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Diversity and Uncertainty
in Our Religious Lives

by Rosemary Bray McNatt

What is it about this country that makes it both a crucible of inclusion and a hotbed of intolerance? The contradictory impulses that govern our common history as Americans are played out, most typically, in the arena of race. Yet the same impulses have made themselves known in religious practices as well, especially in the last 35 years as the United States has become the most religiously varied nation on earth.

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A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation, by Diana Eck
This is the good news from Diana Eck, a scholar and researcher in comparative religions at Harvard University for more than 20 years and for 10 years the director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, which has meticulously recorded the seismic shift in America's religious life. A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001; $25) is a whirlwind survey of the many religious communities that have grown up in this country, particularly since 1965.

It was in that year that the Immigration and Naturalization Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the first liberalization of a restrictive quota system in place since 1924. It was a move that followed by one year the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Eck writes that the immigration and civil rights acts were linked in spirit: "As Americans became critically aware of our nation's deep structures of racism, we also saw that race discrimination continued to shape immigration law, excluding people from what was then called the Asia-Pacific Triangle." The post-1965 waves of immigrants were the catalyst that eventually led to the transformation of religious life and practice in America.

Eck writes about this transformation with a voice that is both professionally informed and personally aware. In matters of faith, relationality is key, and so the seven chapters that make up this fine book are an unusual mix of scholarly research, anecdotal detail, and personal experience. Her family's own immigrant experience, her Methodist upbringing in Montana, her gradual awakening to the riches of American religious practice: All these things are grist for the mill:

When I first met [my] new students — Muslims from Providence, Hindus from Baltimore, Sikhs from Chicago, Jains from New Jersey — they signaled to me the emergence in America of a new cultural and religious reality about which I knew next to nothing.... I had not been to an American mosque, I had never visited a Sikh community in my own country, and I could imagine a Hindu summer camp only by analogy with my Methodist camp experience. I felt the very ground under my feet as a teacher and scholar begin to shift.
Eck explores the country's historic interest in several religious communities that now enjoy a significant presence on these shores. Some details will be familiar to us — UUs are likely to know that Emerson, Thoreau, and others of our Transcendentalist ancestors embraced Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Vishnu Purana; we may be aware that Thoreau translated part of the Lotus Sutra in the 1850s. But how many of us know that the founders of theosophy, Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott, traveled from America to Sri Lanka in the 1880s in an attempt to create a unified Buddhism? Or that during the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, the only Muslim speaker was an American, Mohammed Russell Alexander Webb, who converted to Islam during a diplomatic posting to the Philippines?

Yet Eck does not dwell on history so much as provide a context for understanding the uniquely American manifestations of faith traditions outside Christianity and Judaism. She visits the Plainfield, Indiana, headquarters of the Islamic Society of North America, and reminds us that the six million practicing Muslims in the United States are alive and well from Chicago to Miami, from Toledo, Ohio to Phoenix, Arizona.

She details the connections among Buddhist practices from both China and Japan, and though she faithfully records the reality of Zen and Tibetan Buddhists and their astronomical growth, she does not neglect discussion of the less fashionable Japanese Nichiren Shoshu tradition and its lay movement, Soka Gakkai. Its US counterpart, SGI-USA, is a profoundly inclusive community that makes it, according to Eck, "America's most multiracial Buddhist group, with many African-American and Latino members as well as Asians of Vietnamese or Chinese origin."

Eck has not written a naively optimistic tribute to a brave new religious world. The text is leavened with the historic and contemporary tales of terror that have always accompanied differences in religious practice. Her meditation on the meaning of e pluribus unum when it comes to American religious practice is a gentle warning that we as Unitarian Universalists might do well to heed, for it lifts up for criticism an unfortunate tendency of our own religious practice in all too many congregations: the appropriation of others' religious traditions and symbols with an incomplete understanding and appreciation of the faith and culture from which they come. Eck writes:

Our oneness will not mean the blending of religions into a religious melting pot.... Of course there will be conversions, intermarriages,... and forms of public and private syncretism, but there will never be a widespread melting pot of religions or unanimity on matters of religious truth. The unum will be civic — a oneness of commitment to the common covenants of our citizenship out of the manyness of religious ways and worlds.
Eck is an intrepid researcher with a deep and joyous curiosity about religious practice and the people whose lives are informed — and transformed — by it. In A New Religious America, readers will find a welcome road map for our nation's multi-theological terrain.

