A Q&A with interfaith leader Eboo Patel
Interfaith leader Eboo Patel visited St. Olaf College virtually at the end of October for a broad series of discussions with campus leaders and students hosted by the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community.
A former member of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Faith Council, Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a national nonprofit working toward an America where people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions can bridge differences and find common values to build a shared life together. He has written several books, including Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, which was the All-Community Read and Common Read at St. Olaf this year.
Patel has been named a Fellow with the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community through August 2021. Continuing his work with St. Olaf students, faculty, staff, and Regents, Patel will further strengthen interfaith engagement and religious inclusivity on the Hill, and help the college prepare students more effectively for life and work within religiously diverse communities.
During his St. Olaf visit, Patel spoke with community members about the importance of building a diverse and tolerant community on the Hill and beyond. Here, he answers questions about why this work matters so much for our daily lives and the unique role St. Olaf can play in interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
You talk so much about interfaith dialogue and cooperation, but can you explain why this matters so much for our daily lives?
Let’s say that you’re the principal of a very diverse high school in the Twin Cities, and a group of Muslim parents and students come in and say, “We eat halal, and there are so many pork items in the cafeteria. We’re uncomfortable even eating from a cafeteria where pork is served, but we certainly can’t eat sausage and pepperoni pizza. You need to provide other options.” And then a group of Hindus comes in and says, “We are vegetarians and we don’t eat meat, and we don’t like eating anything from a cafeteria that serves meat at all.” And then a group of football player parents comes in and says, “You better not take away pepperoni pizza Fridays.” How do you navigate a situation like that?
The point that I am making is that — whatever your professional or civic life looks like — you’re going to run into complicated issues around religious diversity. What if you are a doctor and the hospital says that when the brain scan goes “flat,” you declare the patient deceased, but the patient’s family says that death is declared when breath is extinguished, such as in a Buddhist tradition or an Orthodox Jewish tradition? How do you navigate that? These are the everyday issues around religious diversity that — whether you are a doctor or a diplomat or a fashion designer — you are going to encounter, and the first time you encounter that should not be at the bedside of your Buddhist patient.
Then how do we reconcile viewpoints and faith traditions where people find themselves at odds? For example, would a Sikh student whose tradition is not to follow other religions’ dietary restrictions eat alongside a Hindu student?
I think that’s what makes this work so interesting. What do you do? I don’t think there’s an easy answer, and I just think that if you’re a doctor or a high school principal or a social worker or an entrepreneur, you are going to run into issues around religious diversity literally all the time. At the very least, you need to have a radar screen for those issues; you need to recognize them as issues around religious diversity, and it would be really nice if you had some interfaith literacy and interfaith leadership skills to navigate them. And don’t think it’s going to be easy. Diversity is not rocket science; it’s harder. I think part of the strength of a St. Olaf education is not that it supplies answers to questions, it’s that it supplies a navigation system through complexity, and religious diversity issues are some of the most complex issues you will deal with.
“Diversity is not rocket science; it’s harder. I think part of the strength of a St. Olaf education is not that it supplies answers to questions, it’s that it supplies a navigation system through complexity, and religious diversity issues are some of the most complex issues you will deal with.”
How can a college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) foster that religious dialogue and cooperation while remaining rooted in its own single faith tradition?
I actually think that environments created by specific religious communities are more hospitable to religious diversity. There was a front-page article in the New York Times six or seven years ago that was entirely about how international Muslim students preferred Catholic universities because a “secular” university isn’t neutral; it also has a viewpoint, and that viewpoint is often dismissive of religion. It is absolutely the case that many people from diverse religions prefer educational environments that were built by a specific religion because they, at the very least, understand religiosity.
What do you say to people who believe that their faith is exclusive, or people who are made uncomfortable by others’ religious practices? How do we promote acceptance?
I just assume that people believe that their religion has the fullness of the banquet. It’s kind of like a “is water wet?” kind of thing. Why should that surprise any of us? The issue is not getting people to believe less in the fullness of their tradition. The issue is encouraging them to illuminate the parts of their tradition that promote cooperation — not acceptance, but cooperation. What does it look like for an Evangelical Christian and a traditionalist Muslim and an Orthodox Jew to perform a heart surgery together? I don’t think that’s just a practical matter. I think that there is something of their faiths involved — my wild guess is that one of the reasons they became medical professionals is because they felt called by their diverse faiths. One of the reasons that they strive for excellence is because it’s a value of their diverse faiths. One of the reasons that they cherish life is because it is grounded in their faiths. So you now have a concrete issue around which these three individuals are engaging, and it’s a wonderful way to promote a conversation about religion, which is not abstract but actually very focused. What is it about your religion that inspires you to cooperate as heart surgeons with people who are very different from you to save a life?
