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Make an Interfaith resolution for 2015

by Bill Lesher

Dr. Diana Eck is professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard University and director of the “The Pluralism Project.”

Ms. Eck always expected to have a sizable number of international students from various religious traditions in her classes on World Religions. But, in 1991, that expectation took on a new twist. The number of students from various religious traditions did not change but their addresses did. Instead of coming from far away places many of the students that fall semester lived in US cities. 

“When I first met these new students,” Ms. Eck said, “Muslims from Providence, Hindus from Baltimore, Sikhs from Chicago, Jains from New Jersey—they signaled to me the emergence in America of a new cultural and religious reality about which I knew next to nothing.”

Twenty-four years later, Professor Eck is widely recognized as the leading authority on religious pluralism in America and the project she directs at Harvard is an invaluable resource of information on the radically changing religious landscape of the United States today. See www.pluralismproject.org.  

One of Ms. Eck’s major contributions is the way she understands the concept of pluralism. She writes, “Pluralism is not diversity.” Diversity is simply a fact of life in America today and in many places around the world. Likewise, pluralism is not tolerance, which implies that we just put up with one another. By contrast, she contends that pluralism is “the energetic engagement with diversity.” 

The Claremont Interfaith Council (CIC) is one local attempt to practice this kind of energetic pluralism in our community. Each month, leaders of various faith groups in and around Claremont meet together at a local place of worship. Getting to know one another, being in one another’s sanctuaries and learning about each other’s traditions are all important first steps in inter-religious engagement. 

CIC members also receive reports each month from organizations and agencies that focus on specific areas of social need or concerns. This is a valuable way for religious communities to be informed and involved. Inland Valley Hope Partner, an agency that provides emergency services for needy families, Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program, The Interfaith Collaborative on Mental Health and The Interfaith Working Group for Middle-east Peace are among the groups that make regular reports at CIC meetings.

This monthly forum is also a place where CIC members share new developments in their community life and sometimes invite the participation of the others. 

In October, Temple Beth Israel announced the creation of an urban gardening project being developed with another community agency, Uncommon Ground, and invited CIC members to participate in the inaugural ceremonies. 

Finally, CIC is a place where the leaders of various religious traditions can explore topics and assist each others in matters that concern all religious groups. 

For the last few months, members of council have been focussing on the environmental crisis and reporting on what different groups are doing to address the issue. In December, an organization made up of members of 15 local religious groups called the “Interfaith Sustainability Council” described the many environmental projects they have carried out in recent years and made their experience and resources available to CIC members. 

Some Claremont residents know the Claremont Interfaith Council through the Annual Thanksgiving Service. In 2014, nearly 400 Claremont neighbors from many religions joined in a service at Our Lady of the Assumption, led largely by young people, giving thanks and reflect on ways to build the common good.

Yet, for all the inter-religious efforts being made in Claremont and other communities around the county as well, the fact remains that most of us know very little about other religious traditions. This worries Professor Eck. This is how she expresses her concern: “The new religious America requires a greater degree of literacy than is now the reality. I think it is dangerous to live in such close quarters in a society such as ours with a series of half-baked truths and stereotypes functioning as our guides to understanding of our religious nature.”

One way that people can increase their inter-religious literacy and work to build a more pluralistic world is to resolve that, in this New Year, they will make one new friend from another religious tradition. A friend to know well enough to take out for coffee, to invite home for dinner, to talk honestly with about things that matter most.

Few Americans have a friend whose values and world view have been shaped by religious traditions other than their own. Yet it is friends like this who open our eyes, break down our stereotypes, correct our misconceptions and help us become pluralistic people who energetically engage the diversity around us. 

 

Rev. Dr. William Lesher is chair emeritus of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religion and a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  He has served as president of seminaries in Chicago and Berkeley and pastor of two inner-city parishes. He resides with his wife, Jean, at Pilgrim Place.

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