No Matter What They Do: Interreligious Harmony Wins

Cambridge, MA. I am just returned from Loyola University in Chicago, where I was graciously hosted for two days by Mark Bosco, SJ, Director of the Joan and Bill Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage. I met with doctoral students for a long lunch that had to do with a range of topics, including the elasticity and boundaries of a Catholic comparative theology, with undergraduates for a lively class discussion on the limits of interreligious learning, and gave a lecture, “Seeing God in All Things: Ignatian and Hindu Perspectives.” We know that "seeing - seeking, finding - God in all things" is a charism deep in the spirituality and mysticism of St Ignatius, and it has been a driving force in the inclusive vision of our universities, colleges, and schools; I added that seeing God everywhere and in all things is a gift and insight other religious traditions enjoy as well. By way of example, I showed how this works out in the Srivasaisnava Hindu tradition of south India. Two professors, a comparativist and a scholar of Hinduism, gave very interesting responses, and two students, one Hindu and one Catholic, shared their own experiences of faith and experience in Loyola's diverse setting.

I was impressed in each context by the consensus, and reality on the ground, that religious diversity is here to stay, as believers in every tradition need to find ways to balance deep and deeper commitments to their own tradition, with genuine, vulnerable openness to the traditions around them. It was inspiring to hear students from a number of traditions speak about how they find a place and home on a Jesuit campus, and practice their faith as part of their academic lives. (The picture with this blog is from inside the campus Church, looking out.)

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Similarly, just a week ago, I was on a panel with a rabbi and a professor of religion, at a beginning of the year academic gather at the Vedanta Society of Providence, Rhode Island, just on the edge of the Brown campus. Here too, diversity was taken for granted — indeed, many members of the Vedanta Society, inspired by the legacy of Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, come from Christian backgrounds, and seek to keep old and new commitments alive — even as there was also a manifest desire to avoid a relativism that would flatten all religions to an innocuous common denominator. New issues do keep arising: “spiritual but not religious” really is a growing phenomenon that churches ought not ignore or merely discourage, just as campus calendars tend to honor Christian holidays but not those of the Jewish or Hindu or other traditions. But the evening’s consensus was still that we are now in an irreversible situation of diversity and just have to learn to “do it” well.

And, of course, I am at Harvard. Despite the strong secularist currents on campus, and the expectations of some that religion should be kept as private as possible, the university is very much alive with evident and manifest religious pieties and practices and classroom learning. Like other universities, Harvard offers a great number of ways to study religions; just look at the offerings of the Divinity School faculty:  And while it is obvious that not all ways of studying religion are theologically attentive, nonetheless it is nearly impossible for a student — or professor — to learn at HDS without learning interreligiously.

The Center for the Study of World Religions, of which I am still director, hosted a conversation several weeks back on the challenges of “speaking out” as a professor, on issues of current interest and concern, even when these are beyond one’s areas of academic expertise. Much of that speaking out addresses issues of religious diversity and (mis)understanding. We are always receiving media inquiries about this or that religious situation somewhere in the world, and so we have to learn to “think interreligiously” and in a way the wider public can benefit from.

Less than a week ago, our annual 2014 Dana McLean Greeley Lecture for Peace and Social Justice featured Professor Atalia Omer from Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. She spoke on “Refiguring American Jewish Identity through Solidarity with Palestinians: A Relational Approach to Religious Innovation:” watch it here, and you will see her expertly and bravely take up a fundamental question: how does an Israeli Jew, living in America and deeply committed to Israel and its flourishing, rethink her relationship to Palestine, its people and needs — and bring her scholarly expertise to bear in the process? Current concerns, urgent needs, and deep issues of religious identity all played out before our eyes in her bracing lecture.

My own course this fall — Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary — naturally attracts diverse students, students interested in religious diversity, but it still amazes me, as ever, how religiously serious and thoughtful our students are as they retrieve traditions and test boundaries. I am sure that in half the classrooms of the Divinity School similar interreligious considerations arise each day, as perusing the list may convince you. Now of course, such offerings could add up to an uncritical menu of pluralism run wild. But with the eyes of faith and the eyes of intelligence, we can catch a set of deeper interconnections that add up to a much more interesting educational achievement.

And so on: today (September 21) there is the annual Mass of the Holy Spirit at St. Paul’s Church in Harvard Square; tonight I host a small dinner for residents at the Center, a community comprised of more than five different religions - lived, studied - and at least as many nationalities; yesterday, the Buddhist community at Harvard Divinity School met at the Center, for a beginning of the year social gathering; tomorrow, I host a retrospective conversation on May's Black Mass "reenactment" at Harvard. Last night, Catholic students gathered at my house for Mass; and in a few days, I will host a reception for students interested in the study of Hinduism and South Asian cultures and histories. None of this fits together neatly, yet it adds up to an interreligious interrelatedness that becomes something like the air we breathe.

I had intended to write some version of this reflection right at the start of Harvard’s new academic year, and in light of the Pope’s August lament that the myriad outbreaks of violence distressing our world are tantamount to World War III, happening without our recognizing the immensity of the suffering of so many, and the danger we are in even if we don’t realize it. But given what I have written above, perhaps it is just as well that time has passed.

What I want to say, and can say now with more conviction, is this: I do sadly recognize with the Pope the seemingly out-of-control increase of violence of all sorts in so many places. But I also see that religious intolerance and interreligious violence are more than counterbalanced by the growing energy everywhere in the world toward interreligious understanding, learning, living and working together in harmony. It is not naïve, nor wishful thinking, to assert that the forces of harmony are stronger than the evils and violence flamed by appeals to religion. Because of all the small changes and partial insights that are occurring around us each day, the forces of division and religious hatred really have no chance in the long run. Perhaps the violence is worse, because the violent know that they are already the losers, and not just to secularism, but more frightening still, to respectful and open interreligious living and learning. Extremists have already lost World War III; peace and understanding are winning; interreligious harmony, not interreligious hatred, is the way of the future, and it is happening now, from the ground up.

Now I realize, dear reader, that to some I may seem to be making a very large prediction based on a very small sample, relying too on liberal American university settings. True, I have pointed to particular, special settings, and do not imagine that everyone's situation is precisely the same, so diverse or open. And yes, a good number of religious people have little patience for talk of diversity or learning from others. But our universities are not vacuums: they include, represent, and manifest where we - in all our cultures and religions, worldwide - are coming from and going to.

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