Religious Diversity: Challenges and
Opportunities in the College Classroom
By Michelle Lelwica, associate professor of
religion at Concordia College
Concordia students visit a mosque in Cairo,
(Photo by Sheldon Green)
In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Vietnamese
Zen Master, peace activist, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh
describes an exchange that occurred at a conference
of theologians and religion professors. A conference
leader addressed the assembly: “We are going to
hear about the beauties of several traditions, but that
does not mean that we are going to make a fruit salad.”
In response, Hanh gently observed: “Fruit salad
can be delicious!” In analyzing the incident,
Hanh explains: “I do not see any reason to spend
one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit.
We human beings can be nourished by the best values
of many traditions.” Hanh isn’t advocating
that we abandon our own spiritual heritage. He is simply
suggesting that we all have much to learn from different
As a professor of religion, I agree that the “fruit
salad” Hanh envisions can be delicious intellectual
fare. Yet I encounter a good deal of “fruit salad
anxiety” among my students at a church-affiliated
college in northwestern Minnesota. Most of my students
come from Christian backgrounds, and many understand
“religious diversity” as anything that deviates
from their Christian norm. Within the assumptions students
bring to the classroom, I have come to see embedded
opportunities for cultivating a deeper understanding
of “difference.” I hope that this understanding
will enable my students to live responsibly in a world
of multiple perspectives.
Confronting Students’ Assumptions
My students enter the classroom with a range of assumptions.
These vary according to each student’s cultural
background, educational history, and personal relationship
|Preparing to Visit an Unfamiliar Place of Worship
| Contact community
leadership for permission to make such a visit
and to arrange the best time/date to bring students
to a religious service.
Ask for guidelines to share with students that
will enable them to participate
and/or observe in a respectful manner.
Invite a member of the community to speak with
the class about what to expect
during the service and (if applicable) about being
a member of a minority
Back in the classroom, ask students to reflect
on what they experienced and
observed during their visit. Encourage nonjudgmental
Consider sending a note of thanks to the community
visited and invite students to sign their names
as a gesture of appreciation.
First among these assumptions is the belief that only
one religion contains the “Truth.” This
“exclusivist” approach, as Harvard religion
scholar Diana Eck terms it, claims that other religions
are misguided at best—and damned at worst (2003).
This assumption causes students to fear that learning
about other religions is a dangerous distraction from
the one “Truth” they believe leads to salvation.
An alternative assumption suggests that, superficial
differences aside, all religions are essentially the
same. Although this “universalist” approach
is less divisive than its “exclusivist”
counterpart, it diminishes the genuine differences between
religions. Most Buddhists, for example, do not believe
in a supreme divine being, and few if any Muslims would
recognize the divinity of Christ. By downplaying such
differences, my students deprive themselves of the opportunity
to learn from the insights of another tradition. They
may also inadvertently perpetuate a kind of religious
imperialism, interpreting the “underlying commonality”
that supposedly unites all religions through a particular
tradition’s beliefs (such as a Christian interpretation
A variation of the “universalist” approach
is “inclusivism,” the view that persons
from “other” religions are included
in the salvation offered by the “true” religion
(Eck 2003). Like the “universalist” perspective,
“inclusivist” perspectives fail to fully
appreciate the actual differences among religions and
tacitly promote a homogenizing spiritual agenda. Inclusivists
see their own tradition as the culmination of other
religions, which they deem incomplete by comparison.
In the “inclusivist” view, religious “others”
are neither threats nor opponents, but potential converts
to the most “correct” path.
|Students Respond to
coming to college, any
knowledge I had about other religions
than my own (Christianity) came
from people within my church, which
means that all this ‘knowledge’ was
very biased. I arrived onto a campus
that has taught me how learn from
other religions. I have found that when
studying religions you do not have to
believe what that religion teaches, you
must only be able to understand how
they have arrived at that belief. More
importantly I have learned how to
strengthen my own religious practices
by seeing how others have put their
faith into practice and then mirroring
that in my own life and faith.”
(STUDENT, junior religion
major at Concordia)
“Learning about religions other
than my own has been enriching,
challenging, fruitful, and lifegiving.
I’ve discovered some of the
complexities of religion in society and
culture, and perhaps, in doing so, have
come closer to seeing what it means
to live peacefully in a diverse, colorful
(ANNA ROHDE, junior religion
major at Concordia)
These three assumptions are common among students who
are themselves religious. But what about students who
identify as agnostic or “still searching”?
These students arrive with different suppositions, such
as the belief that those from dominant traditions, especially
Christianity, want to impose their beliefs on others.
This perception reflects the historical legacy of religious
imperialism, in which Christians sought to save religious
“others” from their supposedly godless ways.
It also reflects U.S. culture’s contemporary association
of Christianity with the religious right and other exclusivist
The four preceding assumptions aside, students often
approach religious studies with a sense of general apprehension.
One self-aware student expressed her anxiety by admitting,
“I’m afraid that learning about another
religion may cause me to lose faith in my own tradition.”
It may seem obvious that learning about another religion
need not require conversion to that religion, but students
do not always grasp the distinction between understanding
a religion and adhering to a religion.
