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Diana Eck, Professor, Interfaith Educator, and Author to Retire After 49 Years at Harvard

From religionnews.com

Dr. Diana Eck, who holds a Ph.D. in the comparative study of religion from Harvard University and has taught at Harvard for 49 years, has announced that she will retire later this year. Throughout her career, Eck’s work focused on interfaith education, embodied in Harvard’s Pluralism Project, along with Indian religions.

She is known widely for her efforts to educate people across America, not just those attending her classes at Harvard. Reflecting on the hardest thing she has faced, Eck said:

I think the hardest thing has been the realization that though we have—I have and my students have—been very involved in trying to lift up the ways in which people in our society are coming together—in interfaith initiatives, interfaith councils, interfaith projects, literally all across America,” she said, “but to realize that despite our vision of how important this is, there are many people today who are still very surprised that all of these strangers are here with us, and, basically, would like them all to go home.

(Religion News Service)

The Pluralism Project, established by Eck in 1991, has worked to study and interpret religious life in America. It offers in-depth accounts of the history, beliefs, and current status of 17 religions or religious categories in the United States, including Buddhism, Daoism, Shinto, Hinduism, and Confucianism.

In addition to building a public education platform, her work at Harvard has inspired many others in their careers studying religion.

Jonathan Ebel, professor of religion at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studied with Eck in the 1990s. He remembers the difficulty of learning about religions on the ground then, “I was the one who had to open up the Yellow Pages and look under C for churches because it turned out that’s where almost all of these places were listed—Buddhist temples and Hindu temples and mosques and Sikh gurdwaras.” (Religion News Service)

William Graham, a former graduate-student colleague who later was dean of Harvard Divinity School, added, “Diana was superb at bringing her vision for a better comprehension of the vast religious diversity of the USA together with the diverse array of talent in our university students to build a long-lasting research and idea base from which she could realize the project’s goals in very tangible ways.” (Religion News Service)

From religionnews.com

Stretching beyond interfaith work, Eck focused on the place of women in religion, inviting women from several faiths to Harvard in 1983 and again in 2003 to discuss “Women, Religion and Social Change.”

In a gathering of women in New York after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Eck sought to comfort Muslims, Sikhs, and others who were quickly becoming targets of retribution. Beyond this, she hoped to reinvigorate efforts to educate the public about different religions.

“We can speak honestly about what it is that is happening in our own community,” she said after the meeting with women in New York. “That’s not something that scholars are going to be able to penetrate very immediately.” (Religion News Service)

Most recently, Eck has supported the pro-Palestinian protests at Harvard, acknowledging the deaths of Israelis and Jews in the Hamas-led attack on October 7, 2023, but focusing on the enormous loss of life, particularly the thousands of children, in Gaza in the ensuing months.

“When I look at the tents that have been in Harvard Yard, I think the most dramatic part of it—and the part that I believe the students care most about—is a long canvas that stretches basically from the gate of the university all the way to the administration building, on which students have written over the last months, the names and ages of the people who have been killed in Gaza,” she said. (Religion News Service)

Among those indebted to her work are Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, and Simran Jeet Singh, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program. The two are among more than a dozen contributors to Pilgrimage, Place, and Pluralism: Essays in Conversation with Diana Eck (Red Elixir 2024).

Patel described Eck as “perhaps the single most influential figure in American interfaith work in the 1990s” and Singh added, “Professor Eck’s sustained efforts demonstrate how academics can utilize their expertise — from a place of care and compassion — to help make our world a better place.” (Religion News Service)

Eck said that she hopes the Pluralism Project will continue to foster dialogue and engagement with religion in America.

“I think we’ve kind of got the ball rolling, and we will try to keep what is on our website up to date,” she said. “People can use it, utilize it, build on it, teach from it, and all that stuff until we become that utopian pluralist culture.” (Religion News Service)

See more

Harvard Pluralism Project’s Diana Eck retires after decades of research, promoting dialogue (Religion News Service)

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