Interfaith Week: Coffee and Conversation with Diana Eck

By Adah Shair

After an unprecedented Turban Day and an extraordinary Keynote address by Valarie Kaur, could Interfaith Week get any better? Yes! It did, by sitting next to Diana Eck, the founder of the Pluralism Project at Coffee and Conversation hosted at the Interfaith Center Lounge on the 5th of March.

Dr. Eck is a professor of Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University. She grew up as a Methodist in Bozeman, Montana. Dr. Eck traces back her spiritual journey to a trip to Banaras (India) in her junior year of college. Banaras is also known as the ‘city of Lights’ and the ‘city of temples’ and is one of the seven sacred cities in India. During her stay in Banaras, Dr. Eck recalls “thinking of religion beyond religious boundaries” and understanding “my way is not the only way.” The journey that began in a distant town in a distant country led to a domino effect of remarkable discoveries; several titles like Banaras, City of Light, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras by Dr. Eck and the establishment of the Pluralism Project in United States.

The Pluralism Project began with students. 20 years ago the population of students Dr. Eck taught changed. With the change in US immigration laws, the religious landscape of America was changing; Universities were no longer filled with a homogenous crowd, rather a patchwork of people arising from different faiths, backgrounds and cultures made up the new student body. This increasing diversity in United States, Dr. Eck stated, brought up questions like “Who is here?”, “How are our traditions as Americans changing?”, “ What are the issues that come up?” The quest to answer these questions began the Pluralism Project in 1991 and has since transformed interfaith engagement and the study religious diversity.

Dr. Eck explained that a good portion of teaching in her classes is done through case studies; students are presented with controversial real life scenarios wherein taking up the roles of the main characters of the scenario they face some tough decisions. Our very own local story of Dr. Parvez Ahmed facing criticism on being elected to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission is also one of the case studies used in Dr. Eck’s classes.

On being asked how we can include the secular population in the Pluralism Project, Dr. Eck responded that the Pluralism Project does not represent a particular organization or faith. Interfaith does not mean we come to worship together. Like the OneJax slogan ‘Different Together’, what is important is to know “who the other is and in the face of other, who we are.” The interfaith work that is being done, Dr. Eck expressed, is “more like a river, than a monument.” The thoughts put forth by Dr. Eck brought back a conversation I had at a recent ILI (Interfaith Leadership Institute); to be more intentionally inclusive of the secular population, the word ‘Interpath’ may be used. Individuals in general are more likely to identity with a path than with a faith.

As the conversation went on, Dr. Eck expressed her profound love for Valarie Kaur and credited Divided we Fall as a ‘powerful film.’ It was gratifying to know that Dr. Eck, the founder of the work that I am so passionate about and I can have a few things in common: our love for interfaith work, Harvard and Valarie Kaur.

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