Diversity and Democracy

Finding Theological Support for Religious Diversity

I came to St. Olaf College in 1985 amidst debate and controversy. A few members of the wider community had great difficulty understanding why a church-affiliated college would appoint a Hindu to teach, of all places, in the religion department. One irate minister complained, “It seems that we are now giving a platform to the very people we would like to enlighten.” Another minister described my hiring as supporting what he termed “the heresy of universalism,” while a third suggested I might safely teach philosophy, but not religion. A similar conflict erupted when I was appointed chair of our religion department early this year. But despite the controversy, my colleagues recognized the value in religious diversity, and my appointment stood.

I see this conflict as significant not because of its effect on my career, but because it challenges all of us to think about what it means to be a religiously diverse college community. When encountering criticisms such as these, based as they are in personal theology, how do we educators argue for the value of religious diversity? It is easy to speak generally of the value of multiculturalism in creating a more equitable world. It is also easy to articulate a political argument for teaching and learning about different religions. After all, human lives are deeply interdependent, and we can properly address the major political conflicts of our times—in India, Iraq, or Illinois—only through cooperative efforts across religious boundaries.

In the face of theological critique, however, these political arguments are inadequate. People of faith often see themselves as self-sufficient entities, dependent on their religious beliefs alone for guidance and sustenance. They may see people of other religions as entirely wrong or only partially correct. Such theological arguments do not provide space for mutually enriching relationships with others. By devaluing the beliefs of others, they often lead to mere “tolerance” of neighbors of other faiths. These theological arguments require responses that are likewise based in theology.

Theological arguments for contact with the religious “other” can be difficult to identify. Yet at their core, many religious traditions call their followers to value those who are unlike them, including those of different religions. As a Hindu, for example, I am deeply cognizant of the limits of human understanding and language in relation to the divine, which transcends all efforts at description and definition. As one Hindu sacred text puts it, the divine is “that from which all words, along with the mind, turn back.” I must be receptive to the possibility of meaningful insights from others that may open my mind and heart to the inexhaustible nature of the divine. Thus the Hindu tradition requires me to enter into relationships of humility and reverence with people of other faiths. As our students examine their own beliefs, we educators must encourage them to pursue their theological need for religious diversity as they prepare themselves for engagement in religiously diverse communities.

Those who opposed my role as a teacher in the religion department at St. Olaf College and my appointment as chair were unable to appreciate theological arguments for religious diversity. They were unable also to see the value in the study of religions other than their own, and they distrusted religious teaching by scholar-practitioners, who seek not to proselytize, but to expose students to diverse worldviews and ways of being. As my experience illustrates, theological interpretations of religious diversity determine what qualifies as acceptable teaching and learning practices. Thus institutions of higher education, particularly those with religious affiliations, must use theological arguments in addition to political arguments as they embrace diversity. Like our lives in this interdependent world, the theological and the political are ultimately inseparable and must be made mutually enriching.

Anantanand Rambachan is a professor and chair of religion at St. Olaf College.

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