Lessons in Religious Pluralism on Global Ed Day

Harvard Professor Diana Eck introduced Groton to the plurality of religions all over America—and right in our back yards—during an all-school lecture on Groton’s Global Education Day, Friday, November 3.
The founder and director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, Professor Eck explained what pluralism is, and is not. It is not simply diversity, she said, but “the energetic engagement with diversity.” Not just tolerance but “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.” Pluralism, she went on, does not mean that people hide their commitments and beliefs, but hold them deeply while relating to those of different beliefs. Finally, she pointed out, pluralism is based on dialogue.
 
In a lecture covering historical pivot points in the nation’s religious pluralism, Professor Eck pointed to the impact of a 1965 law, signed by President Johnson at the Statue of Liberty, that changed the face of America. The Immigration and Nationality Act, she said, “opened the door to people from all over the world.” The profound effect of the law really dawned on the professor when she noticed, in the early 1990s, markedly different faces in her own classes. The demographics of Harvard College had changed because students of all the world's religions were growing up all over the U.S.
 
Flipping through photos of Hindu temples in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Ashland, Massachusetts, she discussed the influence of that multiculturalism on the nation. “How are these traditions taking root on American soil, and how are they changing as they do so?” she asked. “And how is America changing?”
 
She shared example after example of religious pluralism: the Mother Mosque of America, built for Muslim worshipers in 1934, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Buddhist communities thriving in Lynn and Quincy, two cities in the metro Boston area; the largest Thai temple in the world outside Thailand in Raynham, Massachusetts; and houses of worship built side by side by the Methodist Church and the Islamic Society on the same plot of land in Freemont, California.

The speaker also reviewed the history of Sikhs, who came to the U.S. in 1903 to work in farming and forestry; because they were not allowed to bring their wives, many married Mexicans, resulting in a melding of vastly different traditions. Because the Sikh religion requires men to wear turbans, the workers were derisively called “ragheads.” Professor Eck told the story of one particularly noteworthy Sikh, Bhagat Singh Thind, who was denied citizenship for most of his life even though he fought for the U.S. in World War I. “We need to remember some of these racist aspects of American history,” she said.
 
An expert on India who grew up mainstream Protestant, Professor Eck also described her “life-changing” study abroad in Varanasi (also called Banaras), one of the most sacred spots in India, where she first came to admire and understand the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Later on Friday morning, she presented a lecture dedicated to the city: “Varanasi: Ancient City of Life, Light and Death.”
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