Goddess in the Classroom:
Is the Promotion of Religious Diversity a Dangerous Idea?
When I was teaching at St. Xavier's High School in Kathmandu, Nepal in the mid-1970s, one of my assigned courses was Moral Science, for the 9th Standard (i.e., freshman or sophomore) students. After discovering that teenage boys, even Hindu and Buddhist boys in the Himalayas, were not terribly interested in lists of commandments and pristine logical justifications of good behavior, I sought out some other point of contact. I started learning more about Hindu and Buddhist religious beliefs and practices, and gathered a store of myths, pious parables, poems, etc., and began to use them in class. In this way I was able to continue communicating the moral values intended by the curriculum, but the course now took on a decidedly more religious tone and became far more interesting to all of us. Instead of being primarily the effort of an American teacher to draw Nepali boys into consideration of the moral and logical grounds of rational discourse and right behavior, it became more of a religious conversation among us, a young American Catholic talking with Hindu and Buddhist boys about what we believe and live by. My idea, only vague and inarticulate at the time, was that we are all better off if we are more explicitly and specifically religious and open in situations of pluralism.
This idea was confirmed in practice, for our conversations had effects outside the classroom. We set up a prayer room to which the boys brought statues and pictures representative of Hindu Gods and Gautama the Buddha too, and at least once a week they would gather to meditate, hear readings from sacred texts, and sing traditional religious songs; I was always present, on the side, a monitor but also an engaged observer. There was a tradition at St. Xavier's of annual retreats, following the model popular at Jesuit schools in the United States in the 1950s. I felt that they were rather too American, so I adjusted the pattern by introducing Hindu and Buddhist stories, pictures, and simple meditation practices, while still adhering to the some basic Ignatian principles and drawing on some of the same Christian resources - readings, tapes, discussion format - other Jesuits were using. But my idea that we were better off being more explicitly religious, as Hindus, Buddhists, and Roman Catholics, led to one controversial development. On their own, some of my Hindu students suggested that since their religion was now being recognized as actually valuable, and since the majority of students in the school were Hindu, it was only right that there should be in each classroom, alongside the Crucifix, an image of Sarasvati, the Hindu Goddess of wisdom and learning to whom students in India and Nepal pray for success in studies. My students took up a collection to buy some images of Sarasvati, but the Rector of the school, a fellow American Jesuit, quickly intervened to veto the plan. That was the end of it, for the students backed down and the moment passed. Had they persisted, the result would most likely have been a still more firm ruling that Hindu symbols simply should not hang in a classroom at a Catholic institution.
I cannot actually recall the Rector's reasons now, if he shared them with me at all, but I believe his feeling, supported by most of the fathers at the school, was that hanging pictures of Sarasvati would cross an invisible line between general respect for students' personal beliefs and something that looked uncomfortably like approving of a pagan goddess. If the point was argued, the discussion of specific religious symbols and their underlying value might have become uncomfortably explicit, a charged comparison of Christ and Sarasvati. I doubt any of us were prepared for such a discussion. But my own mind on the topic has not changed: hanging pictures of Sarasvati in classrooms where most students are Hindu was a sensible idea, even if somewhat novel and possessed of unpredictable consequences for a Jesuit mission school in a Hindu and Buddhist country. It would have been good for Hindu students to see Sarasvati each day in the classroom, and it would have been good for us Jesuits to have acknowledged this devotion and taken it into account in moral and religious education.
So much for an opening reminiscence. After two years in Kathmandu, I returned to the United States, studied theology, and was ordained a Jesuit priest. I acquired a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, traveled to India a few times, and have been on the faculty at Boston College since 1984. American college campuses in 1999 are quite different from St. Xavier's in the mid-1970s, of course. The relative clarity of the situation of religious identities at a missionary school contrasts starkly with our murky yet also exciting contemporary scene, where identities are less clearly marked and many students opt for "spirituality" over "religion" and make religious choices and connections which would never have occurred to me. But the intuition I had 25 years ago about a positive religious response to pluralism has stayed with me. It has actually gained new force in my present work at Boston College, where Catholic identity is ceaselessly under discussion even as the university becomes increasingly diverse, international, and (as everyone says) more secularized. If we care about institutional and communal religious commitments, how do we deepen a Jesuit institution's Catholic identity now, in this new situation where other religions are present as lived realities? In the three sections of this essay I will state my idea regarding how we can respond to the religious diversity which flourishes at Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. I will then explore the consequences of the idea, and conclude by asking whether it is dangerous or not.
