Religious Pluralism and Transformative Education

This piece from 1998 collects remarks from advisors to the Wellesley College Education as Transformation Project. Diana Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion & Indian Studies, Harvard University; and Director, The Pluralism Project. Vincent Harding is Professor of Religion and Social Transformation, Iliff School of Theology. Diana Chapman Walsh is President, Wellesley College. Parker Palmer is author of The Courage to Teach: The Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life.

Diana Eck

First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with that diversity. Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them. In this new world of religious diversity, pluralism is not a given, but an achievement. In the world into which we now move, diversity without engagement, without a fabric of relationship, will be increasingly difficult and increasingly dangerous.

Second, pluralism will require not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. Tolerance is simply too thin a foundation for a world of religious differences. It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fear that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world into which we now move, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.

And finally, pluralism is not simply relativism. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. In the world into which we now move, it is a language we will have to learn.

... the challenge for all of us today is how to shape societies, nations, neighborhoods, and universities that now replicate and potentially may reconfigure the differences that have long divided humankind.

(From "Neighboring Faiths," Harvard Magazine, September–October 1996)

Vincent Harding

The very theme of the conference, "Education as Transformation," is for me an essential way of looking at the process of education. The temptation in our "market society" to see education as a commodity is very dangerous for the human spirit. The goal of this project — to remind us of the fact that the heart of education lies in trying to touch us at the deepest parts of our being and to explore how we may transform ourselves and our world — makes this a very important gathering for me, one that I trust will help to spark many other gatherings.

As this country tries to mature into a more humane society, those of us who are involved in the process of education have a tremendous responsibility to recognize that our task is not simply to teach subject matter, but to teach about the purpose of our society. One of the central purposes I see is for each generation to create a more perfect union, one that is more fully, richly, and creatively democratic in its openness to the gifts and needs of all of its people. To do that we will need transformation.

And to fully address the question of the great diversity of this society, we have to learn how to live and work with it; to avoid trying to compress it all into one piece and at the same time avoid letting it exist only as many pieces. One of the great tasks of Education as Transformation, is to find out how we can learn both from our particularity and from our unity.

Diana Chapman Walsh

At Wellesley College, the Office of Religious Life is playing an important role in our larger educational mission by inventing new ways to celebrate religious and spiritual life in a diverse community. We are convinced that this is important because of our belief that true education is profoundly transformative. It arises out of powerful encounters from which one emerges not quite the same person.

The ability to enter a new encounter with the confidence, the curiosity, the openness to take such a risk — the capacity to make of such an encounter a deepening and broadening experience (rather than just a confusing one) — those abilities and capacities come from a deeply-rooted, firmly-grounded sense of self. And that deep rootedness in a rich and nourishing soil comes from various sources, from families to be sure, and, too, from spiritual practice, whether or not it happens to be connected to a particular faith commitment or religious tradition.

And so, in a very real sense, we see education as a spiritual journey — a lifelong journey of personal discovery, of self-in-relation ... to self ... to others ... to moral questions ... and to a larger canvas of social sensibilities and public obligations.

Parker Palmer

As educators, we have a responsibility to be continually reflective about our inner lives and the qualities of selfhood that we bring to the teaching and learning process. Reflectiveness requires solitude, and it also requires community. But ours is a profession in which it seems most difficult to achieve a community of mutual reflection around those things that make us vulnerable to one another. We face a deep challenge in breaking out of the privatization of the professoriate into a community of conversation that would help us in this process of self-reflection.

At the same time, I think there is a real hunger in the academy for that kind of shared, professional, personal journey. Many people feel disconnected from students and colleagues, from their own hearts, from the passions that brought them into this work in the first place. I think this accounts for some of the energy that animates a conference like this one, on a topic that's being taken seriously in ways one couldn't have imagined ten years ago.

For too long, American culture has seen pluralism as a problem. This conference provides an opportunity to confirm that within the context of the intellectual community, rightly understood, pluralism is an enormous gift. The gift is the awareness that truth is simply too large to be comprehended by any single set of eyes and ears and words. We need multiple ways of looking, feeling, touching, hearing, and speaking in order to begin to approximate the truth in any field. I am looking forward to this conference not just as a celebration of religious pluralism, but with respect to the gift that pluralism can be to intellectual journeying and discovery.

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