NEH Summer Seminar for School Teachers: “World Religions in America”

In the past thirty years, the religious landscape of the United States has changed significantly, in part because of the 1965 immigration act and the new population of immigrants who have come to the U.S. from all over the world. Today there are Islamic centers and mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples and meditation centers, and Sikh gurdwaras in virtually every major American city. And today the encounter between people of different religious and cultural traditions takes place not only in the international arena, but in our own cities and neighborhoods, schools and city councils.
School teachers, as you well know, are at the forefront of grappling with this new world of religious diversity. There is no place where the impact of America’s new religious reality is felt more forcefully than in America’s schools. In the Dallas Independent School District, for example, there are Muslims and Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, Vietnamese and Laotian Buddhists, and Christians of dozens of denominations. Both the community and the classroom are multireligious, so the study of comparative religion is not simply the study of “other” ways of life in some other part the world. It is germane to the understanding of the communities of which we are a part.

Those who teach social studies, world history, American history, or American regional studies increasingly seek to incorporate the history and influence of religious traditions and communities into the curriculum. This seminar is especially intended to benefit school teachers for whom the study of the world’s religions in the American context will provide the intellectual grounding and stimulus for curricular growth in their own teaching.

This six week seminar provides an opportunity for secondary school teachers to study the world’s religions in the American context and to benefit from the wealth of religious communities here in Boston. It enables seminar participants to make use of the resources of the Pluralism Project, to explore the full range of materials in the CD-ROM On Common Ground: World Religions in America, to have first-hand experience of the religious communities of Boston through weekly field visits, and to undertake a specific research project on a subject closest to their own academic or teaching interests. There will also be informal barbecues and gatherings at the residence of the Project Director, after which seminarians will share their field reports.

Our first goal in this seminar is to review America’s immigration history through the lens of our many religions. Historians tell us that America has always been a land of many religions. There was a vast, textured pluralism already here in the multiple life-ways of the Native Peoples –even before the European settlers came to these shores. Those who came across the Atlantic had diverse religious traditions –Spanish and French Catholics, British Anglicans and Quakers, Sephardic Jews, and Dutch Reform Christians. As we will see, this diversity broadened over the course of three hundred years of settlement. Many of the Africans brought to America with the slave trade were Muslims. The Chinese and Japanese who came to seek their fortune in the mines and farms of the West had Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian traditions. Eastern European Jews, and Irish and Italian Catholics also arrived in force in the nineteenth century, and both Christian and Muslim immigrants came from the Middle East. Punjabis from Northwest India came in the first decade of the twentieth century with Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim traditions. The stories of all these peoples are an important part of America’s immigration history.

The immigrants of last three decades, however, have expanded the diversity of our religious life dramatically, indeed exponentially. Buddhists have come from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Korea; Hindus from India, East Africa, and Trinidad; Muslims from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Middle East, and Nigeria; Sikhs and Jains have also come from India, and Zoroastrians from both India and Iran. New Jewish immigrants have come from Russia and the Ukraine, and the face of American Christianity has also changed with large Latino, Filipino, and Vietnamese Catholic communities, Chinese and Brazilian Pentecostal communities, Korean Presbyterians, Indian Mar Thomas, and Egyptian Copts. This new post-1965 phase of American immigration has made the United States the most religiously diverse nation on earth. It is this new diversity that is the special focus of our study.

A second goal of the summer seminar will be to enable participants to learn substantively about the history and contemporary reality of three religious traditions in the American context: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. A week will be devoted to each of these traditions, tracing its history in the U.S. and paying special attention to the new challenges and changes that have come with the dynamic post-1965 immigration.
Religious traditions are dynamic not static, changing not fixed, more like rivers of faith than buildings or religious establishments. The history of religion is not over, something of the past, but is an ongoing, dynamic process. America today is an exciting place to study the ongoing history of these rivers of faith –as Buddhism becomes a truly “American” religion, as Islam develops the organizational infrastructure to participate in political and civil society, as Hindus from all over India renegotiate the meaning of Hinduism on American soil, and as Christians and Jews articulate their own faith anew in the light of their encounter with other faiths. Even humanists, secularists, and atheists have to rethink what their worldviews mean in the context of a more complex religious reality.

A third goal of the summer seminar will be to ask persistently the question of American “identity” in the face of expanding religious diversity. What will the idea and vision of America become as we embrace all this diversity? The questions that emerge from the new encounter of religions in the United States today go to the very heart of who we see ourselves to be as a people. They are not trivial questions, for they force us to ask in one way or another: Who do we mean when we invoke the first words of our Constitution, “We the people of the United States of America?” Who do we mean when we say “we?” This is a challenge of citizenship, to be sure, for it has to do with the imagined community of which we consider ourselves a part. It is also an intellectual challenge requiring ongoing study.

Just as our religious traditions are dynamic, so is whatever we mean by America. What is “American” is not finished, not embedded in history alone, but is still underway. The motto of the Republic, E Pluribus Unum, “From Many, One,” is not an accomplished fact, but an ideal that Americans must continue to claim. The story of America’s many peoples and the creation of one nation is still an unfinished story in which the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are continually being brought into being, in ways that must be the subject of critical study and analysis.

Excerpted from Dr. Diana Eck’s letter to seminar participants. Read the full letter here.