But first, a word on terminology. Several words I used just above - "religious diversity," "Jesuit colleges and universities," and "we" - are problematic. "Religious diversity" may rightly call to mind more immediately the issue of diversity among Christians of different denominations, since there are problems and opportunities on the ecumenical level which we have hardly addressed. But here I am focusing on the diversity signaled by the presence on campus of people of faiths other than Christianity.
"Jesuit colleges and universities" sounds good, and it is a useful shorthand (in turn a shorthand for "Jesuit, Roman Catholic, colleges and universities"), but it is not clear what or who we are talking about. "University," "college," "Jesuit," and "Catholic" are all terms which are understood and used differently by different constituencies with their own perspectives and according to their own strategic purposes. The idea that a "Jesuit college" can "act" for or against pluralism, or indeed in any way at all as a religious agent is problematic, since it is not clear that "Jesuit college" points to any particular agent - individual or corporate - who can actually do anything. But with some caution we must still feel justified in using such terms.
And finally, who is this "we" supposed to be thinking about all this? "We" often masks uncertain constituencies. It may imply a real or imagined array of like-minded people subscribing to one idea. It could also mean "all of us," like it or not. Certainly I do speak as a member of the Catholic community which remains the largest religious presence on every Jesuit campus, and as a Jesuit. I cannot speak directly for people of other religious faiths or those who do not identify with any organized religion; nor, to be honest, can I presume to speak for other Catholics and other Jesuits. When I use "we," I will usually mean myself and people who to some extent agree with the idea I will put forward here, although on occasion I will use "we" when referring to a consensus or common challenge we all seem to face. At no point, however, do I mean to give the impression that there is a veritable host of like-minded people already in agreement with me. Although some of my terms therefore remain slippery, I do have an idea, possibly dangerous, to put forward, and I believe it is worth spelling out as clearly as I can.
Jesuit colleges and universities should promote religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way. Not only should these colleges and universities not drift into a safe secularism, but neither should they be conceived of solely in Catholic terms, as if the only things of a religious nature that should get noticed, spoken, enacted publicly are the Catholic ones. Jesuit colleges and universities should become places of explicitly religious conversation where people on campus notice the religious diversity that exists there (how much diversity depends on many factors regarding particular institutions, but there is always some), and respond to it directly and with religious sensitivity, in an intelligent, educated, and spiritually-attuned conversation where faiths meet and are explored intelligently and practically. This commitment by Jesuit colleges and universities to the promotion of religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way will be a real service to the Church, which needs constantly to rediscover how to think and speak in a pluralistic society. Moreover, since there are no Hindu or Buddhist or Islamic universities in America, we can do a great deal of good by making it clear that our campuses are places where believers of all backgrounds can learn in a coherent religious environment committed to honoring pluralism as religiously significant.
Much of this has to do with seizing the moment. The encounter of religions has taken on new urgency in our world, which seems at once increasingly pluralistic and yet also smaller. Religions that used to be far apart rub shoulders everywhere, every day. How to be deeply and intelligently religious in situations of diversity - a Christian respectful of Jews, a Muslim in a society not ordered according to Islamic ideals, a Hindu in North America's individualistic society, a Black Muslim or a Native American in a white culture, a practitioner of Wicca in a Christian environment, and so on - is on the minds of those who think seriously about religious life in America today. Even those among us who do not wish to concede in advance that every religion is equally valid or that evangelization is to be ruled out should still want to put together a healthy, honest religious environment where pluralism is viewed intelligently and religiously. No honorable religious purpose is served by preserving ignorance or shoring up barriers to communication.
