Revealing the Face of Another: Teaching Religion in a Pluralistic World
by David M. Freedholm
Presented to the World Congress for the Preservation of Religious Diversity in Delhi, India on November 16, 2001.
© David M. Freedholm
The largest threat to religious diversity today is the intolerance and hatred for others that stems from a lack of genuine understanding of and empathy towards religious traditions other than our own. This can be seen all too clearly in the violence that we are witness to in the world right now. How do we promote the genuine, empathetic understanding of religious paths that differ from ours? This can only happen if all of us take seriously the responsibility of fairly and sympathetically portraying the religious beliefs and traditions of others. We must ask ourselves – how do we reveal the face of another? As Gandhi said: “If we are to respect others’ religions as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty.” This “sacred duty” must be modeled and taught (especially to young people) by religious leaders and teachers. Therefore, it is time to reassess the way we portray the religious faiths of others so as to preserve the religious diversity of our nations and our world. For us as teachers and leaders in our communities, part of this reassessment involves a turn inward to investigate two things: the quality of our understanding of each other and our motivations for revealing the faiths of others. First, have we truly understood the face of another? That is, have we sympathetically comprehended another faith on its own terms? Second, what are own motivations for portraying another’s religion? Is our motivation the denigration of another faith to prove our own superiority or to justify discrimination or proselytization? Or is it the advancement of genuine respect and inter-religious dialogue and cooperation? As Diana Eck says, we are the “keepers of one another’s image.” We must guard the image of another as carefully and justly as we would have our own image guarded.
Let us begin with the latter. What are our motivations for portraying another’s religion? In the past, teaching and learning about other religions has taken place in a climate of religious competition and even warfare. Therefore, this kind of religious education served an apologetic purpose. Other faiths were viewed with suspicion and even hostility. Usually, learning about another’s faith was done to provide a negative comparison in order to prove the superiority of one’s own religion and to refute the beliefs and practices of others. At its worst, distorted views of another faith have been promoted to help advance the goal of conversion and/or to help justify discrimination on the basis of religion. Sometimes, the goal has been to effectively eliminate the spiritual traditions of others in a kind of “religious imperialism.” Indigenous cultures around the world have suffered the most from this. In the United States during the late 19th/early 20th centuries, Christian missionaries set up boarding schools for Native American children designed to transform their cultural and religious identities. The “stolen generation” of Aborigines in Australia was also the target of such “educational” efforts in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, negative portrayals of other religions under the guise of “education” continue to plague us even today. Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention in the U.S. (the largest single Protestant denomination in the U.S.) distributed more than 30,000 guides to help its members better “understand” Hinduism and specifically the Hindu festival of Diwali. In this guide, Hindus were said to worship “demonic powers” and were characterized as “slaves bound by fear and tradition to false gods.” Hindus were said to “lack a concept of sin or personal responsibility.” The guide also claimed that 900 million Hindus are “lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.” In response to criticism of this guide, the Southern Baptist mission board claimed that its intended audience was “Southern Baptists, not Hindus” and “the purpose of the . . . guide was to help Southern Baptists understand and identify with Hindu people as we express our love for them.” Of course, the ultimate goal of the guide was to further efforts aimed at conversion and proselytization of Hindus. Thankfully, those in the Christian community committed to religious pluralism have roundly condemned this guide.
Likewise, it is crucial for Muslims around the world to condemn the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric appearing in textbooks in the Muslim world. Recently, the European Union threatened to cut off aid funding textbooks of the Palestinian Authority which featured anti-Jewish rhetoric. In contrast to this growing anti-Semitism, the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies in Amman, Jordan has actively encouraged the study of Judaism in “objective terms” and has even invited Jewish scholars from Israel to come and speak on Judaism, a rare event in the Muslim world.
If we are, as I have claimed, “keepers of one another’s image,” all of us, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, members of the world’s many indigenous religious traditions and every one who seeks the divine in any way, must reject distortions of the faiths of others. This is because we are all dependent on one another in a world that is increasingly global in its outlook. We do not live in isolation from one another and the way we speak about one another can have profound implications for the world as a whole. As the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel said: “No religion is an island. We are all involved with another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us.” We cannot afford to ignore the marring of the images of other religions. Today, we can see all too clearly what awaits the world if we neglect what Gandhi called “our sacred duty” to one another.
What, then, should be the motivation for teaching about the religion of others? As the title of this Congress suggests, it should be the preservation of the religious diversity that is our world’s greatest blessing and asset. This should be one of the primary goals and objectives of teaching about religion. It must be a priority for all religious leaders and teachers. As I have argued, diversity can only be preserved if we strive to portray the faiths of others in the best possible light, in the way that they themselves would like to be seen. We should reject the obvious distortions that arise in a climate that accentuates religious competition, conversion and hostility. It is also time to admit that efforts to convert or proselytize others will fan the flames of religious misunderstanding and conflict and will not serve the goal of the preservation of religious diversity. We should also beware of the more subtle distortions that emerge from superficial kinds of understanding that accentuate the most negative aspects of another’s faith while promoting the most sublime aspects of one’s own. As Diana Eck suggests, true pluralism and diversity can only be preserved and encouraged if we take seriously our roles “as keeper’s of one another’s image and guardians of one another’s rights.” In our teaching, we are mutually responsible and accountable for the way we portray each other.
