Religious Diversity

Mapping Gandhi's Faith Journey

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. once said that the greatest Christian of the 20th century was not a member of the church. He was referring to Mohandas Gandhi. A remarkable number of King’s fundamental beliefs—the use of active nonviolence as a tool of social reform, the commitment to loving one’s enemies—can be traced back to the influence of Gandhi, which means that one of the defining figures of 20th century American Christianity was profoundly shaped by the example of an Indian Hindu. As King said in 1958 of the civil rights movement, “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”

But what of Gandhi’s influences? How did a skinny, middle-class, mid-caste Indian, so scared of public speaking as a student that a classmate had to read his speeches aloud for him, come to lead one of the great liberation struggles of the past century? A new book by Arvind Sharma, professor of comparative religions at McGill University, makes the case that the source of Gandhi’s strength was his spirituality. And while the heart of Gandhi’s faith was Hindu, as King’s was Baptist, the influences were remarkably diverse.

Pointing out that most of the biographies of Gandhi really tell the story of Mohandas Karamchand (the name he was given by his family), not Mahatma (a title that means “great soul” and is given to saints in India), Sharma’s book Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography sets out to give an account of the Mahatma. Sharma quotes Gandhi directly on the importance of highlighting the dimension of spirituality in any attempt to understand him: “What I want to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these 30 years—is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain moksha [the Hindu term for liberation]. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal.”

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On Scripture: Faith in New Places

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Stained glass window at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Frontpage / Shutterstock.com

In the aftermath of violence, a deep-seated illness of broken minds and spirits, a possibility toward healing always exists. The vicious anti-Semitic attack on a northern New Jersey synagogue exemplifies this possibility. Violence – religious intolerance – was not to have the last word, nor was forgiveness to be blindly shared. A searching for truth was to be engaged. This searching began in the blurring of demarcation lines between different faiths.

From Diversity to Pluralism

THE TERM “DIVERSITY” in professional and educational circles in the United States is frequently mentioned as positive on its face, needing no justification. “Diversity is our strength” or “diversity enriches us” are common statements.

But Harvard professor of comparative religion Diana Eck points out that diversity is simply a demographic fact—a situation in which people with different identities live in close quarters. The term says nothing about how those people get along with one another. Frankly, if all we knew about religious diversity in particular were the stories carried on the international news, it would be hard to conclude anything except that the close gathering of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and others is nothing but a recipe for conflict.

Religious conflict is especially deadly because the participants believe they are fighting for cosmic reasons—where death may be welcomed as martyrdom—and religious communities are the largest repositories of social capital in many civil societies, providing endless amounts of energy, people, and resources to mobilize.

But what if the social capital among religious communities could be bridged and people who orient around religion differently could be convinced to cooperate with one another? What if the cosmic narratives of religious traditions viewed people of other faiths as partners in the quest for the kingdom on earth? This is the hope of the interfaith movement, and building this movement is the job of interfaith leaders.

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The Rise of a New Religious America

In November, Americans elected the first Hindu and Buddhist representatives to Congress. They represent a growing number of religious minorities who are becoming more and more visible. The Washington Post reports:

Now that Protestants are no longer in the majority – as reported in a study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in October – even the term “religious minority” will need fresh definition in our newly minted minority-majority nation.

Read more here.

The Ground is Shifting

OURS IS AN age of interaction, mobility, and change. Unlike most of our grandparents, many of us have moved several times in our lifetimes and have seen our neighbors move in and out. We are more intensely aware, even in our own neighborhoods, that our kind of faith is not the only kind. We see how others have been shaped by very different histories than our own. It becomes clear to us that we, too, have been shaped—and continue to be shaped—by our own history.

Fuller Theological Seminary, where I teach, is in California. Every now and then we feel the ground shifting. The chandelier in our dining room swings or the bed on which we are lying begins to rock. The whole world may not be experiencing little earthquakes as we are, but people are surely experiencing change and variety in faiths and ideologies. This change and diversity can rock a person’s faith. We ask, How do we validate the truth of what we perceive and what we believe? In our time of pluralistic encounter with multiple ideologies and religions and with rapid social, economic, and political change, people search for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called solid ground to stand on.

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Islam on the Verge

Every religion has in it some seed of pluralism. Muslims must learn to talk with Judeo-Christians—not just for our own survival, but because the Quran commands this dialogue. In all the religious traditions, dialogue, that interactive connection, is an essential part of the cosmos. Not to be in dialogue is to be in conflict with the very fundamentals of creation.

The crucial question today is not what to do about Islamic fundamentalism, but can Muslims fit into the Western Christian civilizations and still remain, in their souls, Muslim? I say we can, and we must. Islam is at the end of its Dark Ages, but there are those who are afraid of this change—they are the so-called “fundamentalists.”

People of the West have no right to be angry at them because of this. Western Christianity has had its reformation and Catholicism its Vatican II. These helped break down the imperialist Christian mindset and opened the Western church to dialogue and respect for other religions. Islam is on the verge of its Reformation.

The fundamentalists are trying to hold on to the past, are frightened of the changes, are trying to prevent the end of the Dark Ages because they fear too much will be lost. And they have some important and very valid points.

Catholic theologian Hans Kung said, “Islam has won critical distance and has the right to criticize the Christian church because, with the French Revolution, Western Christianity accepted the separation of the sacred and the profane, but Islam never accepted this separation.”

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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Commemorating 9/11 by Desegregating Theological Education

I just returned from a very moving convocation at the Claremont School of Theology where I am on the faculty. We were celebrating the historic founding of a new interreligious theological university that brings together institutions representing the three Abrahamic faiths, along with our newest partner, the Jains. The Jains are an eastern religion founded in India over 2,500 years ago who are perhaps best known for their deep commitment to the concept of no-harm or ahimsa.

While each partner institution will continue to train religious leaders in their own traditions, the Claremont Lincoln University will be a space where future religious leaders and scholars can learn from each other and collaboratively seek solutions to major global issues that no one single religion can solve alone. The CLU's founding vision of desegregating religion was reflected in the extraordinary religious diversity present at the convocation held in a standing room-only auditorium. I sat next to a Jewish cantor and a Muslim woman who had tears flowing down her face as we listened to the prayers offered in all four religions along with a reflection from a Humanist speaker.

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