Catholic institutions should not be or become merely secular, either in a banal sense by simply bracketing religious responsibilities and commitments altogether and privatizing religion on campus, or by using the mantra of tolerance as a ready-made rationale for celebrating everything while in fact managing to avoid serious religious encounters. The majority of people on Jesuit campuses - students, staff, faculty - are Catholic, but an increasing number belong to other faiths. If Jesuit institutions ought to remain explicitly religious and if they are also increasingly diverse, then it is entirely appropriate that we should respond religiously to this pluralism by deliberately inviting people of those different traditions into practices of encounter and communication where religious values remain foremost.
That we see our campuses as experiments in a rich interreligious dialogue of ideas, values, and lives is an ideal with good Jesuit credentials, and not just in the distant past when Jesuit missionaries pioneered intercultural learning in distant parts of the globe. Just four years ago, in 1995, representative Jesuits from all over the world came together in Rome for the Society's 34th General Congregation, to deliberate on the Society's current state and future directions. They affirmed that interreligious encounter is an issue all Jesuits need to think about and incorporate into the various ministries in which we have a guiding or collaborative role.
According to the Congregation, the encounter with religious people and their many traditions should infuse who we are and what we do. This is a large "should" and, again, we Jesuits cannot presume that the Jesuit agenda translates into marching orders for everyone else. But the idea of a pervasive interreligious encounter begins to appear more plausible when the fathers go on to explain that dialogue occur on different levels, not just in technical and official contexts. It occurs most frequently and importantly as we live our lives among people who are in some ways like us and in other ways different. For most of us most of the time, "dialogue" is a commitment related to the simple and fundamental requirement that we have to learn to live together in fruitful harmony, work together on shared problems affecting all of us, and form good intellectual and spiritual habits to support intelligent spiritual exchange. This rich and varied approach to dialogue is applicable even on college and university campuses: "Our educational institutions will conscientize their students on the value of interreligious collaboration and instill in them a basic understanding of and respect for the faith vision of the members of the diverse local religious communities, while deepening their own faith response to God." (Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue, n. 9.8) Although Jesuits meeting in Rome could not presume to dictate what should happen on campuses in this country, their ideas merit our attention as we rethink and rejuvenate the religious identities of our institutions. If you will permit a certain redundancy: for religious people, religious pluralism is a religious opportunity needing the kind of positive response people with religious commitments can offer. Responding to pluralism with religious sensitivity and respect both for our values and those of the persons we encounter offers a religiously valuable opportunity, not merely a necessary evil or neutral possibility. When we respond to pluralism maturely we illumine anew the values and practices distinctive to educational institutions that want to maintain a living Jesuit connection.
To think that Jesuit colleges and universities should promote religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way is an idea with consequences for Jesuit colleges and universities as Catholic institutions, and in this section I sketch seven of them. In doing so, I of course presuppose that ideas can still have real-life consequences, that religious ideas can influence people, and that Jesuit colleges and universities are still meaningfully enough Catholic that serious choices can be made about how these institutions are to be religious.
First, we need to take notice of the fact that our campuses are religiously diverse. While secularization is a large problem, there are more people on campus than can be divided largely into two neat groups, i.e., good Catholics and people who have "gone secular." The division cannot be so simple. There are also people from other religious traditions among our students, staff, and faculty. We must affirm that this diversity is a religious good, the providential context God has given us for our lives. The challenge is actually to welcome those students, faculty, and staff who are not Christian, on the grounds that we believe they have something to offer religiously, to the profit of all of us on campus. This welcome is not the same as a vague appreciation of diversity. Celebrating the great American mosaic is fine, but it does not measure up to the religious standard we need to set for ourselves. Catholics have to do more than be benignly tolerant, and must cultivate and explore in particular, concrete ways the different religions present on campus. We need to do this with some sophistication, recognizing in people of other faiths the same rich complexity of religious living and believing that we expect others to recognize in ourselves. Second, once we see that our campuses are increasingly diverse and that this is good, we need also to learn to represent ourselves in ways that are mindful of and attentive to their presence. Conscious and public acknowledgment of religious diversification is preferable to simply allowing it to happen unnoticed, due to changing demographics and the economics of admissions and hiring. This conscious admission of our religious diversity is better achieved not by retreating to a bland religious language which is vaguely but inoffensively Christian. In particular, we need to learn something about these many religious traditions, abjure the habit of speaking in broad terms of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" "we" all share. We need to make this explicit by the way we present ourselves on campus, and also by making sure that promotional materials - e.g., the administration's newspaper, the alumni magazine, the college website - draw attention to the Catholic tradition but also to the other religious traditions present on campus.
