Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: What do we want? Nuance!

REBECCA KNEALE GOULD

About a month ago, I came across a photo shared by Rabbi Jay Michaelson on his Substack blog, “Both/And.” It depicts a protester carrying a sign that, at first blush, looks like many a protest sign through the ages. Until you stop to read it: What Do We Want? Nuance! When Do We Want It? After an Extended Period of In-Depth Conversation. Now, that was my kind of placard. I took a screen shot of the photo, sent it to the most vexed of my friends and received a steady stream of grateful responses.

Once the semester was well and truly over (except for the grading), I printed out a large color version of the “What Do We Want?” photo and taped it to my office door. As my students turn in their final papers and my colleagues walk past my office, this passionate plea for deep listening and a willingness to learn about multiple cultural truths will be fairly hard to miss. It is not a “pro-Palestinian” statement, neither is it a “pro-Israel” statement. Simply put, it is pro-listening and pro-learning. It invites us to ask questions of one another, to listen to (and for) difference and to sit down and talk about it.

In the essay where I first discovered this photo, “The Frantic Politics of Cortisol,” Michaelson, details the protective, evolutionary function of cortisol, a “stress hormone” that will serve you well if you are being chased by a fast-moving predator. But “on a communal level,” Michaelson writes, “cortisol is often deeply destructive — and wildly overvalued. On Right, Left, and Center we live in a time in which displaying the symptoms of rage and fear is richly rewarded.” Those rewards, he continues, include extensive media attention “as if more cortisol means more truth. (It is usually the opposite.) After all, who gets excited by protesters calling for more nuance, empathy, and dialogue?”

Over the past month, as I have tracked campus protests in Vermont, across the country and now in Europe, my longings for authentic, nuanced conversation have grown side-by-side with a sense of despair about whether such a thing is still possible. Of course, this sense of despair is nothing compared to the despair wrought by war itself. Nevertheless, as a friend of mine observed, I was getting “crispy.” Then, finally, I got out of dodge and received a critical infusion of goodness and hope: three days of conversation about religious pluralism that were rich in complexity, attentive to nuance and rooted in compassion. The context was an alumni reunion and celebration at the Harvard Divinity School, where a magnificent crew had gathered to celebrate the many achievements and legacies of our shared mentor, the distinguished scholar of both Hinduism and American Religious Pluralism, Professor Diana L. Eck.

To convey the extent of Professor Eck’s impact would be a way-past-the-word-limit column in itself. But I can capture something of that impact by describing my experience of being with colleagues and former students who all spoke about how our lives (as scholars, filmmakers, activists, clergy and even a former CIA operative) were deeply influenced by Eck’s example.

Actress Amy Brenneman spoke about learning empathy by studying the religions of the world in the way that Professor Eck deftly taught them, as if from the inside out. Anantanand Rambachan, a scholar of Hinduism and author of Pathways to Hindu-Christian Dialogue, described the trials and rewards of keeping up multi-religious friendships in a time of growing Hindu nationalism. He articulated his increased commitment to identify and work against those elements within his own religious tradition that were rigid, unwelcoming or non-inclusive. In so doing, he echoed the essence of a conversation I had had earlier that morning with a former undergraduate classmate who is now serving a joint UCC- Methodist congregation (a pluralist adventure in itself!) As we walked a dimly remembered route from the Law School to the Div School, my clergy friend reflected on how she saw her role in this moment: to call out the worst legacies of white Christian nationalism, while putting forward a revolutionary, justice-seeking Christian vision.

Still later in the day, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Ali Asani, spoke with tremendous empathy for the current plight of Gazans and Israelis alike, making no attempt to “take sides” or engage in moral one-upmanship. He solemnly named the tragedies, articulated the complexities of the challenges before us and then leaned into the beauty of pre-colonial South Asian literature as a source of hope for us all. As Asani wrote in his essay honoring Professor Eck, “One can easily understand how the non-binary worldview (neither “Hindu” nor “Muslim”) of these ancient poetic traditions and their key messages — self-empowerment, critique of those in power and their hypocrisy, social  inequity, the importance of individual inner search — would resonate with those who are alienated by contemporary movements of religious exclusivism and their discourse of hatred and ‘othering.’” 

Our alumni conference proved to be a balm for my tired and somewhat battered soul. As befits a scholarly gathering, plenty of multi-syllabic words were spoken. But every speaker who stepped up to the podium did so in a posture of deep listening and desire for genuine engagement, a posture we had all learned from our much-admired mentor, Professor Eck. Most reflections were centered on questions, not answers. No one dug in their heels or uttered pat slogans. Everyone — from age 82 to 22 — displayed a genuine eagerness to learn. And in this stately room, chock full of Ph.D.’s, the virtues that were most on display were those of curiosity and humility. That isn’t typical. But for this community devoted to the hard (and fun) work of religious pluralism, these virtues are essential for that good work to be done.

To be clear, I am all for worthy protests and have dodged tear gas and police at various points in my own protest life. I’ll support any truly non-violent call to bring warfare to a definitive end. But protests, counter-protests, and unwanted police responses are so often shot through with “communal cortisol,” aggressiveness, forceful demands and media hype. Sometimes, alas, they can become their own occasions for violence, thereby risking distraction from the causes that they seek to address. In such contexts, I try to remind myself that another, better world is possible. A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to visit and help create such a world. Like a journey to Brigadoon, it was all a bit magical and fleeting. Nevertheless, for the moment, it was enough.

For those whose eyes light up when they see the phrase “for further reading,” here are some suggestions:

• Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Beacon Press, 1993),

• Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (Harper San Francisco, 2001) and, hot off the press, 

• Jennifer Howe Peace and Elinor J. Pierce, eds. Pilgrimage, Place and Pluralism: Essays in Conversation with Diana Eck (Red Elixir, 2024). This anthology includes essays by Anantanand Rambachan and Ali Asani, who are mentioned above, as well as by Middlebury College President, Laurie L. Patton and yours truly. 

Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities.

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