Those of us who take our liberal faith seriously may have grown weary of the voice of our conservative counterparts who, for more than a decade now, have called for a return to "that old-time religion." Unaware of or uninterested in the pluralistic religious America documented so well by Diana Eck, they blame pluralism and openness for a decline in values. They inveigh against the horrors of science and the miseries of modernism, and urge America to turn its collective face back to God — almost always the God of their specific understanding.

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Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, by Huston Smith
It can been easy to dismiss these voices and, without interruption, continue our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But now comes a new book from Huston Smith, arguably the foremost authority on world religions, and regarded by many of us as a fellow traveler. His Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000; $25) is written as both challenge and call to people who are both thoughtful and faithful.

Smith describes the pervading and urgent thesis of the book as "the importance of the religious dimension of human life — in individuals, in societies and in civilizations." Smith throws down the gauntlet in the first paragraph of the book's introduction, and one can almost see humanists everywhere cringing:

In different ways, the East and the West are going through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss — the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons. The nature of that loss is strange, but ultimately quite logical. When, with the inauguration of the scientific worldview, human beings started considering themselves the bearers of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, meaning began to ebb and the stature of humanity began to diminish.
Smith has attempted to summarize here a lifetime of study, research, reflection, and personal faith. He acknowledges early on the dangers of his effort to simplify a life's work, but maintains that the really important things are, in the end, quite simple. Still, for those readers without decades of study to sustain them, Smith's provocative work may contains less than the flood of evidence that postmoderns will require to fully embrace his thesis.

He begins with the question, Who's right about reality? and examines the three major periods in human history: the traditional (up to the rise of modern science); the modern (up to the first half of the 20th century); and the postmodern (up to the present day). Smith argues that each period succeeded in answering inescapable problems of human existence — modernity gave humanity the scientific method and thus knowledge of the natural world; postmodernity enjoyed far greater success at addressing social injustices of every kind. Tradition, Smith argues, does a far better job of articulating a worldview that sustains human life than the scientific worldview ever could:

The traditional worldview is preferable to the one that now encloses us because it allows for the fulfillment of the basic longing that lies in the depth of the human heart... for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality. Release from those walls calls for space outside them, and the traditional world provides that space in abundance.
Smith has appointed himself a relentless critic of the corruption of science that he calls scientism. He differentiates between them by defining science as "the body of facts about the natural world that the scientific method has brought to light, the crux of that method being the controlled experiment with its capacity to winnow true from false hypotheses about the empirical world." Scientism, on the other hand, presupposes "first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the thing science deals with — material entities — are the most fundamental things that exist."

Smith brands scientism as one of the aspects of contemporary life that threaten the existence of the traditional worldview, which he would conserve without rolling back the advances in justice that postmodernity has managed to achieve.

Some of the other threats to the traditional worldview will be familiar enemies of the spiritual life: materialism and a consumerist culture that encourages us to shop our way to enlightenment; media of all kind that consistently ignore the genuine role that religious faith plays in the lives of the US population. But Smith calls to task as well the modern university, which he sees as being affected by scientism on every level, and the law, which he views as often obstructionist in matters of religious belief and practice.

The book's tone is dialogical; five of its 16 chapters are introduced with the help of what he calls "flagship books" by authors whose work both supported and inspired his thinking; an added benefit of this device is learning of the wide variety of books mentioned by Smith that an engaged reader might read as followup.

He has written this controversial material with the style of a raconteur, sharing the stories of his encounters with scientists and skeptics of every kind. His chapter about light, combining a discussion of modern physics and the traditional attributes of God, is a treasure all its own, though the diagrams might prove a distraction.

Smith cheerfully admits that those without a sense of transcendence will be hard pressed to walk the path he outlines in this book. (His chapter on spiritual personality types attempts to explain why that is.) But for those whose sense of longing for something more has never left them alone, Why Religion Matters is a book to read, struggle over, and argue with for years to come.

UU World XV:4 (September/October 2001): 55-56.

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