Third, we need to tone down the rhetoric which suggests a Catholic and Jesuit monopoly on the religious inspiration for lives of virtue. Desiring to emphasize the Jesuit commitment to a just society and to explain how our college and universities are still Catholic, we often give the impression that every good deed undertaken by every student is a fruit of the Catholic and Jesuit tradition, embodying the Jesuit ideal of "men and women for others." But one does not have to be influenced by St. Ignatius to be man or woman for others, and we should not ignore other possible sources for compassion and selfless action in the world. There are Jewish and Buddhist reasons, for instance, for helping others, and it is wiser for us to see the generous volunteer work by students, staff, and faculty as signs of religious identity, not just Catholic identity. (So too, community service may also have other sources of inspiration which are not aligned with any particular religious tradition, but this raises questions which go beyond this brief essay.) While good deeds certainly can, and often are, rooted in Catholic faith - we must gratefully admit this - and while many Hindus and Muslims have been inspired by the imitation of Christ, this does not allow us to establish a religious monopoly and speak as if Christian ideals could be the only reason students work in soup kitchens or visit the sick or spend summer in poor urban or rural locations. We must distinguish more carefully between Christian ideals and the more varied reasons for which students undertake social commitments, and honestly acknowledge the diverse motivations they bring to their work.
Once we acknowledge religious diversity, this should also affect how we discuss the values and standards of personal morality we hope to see prevail on campus. Religious people of all traditions try to live lives of personal virtue, and there is no Christian monopoly on sobriety, fidelity, and honesty, or on opposition to abortion, pre-marital sex, excessive alcohol consumption, and flashy consumerism. We might learn a great deal on these topics from our Muslim faculty, students, and staff, for instance. People in other traditions too have had to learn how to adjust their traditional values in the modern world, and they too have argued among themselves about what to keep and what to let go of. An interreligious moral conversation on campus will do us good, intellectually and practically. We are better off if religious people of all traditions, their differences notwithstanding, share a conversation on the religious roots of morality and responsibility. Someone may object that it is playing with fire to start tracing a path from specific religious beliefs to specific moral practices - fanaticism raises its ugly head - but we ought to be able to face this challenge too. If we claim to draw on the Catholic tradition in stating the moral values which are supposed to guide campus life, we should also be able to learn from religious people of other traditions, likewise without ignoring, diluting, or romanticizing the values they actually bring to campus.
Fourth, as those of us who are Catholics become accustomed to listen to our sisters and brothers who are not Christian, we also need to make sure their religious practices are visible in the campus's religious life, and not not merely by providing a spare classroom or lounge in which they can pray. If a college or university claims to be able to draw the community together in prayer, then there needs to be more diversity in that prayer, beyond the official religious cult which tends to be largely identical with the celebration of the Roman Catholic Eucharist. Excepting special events, such as ecumenical prayer services during the Gulf War or Jewish-Christian commemorations of the victims of the Holocaust, no mode of worship has any official, visible presence, except the Roman Catholic. Most of our colleges and universities have an official Mass of the Holy Spirit, a Baccalaureate Mass, and a series of other Masses for incoming freshmen, parent weekends, etc. There is no doubt that these Masses are excellent and prayerful celebrations, often appreciated by non-Catholics too. But they are always and very specifically Roman Catholic events which culminate not in the often inspiring and welcoming homilies which strive to be inclusive, but in the reception of the Eucharist, from which not only non-Christians but also non-Catholic Christians are officially barred.