“The issue is not getting people to believe less in the fullness of their tradition. The issue is encouraging them to illuminate the parts of their tradition that promote cooperation — not acceptance, but cooperation.”
Is that something we can find in people from all faith traditions?
I think that American hospitals are an exceptional example of this. The scenario I just gave you is happening in a dozen hospitals in the Twin Cities right now. There are people from a variety of religious convictions who are working to save lives, in part because of their religious conviction. In fact, they’re probably working at a hospital started by a religious community. Part of what’s interesting to me is that it is so common that we take it for granted. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, “The hospital down the street is the best example of religious cooperation I have ever seen.” We just take it for granted, but it actually requires a lot of interfaith literacy and interfaith leadership to be good at that work.
What would you say to people who aren’t part of a faith tradition or people who are in the margins of belief and faith? What is their role in this cooperation?
If you’re a doctor and you’re an apatheist — you don’t have a tradition yourself, and it’s not important to you — but you’re working with a Muslim who says, “I need to leave for 10 minutes for the mid-afternoon prayer,” or you’re working with an Orthodox Jew who says, “I can’t eat anything unless it’s kosher,” or you’re working with a Hindu who says, “I can’t eat anything unless it’s vegetarian,” and you’re treating a Buddhist patient, to be good at your job, you need to have a radar screen for religious diversity. You need to make sure your colleagues can eat and pray. You need to make sure that your Buddhist patient’s religious convictions are being cared for. In some ways, what I want to do is center not one individual’s identity, but the problem that we have to solve.
How does a person develop that kind of radar screen to understand the traditions all around them?
That’s an excellent question. I think it starts by developing eyes that pay attention to the way religious diversity is playing out in any situation. Do a weeklong ethnography of a hospital; literally sit in the waiting room and notice the various ways that religious diversity is playing out. I think it simply begins by paying attention to the way that religion and religious diversity already exist in a variety of settings that we are already in. It’s about not taking it for granted, and that’s how it starts.
“I think it simply begins by paying attention to the way that religion and religious diversity already exist in a variety of settings that we are already in. It’s about not taking it for granted, and that’s how it starts.”
What is the connection between hatred and understanding? Do people who feel hatred toward certain religious traditions simply lack that “radar screen”?
Part of what I want to emphasize is that interfaith work is important, even if there isn’t bigotry around religion. The purpose of interfaith work is not just to mitigate the “bad stuff.” In part, I do hope that religious dialogue reduces anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, but let’s say they didn’t exist. Does that mean we wouldn’t want to do interfaith work? I don’t think so. You’d still need to know about Islam if you’re a doctor, and you still need to know about Hinduism if you’re a diplomat in India. I would prefer not to design an interfaith program around the reduction of the ugliness. I like to think of that as a natural byproduct of doing interfaith work, but the focus of interfaith work is how religion and religious diversity play out in multiple arenas of American and global life — from politics to healthcare to education to social work. What does it mean to have the knowledge base and skill set to do this well?
A great example is this: Over half of the agencies that do disaster relief in the United States are faith-based. If you work for the Red Cross or for a city in Louisiana and you are coordinating disaster response, you are working with like seven different religious communities. It would be a good idea to know what people eat and don’t eat, to know what people’s strengths are, even how to greet them and appreciate them. In that scenario, it doesn’t really matter what you think about religion. If you don’t have a sensitivity to how the Buddhists, the Bahá’ís, and the Southern Baptists are going to work together after a tornado, you’re just not good at your job. This way of thinking doesn’t center the identity of the person. It centers the challenge of the situation.
St. Olaf College is less than an hour from the memorial to George Floyd. What is the role of people of faith and no faith in supporting Black Lives Matter and racial equity?
In every religious tradition, life is sanctified because it is a gift either of God or the forces of the universe, and when life is treated with disdain, that’s a violation of not only the individual’s life but of God’s will and/or the forces of the universe. That is something that requires both lament and repair.