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Religious Diversity: Challenges and Opportunities in the College Classroom
In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Vietnamese Zen Master, peace activist, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh describes an exchange that occurred at a conference of theologians and religion professors. A conference leader addressed the assembly: “We are going to hear about the beauties of several traditions, but that does not mean that we are going to make a fruit salad.” In response, Hanh gently observed: “Fruit salad can be delicious!” In analyzing the incident, Hanh explains: “I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions.” Hanh isn’t advocating that we abandon our own spiritual heritage. He is simply suggesting that we all have much to learn from different religious traditions.
As a professor of religion, I agree that the “fruit salad” Hanh envisions can be delicious intellectual fare. Yet I encounter a good deal of “fruit salad anxiety” among my students at a church-affiliated college in northwestern Minnesota. Most of my students come from Christian backgrounds, and many understand “religious diversity” as anything that deviates from their Christian norm. Within the assumptions students bring to the classroom, I have come to see embedded opportunities for cultivating a deeper understanding of “difference.” I hope that this understanding will enable my students to live responsibly in a world of multiple perspectives.
Confronting Students’ Assumptions
My students enter the classroom with a range of assumptions. These vary according to each student’s cultural background, educational history, and personal relationship to religion.
First among these assumptions is the belief that only one religion contains the “Truth.” This “exclusivist” approach, as Harvard religion scholar Diana Eck terms it, claims that other religions are misguided at best—and damned at worst (2003). This assumption causes students to fear that learning about other religions is a dangerous distraction from the one “Truth” they believe leads to salvation.
An alternative assumption suggests that, superficial differences aside, all religions are essentially the same. Although this “universalist” approach is less divisive than its “exclusivist” counterpart, it diminishes the genuine differences between religions. Most Buddhists, for example, do not believe in a supreme divine being, and few if any Muslims would recognize the divinity of Christ. By downplaying such differences, my students deprive themselves of the opportunity to learn from the insights of another tradition. They may also inadvertently perpetuate a kind of religious imperialism, interpreting the “underlying commonality” that supposedly unites all religions through a particular tradition’s beliefs (such as a Christian interpretation of “God”).
A variation of the “universalist” approach is “inclusivism,” the view that persons from “other” religions are included in the salvation offered by the “true” religion (Eck 2003). Like the “universalist” perspective, “inclusivist” perspectives fail to fully appreciate the actual differences among religions and tacitly promote a homogenizing spiritual agenda. Inclusivists see their own tradition as the culmination of other religions, which they deem incomplete by comparison. In the “inclusivist” view, religious “others” are neither threats nor opponents, but potential converts to the most “correct” path.
These three assumptions are common among students who are themselves religious. But what about students who identify as agnostic or “still searching”? These students arrive with different suppositions, such as the belief that those from dominant traditions, especially Christianity, want to impose their beliefs on others. This perception reflects the historical legacy of religious imperialism, in which Christians sought to save religious “others” from their supposedly godless ways. It also reflects U.S. culture’s contemporary association of Christianity with the religious right and other exclusivist groups.
The four preceding assumptions aside, students often approach religious studies with a sense of general apprehension. One self-aware student expressed her anxiety by admitting, “I’m afraid that learning about another religion may cause me to lose faith in my own tradition.” It may seem obvious that learning about another religion need not require conversion to that religion, but students do not always grasp the distinction between understanding a religion and adhering to a religion.
Yet this distinction is the basic premise for the academic study of religion. Studying diverse religions is a wonderful way for students to discover that one need not subscribe to a spiritual worldview in order to appreciate its meaning in the lives of those who hold it dearly. It is also an effective way for students to cultivate the kind of intellectual empathy they need to take seriously the views of “others.”
Strategies for Countering Resistance
Just as students enter the classroom with a range of assumptions, I find a range of approaches useful in countering their resistance toward religious studies. Many of these are particularly effective in addressing specific types of resistance, but all can be useful in any context.
Early in the class, I ask my students to reflect on terms in their own tradition that have been used dogmatically, such as “salvation.” As we analyze traditional imagery associated with “salvation” (such as the pearly gates of heaven), the metaphorical nature of such language becomes apparent to many students. I often point out etymological roots to broaden students’ conventional views—the word “salvation,” for instance, is related to the Latin salve (“good health”). In addition, by comparing concepts with which students are familiar with similar concepts from other traditions (comparing “salvation” to moksha or nirvana, for example), I invite students to consider the functions concepts like “salvation” serve for people in various traditions.
I also encourage students to attend the services of religious communities that are unfamiliar to them. Because my students are predominantly Christian, I arrange visits to the local mosque or synagogue to give them an embodied experience of another tradition. Study abroad opportunities can also provide rich, multidimensional encounters with other religions that enhance students’ understanding of the diversity of spiritual worldviews. Whether at home or abroad, visits to religious services require careful planning so that the experience is positive both for students and for the community being observed. Students have indicated that these close encounters with religious “difference” made them more aware of the sincerity and validity of other people’s faith.
One of the most effective ways to deconstruct students’ preconceived assumptions about other traditions is to encourage them to consider diversity within as well as among traditions. Just as there are various ways to be Christian—from the Baptist fundamentalist to the liberal Catholic to the evangelical environmentalist to the African Pentecostal to the monastic contemplative (to name just a few)—so there are various ways to be Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Native American. Even a relatively homogenous classroom contains enough intellectual diversity to generate heated debate. Ultimately, when students recognize intra-religious diversity, they find stereotypes about religious “others” difficult to maintain.
Finally, historical reviews can help students better understand the role religion plays in the world. A survey of the history of Christian missionary work reminds students to consider the applied outcomes of the belief that “there is only one true religion.” Similarly, a review of the historical relationship between religion and politics reminds students that Christianity is not commensurate with the religious right. When studying Christianity, students often benefit from readings by postcolonial, liberation, and feminist authors, whose ideas challenge the superiority complex that has historically plagued Christianity. Although I have referred specifically to Christianity here, this historical approach can apply to other religions as well.
The Fruits of Making Salad
Pluralists like Diana Eck demonstrate that dialogue with religious “others” can not only enhance spiritual self-awareness, but also generate the collective wisdom needed to address global problems, from poverty and racism, to HIV/AIDS and hunger, to war and environmental destruction (2003). I see my classroom as a forum for this kind of dialogue, providing a space for students to consider a variety of spiritual insights that might help them address the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century.
Despite its considerable challenges, this work is rewarding. I once explained to Christian students in my introductory religion course that the Muslim practice of praying five times a day addresses humans’ propensity to forget their deepest values and behave in a self-centered manner while engaging with the world. Many of my students nodded as I offered this explanation, presumably recognizing this propensity in themselves. Helping my students appreciate Muslim tradition was particularly gratifying given the stereotypes about Islam that flourish in the United States today. It also underscored for me how studying diverse religions can be a way for my students to enrich their own spiritual self-understanding.
Returning to the fruit salad metaphor, I would observe that few of us live in a world that consists entirely of apples or oranges. Whether religious diversity becomes a blessing or a burden will depend a great deal on the perspective we cultivate. Educational practices that help our students approach difference with curiosity, understanding, respect, and appreciation are crucial for their responsible participation in a diverse but deeply interconnected world.
Eck, D. 2003 . Encountering God: A spiritual journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hanh, T. N. 1995. Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York: Riverhead Books.
Michelle Lelwica is an associate professor of religion at Concordia College.