But this can also be put more positively. If a university or college signals its determination to remain explicitly religious but also to be serious about the participation of non-Catholics on every level of university life, then it is appropriate to invite the university community to gather for worship conducted in other religious modes too, e.g., according to Jewish or Muslim or Hindu ways (and even Protestant and Orthodox ways!) While no one can be expected to participate in a mode of religious worship contrary to her or his own beliefs, the prospect of sharing in a university-sponsored way of prayer or cultic practice that is not Catholic should be no more problematic for Catholics than it is for non-Catholics and non-Christians to pray during official campus Masses. It is not prudent for Catholic institutions to insist that "we" have a right to treat the Mass as the official mode of campus worship, presided over by the chief officers of the university. Nor is it true, since there is no obvious reason why factors such as institutional sponsorship and a campus majority should translate directly into the ownership of all campus-wide prayer. Of course we all need to worship as we see fit. But just as we rightly believe that non-Catholics can join prayerfully - to a certain degree - in Catholic worship, a Jesuit college or university committed to a religious response to religious pluralism can also insist that Catholics can profit from sharing - to a certain degree - in the worship of other traditions presided over by members of those traditions. (Nor will it do us Jesuits any harm once in a while to forego leadership roles in campus prayer. We can profit from sitting in the congregation, listening to a Muslim call to worship or witnessing the honoring of innumerable transcendent Buddhas.)
In some real, even if necessarily limited and symbolic fashion, it would therefore also be helpful to establish a rotating set of holidays by which to celebrate other religious traditions on a regular basis. In addition to the Christmas holiday, which is both a Christian and American cultural celebration, or an extended weekend off for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, it would be appropriate to observe holy days occasionally according to the calendars of other traditions, even if not every holy day could be honored every year with a day off. The official college or university calendar - in brochures, course catalogues, on-line - can easily include the major holy days of the religious traditions to which people on campus belong. On a rotating basis, the university or college community could celebrate one or more of those non-Christian holy days with a holiday: e.g., Yom Kippur one year, the birthday of the Buddha another year, a campus-wide day of fast during Ramadan on occasion, and sometimes Diwali, a Hindu feast of light. The manner of celebrations on these days could be analogous to the good efforts colleges often take to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday - not simply as a day off, or as a day for African American students to have "their" celebration, but as the occasion for everyone on campus to reflect on the values and challenges signaled by the special day. In the long run too, when students, staff, and faculty are aware of these varied holy days and the values they indicate, even the celebration of Christmas and Easter will gain a stronger, more specific religious profile. If there are pleasant groves and walkways on campus, alumni and alumnae of other faiths could be encouraged to endow religious images from their traditions for honored places on campus.
Fifth, it would be useful and perhaps necessary to adjust hiring practices to insure that it is clear that the campus ministry and student personnel officers really do understand and respect the religious values and expectations of the many different kinds of students on campus. Since institutions can afford only limited budgets to their campus ministries, we cannot expect a vast diversification of campus ministry staffs nor that there be a campus minister to represent each and every religious faith on campus. But some diversification of personnel, particularly at the larger and wealthier universities, is appropriate, to make it clear that campus ministry really does appreciate the religious value of religious diversity because the staff itself is religiously diverse and never speaks or acts univocally from the perspective of a single religious tradition. Likewise, counseling services, housing offices, and personnel departments need to consider whether they are prepared to meet the needs of non-Christian students, staff, and faculty whose moral choices and psychological development often have specifically religious aspects and implications proper to those traditions. The point is not that Jesuit colleges and universities are obliged (e.g., in return for the payment of tuition) to provide something for everyone, but that we are all better off when we ourselves, as the corporate body of faculty and staff, are intentionally diverse enough to keep lively our discussion of how best to aid students in deepening their own religious commitments.
Sixth, since ideas are supposed to have intellectual consequences too, learning will be challenged and enriched on campuses which take religions seriously. A commitment to promote religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way should have meaningful academic components, particularly (at least for a start) in the humanities. Our traditional academic-religious goal has been to educate students to become mature Catholics, literate in their faith and able to reflect on it in a serious intellectual manner. This goal can now be pursued in a pluralistic religious environment, so that Catholic students will be reflecting on how to be better Catholics in an environment where Hindus are thinking about how to be better Hindus, and Jews thinking about how to be better Jews - and where they are all talking to one another about these things. Encouraging people to reflect on their faith - in a manner appropriate to an academic setting - should help everyone on campus (and not just students) to become moderately familiar with more than one religious tradition, and thus more reflective neighbors to people of other faiths. The reshaping of religious self-understanding on campus might then be more strongly fueled by this input "from below," i.e., from students and from their professors. This best begins in each classroom - as it did for me in Kathmandu - where, as appropriate, professors read class materials in light of the particular questions students bring from their own cultural and religious traditions.