Yet this distinction is the basic premise for the academic
study of religion. Studying diverse religions is a wonderful
way for students to discover that one need not subscribe
to a spiritual worldview in order to appreciate its
meaning in the lives of those who hold it dearly. It
is also an effective way for students to cultivate the
kind of intellectual empathy they need to take seriously
the views of “others.”
Strategies for Countering Resistance
Just as students enter the classroom with a range of
assumptions, I find a range of approaches useful in
countering their resistance toward religious studies.
Many of these are particularly effective in addressing
specific types of resistance, but all can be useful
in any context.
Early in the class, I ask my students to reflect on
terms in their own tradition that have been used dogmatically,
such as “salvation.” As we analyze traditional
imagery associated with “salvation” (such
as the pearly gates of heaven), the metaphorical nature
of such language becomes apparent to many students.
I often point out etymological roots to broaden students’
conventional views—the word “salvation,”
for instance, is related to the Latin salve (“good
health”). In addition, by comparing concepts with
which students are familiar with similar concepts from
other traditions (comparing “salvation”
to moksha or nirvana, for example), I invite students
to consider the functions concepts like “salvation”
serve for people in various traditions.
|Suggested Readings on Religious Diversity
Ariaraja, S. Wesley. 1992. The Bible and
People of Other Faiths. Maryknoll: Orbis
H. 1999. The Divine Deli:
Religious Identity in the North American
Cultural Mosaic. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Eck, Diana. 2002. A New Religious America:
How a “Christian Country” Has Become
World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York: HarperOne.
—. 2003 . Encountering God: A
Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras.
Boston: Beacon Press.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1995. Living Buddha,
Living Christ. New York: Riverhead Books.
Knitter, Paul F. 2004. The Myth of Religious
Superiority. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Kwok, Pui-lan. 2005. Postcolonial
Imagination and Feminist Theology.
Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox
Plantinga, Richard J., ed. 1999.
Christianity and Plurality: Classic and
Contemporary Readings. Malden, MA:
Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.
Sacks, Jonathan. 2002. The Dignity of
Diff erence: How to Avoid the Clash of
Civilizations. New York: Continuum.
I also encourage students to attend the services of
religious communities that are unfamiliar to them. Because
my students are predominantly Christian, I arrange visits
to the local mosque or synagogue to give them an embodied
experience of another tradition. Study abroad opportunities
can also provide rich, multidimensional encounters with
other religions that enhance students’ understanding
of the diversity of spiritual worldviews. Whether at
home or abroad, visits to religious services require
careful planning so that the experience is positive
both for students and for the community being observed.
Students have indicated that these close encounters
with religious “difference” made them more
aware of the sincerity and validity of other people’s
One of the most effective ways to deconstruct students’
preconceived assumptions about other traditions is to
encourage them to consider diversity within
as well as among traditions. Just as there
are various ways to be Christian—from the Baptist
fundamentalist to the liberal Catholic to the evangelical
environmentalist to the African Pentecostal to the monastic
contemplative (to name just a few)—so there are
various ways to be Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish,
or Native American. Even a relatively homogenous classroom
contains enough intellectual diversity to generate heated
debate. Ultimately, when students recognize intra-religious
diversity, they find stereotypes about religious “others”
difficult to maintain.
Finally, historical reviews can help students better
understand the role religion plays in the world. A survey
of the history of Christian missionary work reminds
students to consider the applied outcomes of the belief
that “there is only one true religion.”
Similarly, a review of the historical relationship between
religion and politics reminds students that Christianity
is not commensurate with the religious right. When studying
Christianity, students often benefit from readings by
postcolonial, liberation, and feminist authors, whose
ideas challenge the superiority complex that has historically
plagued Christianity. Although I have referred specifically
to Christianity here, this historical approach can apply
to other religions as well.
The Fruits of Making Salad
Pluralists like Diana Eck demonstrate that dialogue
with religious “others” can not only enhance
spiritual self-awareness, but also generate the collective
wisdom needed to address global problems, from poverty
and racism, to HIV/AIDS and hunger, to war and environmental
destruction (2003). I see my classroom as a forum for
this kind of dialogue, providing a space for students
to consider a variety of spiritual insights that might
help them address the most pressing issues of the twenty-first
Despite its considerable challenges, this work is rewarding.
I once explained to Christian students in my introductory
religion course that the Muslim practice of praying
five times a day addresses humans’ propensity
to forget their deepest values and behave in a self-centered
manner while engaging with the world. Many of my students
nodded as I offered this explanation, presumably recognizing
this propensity in themselves. Helping my students appreciate
Muslim tradition was particularly gratifying given the
stereotypes about Islam that flourish in the United
States today. It also underscored for me how studying
diverse religions can be a way for my students to enrich
their own spiritual self-understanding.
Returning to the fruit salad metaphor, I would observe
that few of us live in a world that consists entirely
of apples or oranges. Whether religious diversity becomes
a blessing or a burden will depend a great deal on the
perspective we cultivate. Educational practices that
help our students approach difference with curiosity,
understanding, respect, and appreciation are crucial
for their responsible participation in a diverse but
deeply interconnected world.
Eck, D. 2003 . Encountering God: A spiritual
journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon
Hanh, T. N. 1995. Living Buddha, Living Christ. New
York: Riverhead Books.