In order to truly and fairly teach the religious traditions of others, we must have right understanding. Often times, right understanding has been understood only in the model of Western academic study. In this model, knowledge of another’s faith is merely an ability to translate and understand religious texts, trace the history of a religion, identify its major sects and analyze its religious practices. This kind of objective, scientific knowledge is quite useful and desirable but it does not guarantee a real understanding of another. History is full of examples of individuals who have understood another religion on the intellectual level but have failed to understand the deep beauty and truth of that religion. For some their academic understanding was used as a tool to undermine the very religion and culture that they studied.
To give one example, the famous scholar of Sanskrit and Indian history, F. Max Müller, has become a controversial figure as of late. No one doubts the academic qualifications and accomplishments of Müller and his translations of ancient religious texts were extremely important in their time. But it can be asked if Müller had a true empathy and appreciation for his subject matter. In personal letters, we get a glimpse into Müller’s views. He said of the role of education: “India has been conquered once, but India must be conquered again and that second conquest should be a conquest by education.” Müller said of his motivation for writing his translation of the Vedas: “This edition of mine and the translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent… the fate of India, and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3000 years.” It seems appropriate to wonder if Müller had truly and deeply understood the religion he knew so much about.
How do we attain an understanding that transcends the intellect and enters deeply and truly into the true nature of another? The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that right interreligious understanding begins with oneself. As he says, “Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves.” When we have looked deeply into ourselves to understand the conflicting elements inside ourselves and their causes, we can begin to achieve peace of mind and spirit. From there, we can then begin to also look deeply into the faiths and perspectives of others. We must delve deeply into the other, trying to transcend our own limited, ego-bound viewpoints so that we can enter empathetically into another’s way of seeing him/herself, the world and the divine. When we have done this we will not be able to despise or hate another’s religion or wish to change the mind of someone else. We will have love and compassion for the other and accept him/her. In so doing, we will have real understanding of the other and also a better understanding of ourselves.
Secondly, true understanding comes from openness. That is, we must be open to the possibility that truth can be received from outside of our own religious tradition. By looking deeply into another faith, we recognize in it what is good, beautiful and meaningful. When we do this, we see that our own tradition does not have a monopoly on truth and beauty. We then understand that we can learn from and be transformed by the truth and beauty that exists in each religious tradition. In this moment of openness to another, true understanding can grow and blossom in a climate of respect and tolerance. There is no room anymore for despising or denigrating the religion of another. Neither will there be a desire to change someone’s mind or convert them. When this takes place, true interfaith dialogue can exist, a dialogue that is based on mutual respect, equality and a desire to cultivate religious diversity. From here, true teaching can begin.
Last spring, I brought a group of American high school students to India. We stayed for a few days at Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh. We were blessed to be in the presence of Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati and many other holy saints gathered for a beautiful Shrimad Bhagwat Katha. During our stay, my students entered fully into the life of the community, attending services and special events and befriending the young children at the ashram school. Early one morning, some of my American teenagers met the ashram’s rishi kumars at the banks of the holy Ganga. It was cold and dark as we met, but as the sun rose my students and the rishi kumars jumped in for a joyous ritual bath in the Ganga. As we stood in the water, shivering a little, one of my students turned to me and said, “This is the best day of my life. I feel that my life has changed forever.” I agreed.
This was a true teaching moment and a moment of profound understanding, a moment created by the genuinely open spirit of this young man. He was a superb student and had studied Hinduism with me in school, but it was only in this moment of profound experience and open spiritual encounter that true understanding was born.
If we are to have the right understanding of one another, we must have the same open heart and spirit that my young student had that morning in the Ganga. It is wonderful and important to have the knowledge that comes from books and classes. But this is not enough for true understanding which is born from genuine respect, tolerance and an openness to the other. In those moments that we glimpse the profound beauty and sublime truth of another’s faith we begin to see deeply and clearly the face our brother or our sister. In this encounter, we may find that change occurs in us. This does not mean that we lose or abandon our own tradition or faith perspective. Rather, in seeing clearly the face of another, we also see ourselves more clearly which can bring an alteration in our own understanding and way of living. This is to move, in a way, beyond mere tolerance into relationship, a relationship of mutual concern and benefit. With this kind of understanding, we become effective and truthful keepers of one another’s image.
Teaching Religion in a Pluralistic World
How do we effect change in a world that continues to be plagued by religious misunderstanding, intolerance, hate and violence? As the title of this conference suggests, a commitment to the preservation and nurturing of religious diversity is a vital necessity. This can only be done if each religion and religious tradition understands that it is not an island unto itself, but is part of an interdependent whole. If we wish to be understood, if we wish to live happily and freely in our relationship to the divine, if we hope to be free of religious conflict, we must honor the “sacred duty” that Ghandiji spoke of. We must seek a right understanding of other religious faiths, just as we would want others to truly understand us. As we then move forward to teach people in our faith communities, and especially as we instruct our children, right understanding will lead to right motivation. If we see clearly the faces of our brothers and sisters through the eyes of empathy and love, we will no longer wish to convert them, to discriminate against them or to spiritually betray them. We will guard their images as zealously as we would have ours guarded. We will reveal their faces gently and carefully so they may shine and be seen in the light of compassion, respect and love. In the words of the ancient Hindu prayer for learning:
Om, may the Lord protect us,
May he nourish us together,
May we work hard together,
May our studies be thorough and faithful,
May we never quarrel with one another.
Om – Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
© David M. Freedholm