(re)Imagining Others

stop hunger nowIf you had not noticed, the world is changing.  In many ways, the steady flow of time laps at the banks of our lives, persistently cleaning and removing and transforming all at once.  Some of the changes are minor, simple yet pervasive.  Take the cell phone.  Consider my modest panic experienced the other day when I found myself driving to a meeting and discovering I had left my cell phone at home.  All sorts of curious, unnecessary thoughts rushed through my head.  Is it safe to travel without a phone?  What if my car breaks down?  Should I go back and get my phone?  Rather curious to have this string of questions rush through my head given the fact that for the first decade or so of my driving-life I never traveled with a phone at the ready yet somehow managed to survive to this moment both intact and, relatively, stable.  These shorts of alterations to our lives—like my realization at the ubiquity of, integration with, and (co)dependence on a new form of technology—illustrate this kind of minor change to life.

While some of the changes to our world might have broad impact, they are minor relative to the totality of our existence.  However, accompanying these minor changes, major ones are happening, too.  Consider the events of March 2012.

What happened in March 2012?

While I am certain many things happened in March 2102 that are of note, what I am referring to is an important line that was crossed in the demographic makeup of The United States, an occurrence that slipped past most of us—accept those like me with a somewhat unhealthy obsession with religious data and trends.  That demographic crossing marked for the first time in our country’s history that we are no longer a nation with any single religious group claiming a majority of adherents.

Until that March date, our nation’s population had always been majority Protestant, e.g., Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.  March 2012 did not suddenly announce that our country was unexpectedly filled with divergent and rich religious expression.  To the contrary, before March 2012, our country had many, many religious communities and great diversity of religions and faiths and belief expressions.  What changed in March 2012 is that for the first time no single religious community could claim that a majority of Americans were in their particular religious community’s box, as if it were ever that simple in the first place.

Now, I want to be clear that I offer this bit of information neither as a wistful reflection on days gone by nor as a clarion call to action to restore some previous position of privilege for my team—I am one of those Protestants.  I simply wish to highlight a fact for our consideration, a fact that has been and will continue to shape our world in the present and into the future.  For the first time, we live in what demographers call a pluralistic society.

It is important to note how these demographers are using this idea of pluralism.  The claim that we live in a pluralistic society is not a claim that we are all saying the same thing in a different way or looking at the same (religious) ideas from different perspectives.  Both of these notions might be either true or false.  Nevertheless, such testimony to the truth or fallacy of these claims is a theological conversation and not a sociological one.  In this sociological context—in which I am interested, pluralism is used to describe the reality that all religious positions now hold a minority position, numerically, and that we need to learn to live into this new reality as demographic trends suggest that our country’s religious patchwork will only become more colorful and complex over the coming decades.

Pandora’s Box has been opened; the cat is out of the bag; the genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste is out of the tube.  Pick your metaphor.  Pick whichever one will help you adjust to the need to learn to think differently about the world in which we live, to imagine our world from the perspective of this diverse and complex, rich population we call our national community, and to develop the skills and resources essential to living in a pluralistic world.

Diana Eck, a religious scholar long committed to assessing and understanding these demographic trends, offers her own explanation for what pluralism is and how we might imagine living in a pluralistic world.  For her, pluralism is not just the recognition that we are now a majority minority nation, but pluralism is a kind of disposition, a positive attitude with which to approach this newly forming world.  She writes, “First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.  Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them.  Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement.  Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.”  In other words, pluralism, along with being a description of present demographics, is, also, an intentional mechanism for engaging in robust and direct ways with persons of other faiths and no faith to create healthy, connected communities.

Moreover and possibly more important, Eck insists, “[P]luralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments.  The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments.  It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.”  Since pluralism is not an exercise in relativism, pluralism is an intentional engagement with persons from various communities, offering a true, authentic expression of ourselves and willfully encountering those other communities’ true, authentic expressions, respectfully noting our differences and capitalizing on our commonalities.

Pluralism, it turns out, is not just something that Eck has noticed “out there” nor is it a way forward for “someone else.”  Rather, it seems that pluralism has happened “to us,” “right here.”

Our college has not had a single religious tradition constituting a majority for some time, while our level of religious diversity has only increased in the past decade.  In many ways, we are a microcosmic reflection of the larger national portrait.  What’s more, for many years now, we have worked deliberately to cultivate a climate of understanding, appreciation, and engagement between persons of different faiths and no faith.  Because we are a United Methodist campus, such cultivation is second nature, given the denomination’s commitment to promoting the religious and spiritual explorations for all who call Young Harris College home.

This coming week, we have the opportunity to further our own community’s intentional enterprise in pluralism.  On Thursday, persons from across the campus are invited to share in a few hours of common service, working with Stop Hunger Now to pack 10000 meals to be distributed around the world to those who are hungry and in need.  To help prepare our campus for this moment and to expand our own cultivation of true, authentic expressions of ourselves, noting our differences and capitalizing on our commonalities, the college’s Inter-Religious Council has commissioned a poster campaign.  The campaign, called The Better Together Campaign, uses the teachings from several different faith traditions and spiritual dispositions to indicate why those individual traditions find it important to serve the community.

These posters will, hopefully, serve several purposes.  First, they will remind us that pluralism does not require or expect the abandoning of who you are but the authentic expression of your beliefs in a respectful, open way.  Second, that pluralism assumes we will be authentic in our differences and cooperative in our significant intersections.  And, third, that truthful expression of who we are might prove to be educational and transformative.

So, keep your eyes open for the Better Together posters, learning why Atheists, Humanists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians each find community service vital to their expressions of faith, and sign-up to volunteer on Thursday.

Have a great week and see you along the way.


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