life-long interest in India, for example, led to her studying a religious tradition as complex as Hinduism, which she feels called to understand and interpret in ways that reflect how her Hindu colleagues understand it as well.

“I consider myself a seeker, as well as Christian, as well as a United Methodist, if you will. But I am also a person who feels very much at home in religious communities that I go and visit and that are not my home community.” She calls herself a “good guest.” She has probably “visited and prayed in more Hindu temples than any living Methodist,” she says with a wry grin. “I feel drawn to deep religiousness and that is almost regardless of the tradition.”

How did all of that come about?

Professor Eck, wearing owl glasses and a burgundy tweed jacket you might expect from an Ivy League professor, says her informal education in interfaith engagement probably began as a young girl when she participated in a Montana-Mexican exchange program.

“Certainly when I grew up in Montana, I didn’t really know people of other faiths. Most of Montana was pretty homogenous, mostly Christian and mostly Protestants. Catholics seemed a little different and distant. But during my young years I went quite often with my family to Mexico and eventually got involved with work-camp projects, with my youth group, in the state of Michoacan, similar in some ways to Montana,” she mused.

“That was an experience of another culture, quite different from my own, but filled with people that I came to love over the years. When I went off to college in 1963, I joined a group of young Methodists on the way to the March on Washington. That opened my eyes to other Americas, so to speak.” She took her next interfaith step at Smith College. “I made friends for the first time with people that were Jewish. I had not had any Jewish friends growing up.

“But it was also the case during those years that our country was very much engaged in a war in Asia. I think that it was probably the Vietnam War – more than anything else – that sent me off to a year of study in Asia. India, as an undergraduate, enabled me to see that we were in a war in a part of the world that many people knew very little about. Just as in the last few years we have found ourselves at war in parts of the world where we know all too little about people with whom we are fighting,” she says, coming back to the present.

How Interfaith Studies Began at Harvard University

Professor Eck greeting Dadi Prakashmani, then spiritual head of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in India, in Chicago at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions – Photo: CPWRFounder of the Pluralism Project and author of six books, Professor Eck is especially animated when she discusses her early days at Harvard. “We began in 1991, a couple of years before the first centennial observance of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1993. That modern incarnation of the 1893 Parliament was such a great moment for us because it clearly demonstrated what had been happening in the U.S.”

She and others who attended had an “aha” moment when they realized that the people who came to participate at the 1993 Parliament were not just religious leaders from East and West. “People who came were also the ‘new’ Americans . . . Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus from the suburbs of Chicago and from all over the United States,” she remembers. It was a heady time for her and her colleagues. She describes the 1993 gathering as a “coming-out event that ultimately defined the new religious landscape of America.”

It was the palpable interest in interfaith matters exhibited at the 1993 Parliament that also stimulated widespread interest in the Pluralism Project once it was launched. “We realized that the U.S. had changed. Interfaith activity was no longer just a global concern of international organizations but was also of local importance in the U.S. and all over the world.”

That inspired the Pluralism Project to do more than study the changing religious landscape of America, in particular the entrance of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities into the American landscape. The next step was to document the interfaith movements that are developing. “It was not simply something that was happening in big cities like LA, Washington, DC or Chicago, which already had real interfaith structure,” she notes enthusiastically. “We discovered this was happening in smaller cities as well.” The grassroots phenomenon of escalating interfaith engagement is truly worthy of academic scrutiny, she underscores, and is the arena where the Pluralism Project currently invests its energies.

Professor Eck with students studying the Kumbh Mela in India, 2013. – Photo: Mapping the Mela“Twenty years ago, no one was studying this in American universities,” she noted. “Yes, courses on Hindu traditions or on comparative religion could be found, but the idea that one might actually study the movement and energies that brought people from across the traditions together in common groups – that was something new for the academy, and it still is!” Today the Pluralism Project is recognized as the standard bearer for researching multi-religious life in America and for introducing and maintaining interfaith portals on the internet that are generously shared with the world – and downloadable!

“I use the term pluralism to describe a multi-faith and engaged society, society for which interfaith has become simply a way of operation in just about every field, because it’s true these days. Whether you’re talking about the corporate world, or the world of the city or town and its civic life and its political life . . . whether you’re talking about women or youth or blue collar workers . . . the population we’re talking about is a multi-faith population.

“So whatever it is that brings people together and enables them to work together for a common purpose, we can describe as interfaith. We can describe it as forms of pluralism, because pluralism really is that.

“It’s not just the fact that we’re different and in a society where our differences are so visible, but that our differences should enable us to know one another and to be related to each other. We cannot let differences be barriers between groups of people but rather places that we meet and figure out what we are going to do together.

“It’s not simply a scholarly endeavor,” she says with passion. “Rather it draws on a tradition of empathetic understanding that I think is the very best of what the university and the humanities have to offer, trying to understand and interpret for oneself and for others a faith that is not one’s own and, in the process, to understand another human being.” That’s the hardest thing we can learn to do, she acknowledges.

Today, as an ardent chronicler of American religious history and multi-faith trends, Professor Eck has great confidence in our growing, intertwining relationships with one another and our profound desire to understand others unlike ourselves. She sees this evolutionary trend as the crucible for peaceful co-existence. Which helps explain what compelled young Diana Eck to journey from Bozeman to the world, one multifaith journey at a time.

“We can create robots, we can understand how to put a missile on a dinner plate a thousand miles away. But the challenge of understanding someone else’s subjectivity is enormous, for students and for most people in our world.”