Since culture and religion are never easily separable, a further consequence of taking religious diversity seriously as a topic of interest in Jesuit colleges and universities would be to find it a matter of course that faculty in the humanities should reconsider the subject matter and competencies (within departments, across departmental boundaries) appropriate to the contemporary college and university environment. The "great books" are no longer just those European books which have inspired so many of us. Human history has seen more than one high scholasticism, one renaissance, and one enlightenment, and the religious sources of art and music, poetry and performance are as varied as are the many religions of the world. Particularly in fields such as theology and philosophy, of course, a nuanced religious appreciation of religious differences could lead to significant changes even in the way the Christian tradition is contextualized, challenged, reinterpreted. The promotion of religious pluralism and dialogue in an authentically religious way should not undercut the Catholic traditions of theology and philosophy which can remain the catalyst of the curriculum, but rather enliven them by reminding us of just how profound and intelligent the alternatives are. Of course, the goal can never be that everyone must become well-informed about every tradition. There is simply too much to be learned, and individuals must make choices about what to learn. But we can be much more mindful of the location of what we do know within wider horizons of the world's many cultures and religious traditions particularly as these have come to interact. If American culture at large is engaged in debating cultural literacy, Jesuit colleges and universities should devote considerable attention to issues of religious literacy.
Seventh (and here I speak specifically as a Jesuit, hoping that my fellow Jesuits have read this far), the project of promoting religious pluralism in an authentically religious way will help create for us Jesuits a more engaged and higher profile religious role on campus. If the goal is to promote a campus environment which is integrally religious and faithful to its traditions - in deed, worship, thinking - while yet becoming really diverse and alive with new religious energies, this goal requires intelligent, imaginative, ambitious, and risk-taking religious professionals who have a knack for bringing out the religious best in people according to their particular religious beliefs and practices. Jesuits are the most logical (though not only) candidates to play this role on Jesuit campuses, and expectations in this regard would challenge us to be clearly and explicitly religious figures in a way that echoes Jesuit tradition while yet also meeting the special religious needs of whole campus communities in the 21st century. This will do more to clarify Jesuit identity and presence than further discussions of "Jesuit" and "Ignatian" in isolation from other religious ideals.
One consequence that need not follow from my idea is relativism. Nothing I have said suggests that everyone has to learn to agree with everyone else on religious matters or concede that all religions are equal. One key goal is indeed to help Christians to be better Christians, Buddhists to be better Buddhists, Muslims to be better Muslims, etc. But the sequels are equally important, as mature Christians who know their faith encounter mature Hindus, and both encounter mature Confucians, all entering into an honest and challenging conversation where words and deeds testify to basic religious values. We can still hold to our true beliefs, yet without advocating a policy of institutional neglect regarding religions other than our own. We can learn to argue and defend our faith in a pluralistic environment where religious ideas - our own, those of others - are taken seriously. Religious ideas can be presented, argued, and tested with respect to ways of living, in an intellectual context where no group wins simply by being in the majority, neither Catholics who simply presume themselves right because "we all think this way," nor those who refuse to believe that religious ideas have objective features and consequences at all. If we construct and engage persistently in this educative religious encounter and make it a habitual part of life on campus - a spring "religions fair" wouldn't be enough! - then we can legitimately say we are truly advocating not "religion-lite" but "religion-plus."
Thus far I have put forward a particular idea - Jesuit colleges and universities should promote religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way - and suggested some consequences of this idea. One might dispute the idea itself, question any of the particular consequences I have suggested or suggest others, but what remains to be taken up in this essay is just one further question: is the idea dangerous, are its consequences dangerous? Without overdramatizing the power of my own idea, I will suggest six possibly dangerous consequences.
