Diversity at Luther?!

Globalization has accelerated our encounter with and knowledge of other cultures, religious traditions, and ways of thinking. The internet and social media as well as global mobility have made it possible for us to be in touch with people and places around the world. Even in Decorah, we have Yoga, sushi, Chinese medicine, and a Zen Buddhist temple at the same time as Decorah has become a home for people from around the world. Some find this diversity in cultures refreshing and enriching, some scary and threatening.

The responses to globalization include embrace, toleration, and rejection, be it rhetorical or violent. News outlets report hate crimes against those deemed “different” and “other” on a frightening frequent basis and even in Decorah we have experienced the display of symbols of hate as well as aggression towards minorities. In response to these events, our society and the Luther community as a whole as well as individuals have, albeit in varying degrees, condemned these acts of hate, supported the affected communities as well as individuals, and affirmed the equal right to belonging of everyone. While diversity has become a fact of life in the 21st century, our attitudes towards it seemed to be open to debate.

At Luther College, an educational institution founded to express a stance against slavery, we strive to create a climate where everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, country of origin, first language, and sexual orientation as well as identity feels a sense of belonging and is treated as an equal member of our community. President Carlson announced that we now have a VP for diversity and inclusion just this month, our curriculum requires students to take at least one course with the designation “intercultural,” and many student organizations are home to and celebrate the diverse identities of our student body.

One of the many ways in which we, as a college, affirm diversity is the upcoming interfaith forum. This forum is co-sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Public Engagement, College Ministries, The Center for Intercultural Engagement and Student Success, the WGST program, and the Religion department. From April 4-6 this year, Luther College hosts a forum to educate about and to facilitate the experience of interfaith encounters and religious diversity.

Our interfaith forum will be attended by scholars and practitioners from around the world, faith leaders from Iowa, as well as students, faculty, and staff from colleges and universities in the Midwest. On Friday (04/05), Dr. Arie Kiezel from Haifa University will offer workshops on holocaust education, Dr. Louis Komjathy from the University of San Diego on contemplative studies, and Mother Katherine, mother superior of the St. Xenia Metochion Monastery, on racial healing. All three of them will address the challenges to interfaith collaboration and multifaith existence in a public forum Thursday evening (04/04) in the CFL.

On Friday afternoon (04/05), Amy Chicos (Decorah) will introduce interested participants to a shamanic journey, Laura Myoko Demuth (Decorah Zen Center) to Zen meditation, and Pt Upreti (Hindu Temple and Cultural Center Des Moines) to Hindu worship. Friday evening there will be an open discussion on religious bigotry and interfaith collaboration in the Midwest led by Timothy Knepper (Drake University) and Kathy Garms (Abdelkader Education Project). On Saturday, students from Luther College, Drake University, and Simpson College will present their research and reflections on religious diversity, Kathy Garms will present the work of the Abdelkader Education Project, and the Interfaith Youth Core will offer workshops on interfaith literacy and leadership.

What is the rationale of hosting such a forum at Luther College? Luther College embraces the religious life as well as a Lutheran identity amidst religious diversity. Our mission statement explicitly embraces religious diversity and declares Luther College a home for people from all religious backgrounds. We strive to create a culture not only of hospitality but also one of belonging where people from all backgrounds can feel at home. Therefore, the goals of the interfaith forum are educational insofar as it will present a variety of religious practices and beliefs. In the spirit of experiential learning, the forum will take this education about and, in some sense, scholarship on religions and interreligious encounters out of the classroom and allows us to experience and practice it. In some sense, the interfaith forum will bring the world to Luther (in a reversal of our study away programs) and provide training for global citizenship on campus. This way, it will allow us to build bridges, create understanding and compassion, and provide a road to social equality and peace.

Of course, some people may feel that interfaith encounters are daunting since they challenge our identity and question our understanding of truth. It is true that these encounters may be intimidating and challenging but they do not have to. First of all, religious traditions and religious identities are not a matter of right or falseonly specific truth claims are. And, as it should be clear to everyone, there are not only conflicting truth claims between thinkers and beliefs from different traditions but also between thinkers and beliefs from one and the same religious tradition. Actually, one cannot only find difference and diversity between religious traditions but also within one tradition, one institution, one theology, and even within the thought of one single person. Difference and diversity is not only outside of “us” and “myself” but also and, most importantly, within. It is a common mistake to think that identity is formed only against a perceived and constructed “other,” it is formed within a multiplicity, which it, therefore, reflects.

Finally, the goal of the interfaith forum is not to debate the superiority of certain truth claims against each otherwe have other forums to do that. And definitely, its goal is not conversion. The goal of the interfaith forum is to encounter people from a variety of traditions, adhering to variety of religious systems, committed to a multiplicity of religious practices. The goal is to listen, to understand, and to appreciate the diversity of religious expressions among us and to discover the diversity of religious attitudes within our communities and within ourselves. I think it is important to experience that the other practitioners and believers are as convinced of their beliefs as I am of mine. The goal is not to understand that the others are right but to realize that they have the same right I have. We may disagree but we share a common humanity, we are members the same community, we struggle with the same issues, and we traverse, at least for a while, the same territory. And as pilgrims on the same road we may learn to care for each other and create a home common to all of us, whether it is Luther College, Decorah, or the globe. This is what it means to be human, this is what it means to embrace diversity, this is what it means to live in community.

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. He is also the author of Beyond Personal Identity and the co-editor of Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. He publishes in the areas of Japanese Buddhism, comparative philosophy and intercultural understanding. At Luther College, he is the coordinator of the Asian Studies Program, organizes the student meditation group and teaches study abroad courses in Japan, Hong Kong and China.

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