Eboo Patel’s Davis Lecture Explores Religious Diversity

In a talk filled with stories and observations, bible quotes and references to modern texts, stories of survival, Broadway show tunes and personal growth experiences, Patel presented the second of two Davis Visiting Professor of Judeo-Christian Values lectures this semester. 

The professorship was established in 1988 through the generosity of Thomas G. and Nancy B. Davis. It enables the holder to examine Judeo-Christian values and embody them for the benefit of students and faculty, culminating in a lecture for the community.

Patel is a leading voice in the movement for interfaith cooperation and the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a national nonprofit organization working to make interfaith cooperation a social norm. In his introduction, Vice President Academic Affairs and Dean Mark Schneider said of Patel, “I have always been impressed by his ability to stake out a challenging view point and then work cordially, humbly, flexibly and persuasively to bring people together around it.”

Having also visited the Ursinus campus during the past academic year, Patel is familiar with the Ursinus core curriculum and spent this day meeting with faculty, staff and students. He was also the guest lecturer in one of Danielle Widmann Abraham’s philosophy and religious studies classes.

“Because I’ve had the opportunity to observe how you organize your educational experience here, I want to take a few minutes to reflect on how diverse religious practices, traditions and communities have helped me answer those four questions,” he said, referencing the Ursinus Quest core curriculum. 

To frame the talk, Patel started by asking, “What is it that we learn from other religious traditions? What is it that we learn that forms us, guides us and helps us answer the four questions that are at the heart of a liberal arts education?”

“In my life I have found different religious traditions have offered me windows, horizons into these questions,” he said.

Patel told the story of Canadian interfaith scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith who, in the early 1940s, was sent by the Canadian Mission Society to be a teacher at Forman Christian College in Lahore (in present day Pakistan). The students and faculty were trying to build a community that was religious but religiously diverse, he said.

There, Smith “grew to admire the religious practices of these other people” and came to believe that living in this religiously diverse society was the future. The experience caused him to ask those vital questions, and Patel tied the story back to the core curriculum.

 “It’s an experience that I think Ursinus College students get to have on a daily basis,” he said.

“All around us religion is playing an extremely challenging and dangerous role,” he said, explaining that the conflicts that arise from difference in religious beliefs prompt us to ask How do we live together?

Patel also wove in examples and references to the Japanese tsunami, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, Hindusism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hamilton the musical. The talk concluded with questions from the audience and open and frank responses from Patel. 

“Different faiths help give us different categories with which to think about the world,” he said. —By Monique Kelly