First, the idea that Jesuit colleges and universities should promote religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way may be dangerous simply because taking this idea seriously would change things, and change is a threat. All of us, myself included, would to some extent be inconvenienced by what might follow from my idea. Our "maps" of campus religion and culture would have to be redrawn, customary religious celebrations on campus adjusted, hiring patterns modified, academic programs rethought yet again, and even the purpose of Jesuits on campus reconsidered. Struggling institutions may wonder, "How could we have time for this?" Successful institutions may ask, "Why bother?" Second, confusion can be dangerous too, and my idea may be confusing because its consequences cannot be predicted. Practical people will want to know where attention to pluralism is to stop: are we to notice only religions which are very old or have many members? religions which reach a certain threshold on campus? surely not every new sect that comes along! and what about religions we don't like? Looking too deeply into pluralism might get us into trouble by raising questions we cannot handle. Since pluralism is not susceptible to coherent planning anyway, one might argue, it is better to neglect the topic altogether. Although this worry is legitimate, unpredictability and lack of clear boundaries are intrinsic to today's religious environment in America. Such is our situation, the world we must deal with in a seriously religious manner. However true and comprehensive our faith, the world still does not divide up into neatly organized religions where each can mind its own business without ever changing. The messy issue of definitions and social consequences has to be faced if any religion is to be taken seriously on campus.
One might also object that engaging pluralism in the way I have suggested will be confusing to our students - who are young, only figuring things out, not ready to engage pluralism. Students should first master their own particular traditions and form mature religious identities before branching out to encounter other traditions, at some later time in life. This gradualist scenario might seem attractive - maturity in one's own faith now, and then encounter with other faiths - though we might have doubts about so confident a compartmentalization of religious maturation. But the scenario is also something of an abstraction, since Jesuit colleges and universities, like American culture, are already religiously diverse, and ready or not students are already interacting regularly with people of other faiths. They face this unpredictable issue now, so we might as well face it too.
Third, my idea might be economically unwise. To say that the best way to preserve Catholic and Jesuit identity is to promote religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way can threaten to blur our Catholic image when the market requires that we sharpen it in order to preserve our marker niche. Potential customers will be confused if we move away from clear definitions of "Catholic and Jesuit tradition" toward a more unpredictable Catholic and Jesuit mission which makes sure that other religious voices too are heard and listened to. If a Jesuit college or university makes known that it is committed to promoting religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way, and not just in enhancing a welcoming Catholic ethos, it may seem less Catholic. Trustees will be perplexed, alumni may grumble, benefactors will hesitate. All this may worry those responsible for the financial welfare of a college or university: we cannot afford to think this way. But the preservation of Jesuit colleges and universities as religious institutions is the goal, not the means, of financial stability. Promoting a religious response to religious pluralism is a very good Jesuit way to foster the values that make sound financial planning worthwhile.
Fourth, a commitment to promoting religious diversity in an authentically religious way may seem dangerous because too much religion on campus, in too many varieties, is dangerous. Religions are troublesome, and it is better if at most one, the Catholic, has real influence on campus. Instead of a more predictable and settled ecumenism - a little of everything, nothing in excess - my idea means that there will be more religious symbols, more and different rituals and values, more ways of viewing the world religiously, and more arguments about differing, imponderable religious truths. This could indeed be unsettling. It could mean that there will be public, religious arguments on campuses which have for a long time (and often to good effect) prized serenity as the defining religious virtue. But the point of a religiously-sensitive college or university is to help us - students, staff, faculty - carry through on our religious ideas truthfully, zealously, and in an intelligent and interactive manner. Arguments are better than obscuring differences as if they didn't matter; arguing intelligently and with respect is a real value. Too much religion is a problem only if it is not accompanied by religious respect, attentive religious thinking, and patient religious conversations. Why bother calling colleges and universities "Jesuit" if they do not help young people reach religious maturity in the pluralistic world where we actually live?
