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Awards & Honors: 1998 National Humanities Medalist

Diana L. Eck

Diana Eck had been traveling to India to study its religions for more than twenty years. Yet, she never saw a Hindu temple consecration until one took place in Ashland, Massachusetts. The ceremony involved the waters of the Ganges River — mingled with the waters of the Mississippi, the Colorado, and the Merrimack. For Eck, the ceremony demonstrates how religions once considered foreign and exotic are now part of American culture. As the creator of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, Eck is America’s foremost researcher and educator about America’s new religious diversity. She believes that Americans must learn and care about each other’s religion if our faiths are to coexist peacefully.

Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, became interested in America’s new religious culture in the early 1990s. At that time, she noticed how she had more Asian students in her religion classes than ever before. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, which allowed Asian immigrants to enter the United States, Asians have been bringing their religions to America, so that now not only Harvard, but all of America has seen significant demographic changes culturally and religiously. Eck responded by creating the Pluralism Project, a study of the new religious diversity in the United States. She sent some eighty students across the country to document the new infusion of faiths and how those religions and their new country were changing each other.

The students returned with the records of the buildings and other religious resources in America’s major cities. Initial findings led to the publication of World Religions in Boston, A Guide to Communities and Resources (1994). Such findings helped the project achieve its first goal: documenting America’s new religious demography.

According to Eck, most Americans are unaware of how eastern religions have been changing the physical landscape around them. Hindu and Jain temples, Muslim mosques, Buddhist centers, and Sikh gurdwaras sit on once-empty backroads of every major U.S. city. The daughter of an architect, Eck says, “The visual transformation of America from sea to shining sea — this to me is still an amazing thing.”

Unfortunately, not all Americans share Eck’s enthusiasm for the new religious buildings. Eck’s researchers documented numerous acts of violence upon eastern religious centers. For example, in 1993, vandals damaged a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Portland, Maine. They axed the doors and wrote threatening graffiti on the walls. “There are dozens of such incidents every year,” Eck writes.

Vandalism and violence require communities to do more than merely stress tolerance, Eck believes. Communities must move to an active pluralism, with neighbors becoming informed and interested in each other’s practices. One notable example occurred in April 1993, in Fremont, California. There, “Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of the East Bay broke ground together for a new church and a new mosque, to be built side by side on the same property,” Eck writes.

Public education about world religions is the key to encouraging pluralism, according to Eck. To aid educators teaching religion, the Pluralism Project has created a CD-ROM called On Common Ground: World Religions in America (1997). The award-winning CD-ROM offers multimedia presentations about the fifteen major religious traditions in America. It can be used by students of many levels. Children can learn from the movies and sound clips, while advanced students will find important resources in the texts and maps.

Raised in Montana, Diana Eck received her B.A. from Smith College in 1967, her M.A. from the University of London in 1968, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1976, where she chairs the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In 1994 she became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the author or editor of six books, including the award-winning Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (1993). Later this year, Eck hopes to finish editing a documentary film for public television titled Becoming the Buddha in Los Angeles.

On a personal level, Eck’s study of the world’s religions has affected her spiritual life. She describes herself as a Christian pluralist, meaning that she is committed to her own tradition, while still open to learning about God from other religions. She sees no religion as superior. Eck recites the Lord’s Prayer with groups of Christians, and meditates with silent Buddhists. She hopes that other Americans will come to see the beauty in the faiths of their neighbors. “You can’t circle the wagons around God,” she says.

By Erik Youngberg