A Hands-on Approach to Pluralism

November 18, 2016
Diana Eck
Diane Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at HDS. / Photo: The Pluralism Project

Every Friday for two hours, 24 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, and spiritual or not-religiously-identified HDS students gather for "America's Religious Pluralism: A Case Studies Approach," a seminar co-taught by HDS professor Diana Eck and Jennifer Peace, a visiting professor from Andover Newton Theological Seminary.

The class is organized around weekly case studies, where students consider in-depth various situations where American civil law, communal attitudes, and religious freedom clashed in the public sphere. The approach is hands-on and heavy on practical engagement. Students also meet for an additional section during the week with TA Laura Thompson and take various field trips to local religious sites in Boston. 

"We are inviting students to put themselves into the shoes of various people and ask what they would do," said Peace, of constructing the course syllabus specifically around case studies, an approach Eck has used for many years. "Certainly one of the goals of the course is to get folks thinking about their role in a religiously diverse democracy. The questions we raise are ones that every citizen should be wrestling with to a certain extent, and certainly those training for positions of religious or educational leadership. Often times it is folks with little to no explicit religious leadership training who find themselves in situations where civic and religious norms might clash, and then they have to make a call." 

As an example of inviting students to think actively, Peace mentioned a recent exercise where students had studied the case of Park 51, an Islamic center that was supposed to go up near the site of 9/11. The class took on and argued the perspectives of the various actors in the case, such as the imam in charge of the center, the families of 9/11 victims, and New York City officials.

When I sat in on class one week, students discussed the case of the Reform Church of Palos Heights, IL, which in 2000 was bought by the Al Salam Mosque Foundation. After the announcement of the purchase, a petition started to circulate within the Palos Heights community asking the city council to purchase the church and turn it into a recreation center. Classroom opinion differed widely, and many students tried to think in terms of how they might have acted in the same situation.

The focus of the course on real world examples was a primary appeal for many of the students.

"I took the class because I am interested in how different religious and ideological communities mediate between seemingly incompatible notions of the moral good," Ian Ramsey-North, a first year MTS, wrote in an email. "The case study approach in class has been great because it allows us to see these phenomena of religious and cultural conflict in more human and individual terms."

Rabbi Avi Bukeit, a student in the class who is also the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Arlington, MA, agreed.

"This kind of course was the reason why I came to HDS," he said. "As a rabbi, this is where I live, inside these sorts of considerations. I want to find language for how to interact with other communities on a social and a communal level, and the case studies really help me approach those interactions. The readings are my favorite part of the week, and I cannot wait to take more classes in this direction."

Several students feel that there is even more room to explore the very categories and concepts of pluralism under which the class operates.

"I took the class because I am interested in the transition from Protestantism to pluralism in American religious studies," explained MTS candidate Alli Harrington, who added that she finds the pragmatic approach of case studies helpful in considering her future work.

"It’s difficult to know if these case studies, or our field trips, adequately unpack the looming problem in religious studies of the ’one’ religion rooted in Protestantism confronting the ‘many’ religions it attempts to study."

For Harrington and others, the question of how pluralism has developed beyond its Christian origins is still very much a living question.

All agree, however, that the diversity of the students’ religions in the class reflects the growing inclusivity and mission of Harvard Divinity School.

"At Andover Newton there is less religious diversity in the classroom, but the conversations are always rich because the diversity comes in along theological line,” Peace said. “I've had classes with students who identify as Pentecostal evangelicals alongside atheist Unitarian Universalists. In this class, we have students with a wide range of religious backgrounds," which she believes makes for a uniquely invigorating discussion. 

The class dovetails with the 25th anniversary of the Pluralism Project, which Diana Eck founded in 1991 to increase resources for, and organize on behalf of, religious inclusivity in American society.

“Twenty-five years ago, there was a kind of normative American civil religion that sometimes made space for religious holidays," Eck said. "But no one was thinking about whether Eid al-Fitr—a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan—should be one of them. People were just beginning to become aware of the Muslim population in the U.S.”

Today, pluralism is an active part of the HDS mission. In addition to courses like these, many students and members of the wider community engage in interfaith and multireligious study and events hosted by the Pluralism Project, the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, the Religious Literacy Project, and the Center for the Study of World Religions.

—by Shira Telushkin