Fifth, from another perspective one might say that this is not a dangerous idea at all. An idea can be dangerous only if it has a chance of making a difference in real life, if the people who propose the idea are also agents of change. Perhaps this idea is not dangerous because religious people cannot, or ought not, have enough influence on campus to make ideas like this count for something. Some of us, I suspect, are actually convinced that people with religious concerns are spectators and no longer agents of change in American higher education. From this perspective, it is too late even to make campuses more Catholic in some old-fashioned sense, much less in the new way proposed here. Perhaps essays like this can make no difference, so skeptics will find my idea boring rather than dangerous. Some may actually be relieved if this is so. Religion is best left a private matter, whether one religion or a hundred are at issue.
But sixth, and again from an opposing angle, my idea will actually seem dangerous to some Catholics who take religious ideas quite seriously. This is not an opportune time to experiment, one might observe, since first we must see where the debate about Ex corde ecclesiae leaves us. Once that issue is resolved, perhaps we can turn to the topic of pluralism. But our encounter with the Church and our encounter with other religious traditions ought not to be treated as separable issues. Catholics and Catholic institutions work out their Catholic identities not only somewhere between the Vatican and the secularists, but also among people of other religious traditions who care about religious truth as much as we do. Those of us who are Catholic must learn to be Catholic in a way that is forthright and credible to them too. Indeed, practicing Muslims and Buddhists, for instance, may then actually turn out to be allies, since they are likely to appreciate people and institutions which maintain religious identities in an open and non-violent way instead of letting them slip away.
Other Catholics will worry that the promotion of religious diversity in an authentically religious way is tantamount to admitting that we have abandoned the essential Christian task of evangelization which is supposed to be at least the goal toward which all our work on campus tends. By actively welcoming people of other faiths and seeking to enhance the visibility of their faiths on campus, we will no longer give even the impression of moving forward in the long-term work of evangelization. But nothing I have said decides that issue. Throughout this essay I have been referring to "the promotion of religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way," i.e., where religious people presumably continue to have something to talk about. We must learn to talk to one another and to listen too, particularly if we have something we wish to say. Those of us who are Catholic enter the campus dialogue as Catholics, not leaving the faith behind, but if all we know is the Catholic faith and the Catholic way of explaining things, not even many Catholics will find us interesting, nor should they. The old Jesuit principle applies here: if you wish to be understood, first understand; if you wish to speak of Jesus Christ, first listen. We cannot listen if no one else gets a chance to speak.
Finally, some may think that my idea is dangerous because it is unchristian - not "unchristian" in the sense of "uncharitable," but "unchristian" in the way syncretism and idolatry are unchristian. To allow the celebration of a Hindu or Buddhist holiday on campus may seem to be encouraging forbidden rites, encounters with false gods. It may cause real scandal. Having Confucian and Muslim students on campus is fine, but the less said about what they actually believe, the better. Hindus are welcome, but there should be no Goddess in the classroom. That could indeed be dangerous, sort of like having a Crucifix in a classroom where there are people who take religious symbols seriously. Conversation or Silence?
We have therefore come full circle. I began this essay by recollecting a small experience from the time when I was teaching in Kathmandu. There was no great tumult over my students' idea of hanging pictures of the Goddess Sarasvati in the classrooms, but it did threaten to upset the compromise which had made it possible for Jesuits to run a high school for Hindu and Buddhist boys. While vaguer ideas of tolerance and respect did not upset the delicate Jesuit balance, the possibility of a positive policy - a Goddess next to the Crucifix - was too much, so it was quickly rejected.
And what about us, now, in the United States? Is it dangerous to think that Jesuit colleges and universities should promote religious diversity and dialogue in an authentically religious way? We will have to see. My idea will have to be tested in practice if we are to assess how good and how dangerous it is, and whether its benefits outweigh its dangers. The idea itself, as a mere idea, will not disturb those disinclined to take ideas seriously. Some will start thinking about this idea only if something clearly comes of it, if unsettling changes start taking place. But if no one argues about this idea, if nothing comes of it on any campus, this may prove that it was merely a bad idea, or just a nice idea. Or it could be that it is dangerous enough to be passed over in silence.
Francis X. Clooney, S.J.