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Beyond Interreligious Dialogue and Abstract Pluralism: In Memory of John C. Raines

by Hsiao-Lan Hu

University of Detroit Mercy

On November 12, 2017, my main advisor at graduate school John C. Raines passed away. On the surface, John and I cannot be more different from each other: He was born into wealth and was white, male, cisgender, Christian, and American-born, and I am not. And yet I owe much of my career to him and he had a tremendous impact on my life and my way of teaching, in aspects that I did not fully comprehend until I read the e-festschrift written by his other former students.

Ever since I got to the United States for my graduate study, I have been made keenly aware of my “otherness” in nationality, in race, in religion, in culture, and in language. The people I encountered in the first two years of my life in the U.S. were overwhelmingly white American Christians. Despite that they were generally very well-meaning, I often found myself befuddled by the assumptions behind the questions frequently posed to me, such as “What religion are you?” You are a religion? Only one? For a person with my cultural background, that is an exceedingly odd question. Most people in East Asian cultures[1] do not consider Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in exclusive terms and do not think they need to identify with one and only one of them. Some older textbooks describe this cultural phenomenon as syncretism, and in recent years I have heard quite a few conference papers referring to it as pluralism. The underlying assumption behind the usage of the word “syncretism,” or the abstract pluralism (as will be explained below), is that the three traditions are three distinct “religions” that are learned separately and then syncretized or equally valued. That is not the way people who grow up in East Asian cultures typically approach them. In fact, most East Asians do not grow up thinking the three to be distinct “religions,” whose boundaries are clearly demarcated, before “believing in” them. The Chinese words for the three traditions simply indicated that they are “teachings,” and teachings can be applied whenever they fit a life situation. They do not have to exclude each other if they all fit, and they do not have to be “believed in” if they are irrelevant to the situation.[2] Growing up in a cultural milieu where people comfortably learn from and apply multiple “teachings,” I was made aware of my otherness whenever questions such as “What religion are you?” were posed—I obviously did not think in the same categories as the people around me, and I felt intensely uncomfortable with the unstated attempt of putting me in a box that they had conceived.

I got less self-conscious about my otherness once I moved to Philadelphia and began taking courses at Temple University. Questions of the above sort significantly decreased, but I still frequently felt that classroom discussions took for granted categories that derive out of, and only make sense in, a monotheistic framework. John was one of the few professors who never made me feel like an “other” even though his identity was in every way a sharp contrast to mine.

Looking back, I think there are three interrelated key factors that professors like John never made me feel like an “other,” whereas certain professors who constantly talked about “interreligious dialogue” always triggered in me an intense sense of otherness. First, for an activist like John,[3] religion was not about believing but about doing, and “doing” his religion involves reaching out to, empathizing with, and learning from whoever one might perceive to be different from oneself, and treating them with respect. Second, John believed that his job in the classroom was to cultivate global citizens who are comfortable with differences and can stand in solidarity with each other when facing various forms of injustice and oppression. And, third, John did not adopt what I would call “abstract pluralism,” the kind of pluralism that expects the non-dominant “others” to fit neatly into the multiple tiny homogenized boxes that the dominant group conceived for and prescribed to them.

In the traditional discourses on world religions that developed during the colonial period, non-Christian religions and cultures, much like non-Caucasian ethnicities, are managed “through the disciplinary promulgation of the supposed difference,”[4] as culture theorist Rey Chow put it, which often involve negative stereotypes based on European and American assumptions about the nature of religion.[5] Abstract pluralism that uncritically inherits this conceptualization of religions presupposes and amplifies intergroup differences while conflating intra-group ones.[6] Different religious and cultural “others” are allowed insofar as they stay distinct from both the dominant group and from each other. Nelly van Doorn-Harder points out that such an approach “does not contribute to the students’ awareness of why it is important to learn about the ‘Other’ and how this knowledge can be useful.”[7] It does not produce global citizens who can genuinely respect and learn from (and not just learn about) cultural and religious others, let alone mitigate conflicts.

In the first course I took with John, when we read Max Weber’s description and categorization about Indian and Chinese religions, I pointed out in my weekly papers that Weber made many assumptions about cultures that he had no first-hand experience with and as such was sorely mistaken in many ways. To my surprise (though not entirely—I felt comfortable pointing that out because John had already created a classroom atmosphere of questioning everything, especially assumptions[8]), John welcomed my input, took my perspective seriously, commended me on my critical analysis, and pretty much indicated that I could go ahead and pick a dissertation topic and he would be glad to be my dissertation advisor. He was very understanding about my cultural upbringing, which made me uncomfortable addressing my professors by their first names, but as soon as I defended my dissertation he insisted that I should call him by his first name, saying that, at the point my dissertation committee said “Congratulations, Dr. Hu,” he was no longer my professor and we were now colleagues of equal status. John was fully aware of all the visible differences between us (one of the first things that any student would hear in his class was his acknowledgement of being born into privilege in multiple ways, as well as his religious conviction that one should use one’s privilege to help build a more just society), but at the same time he never acted as if the existence of those differences at the moment would mean we are just different.

The values that I wish to instill in students regarding interreligious encounters[9] are those manifested in John’s actions. It is a kind of pluralism that is attitudinal and interactional, as opposed to merely conceptual; it is about being open to, and comfortable with, different others and willing to learn from them, neither assuming sameness nor ignoring differences, and without presuming others’ ways of thinking and behaving to be so fundamentally and perpetually different that they are only suitable for the homogenized “them” and not for “us.” It goes beyond the abstract pluralism or interreligious dialogue that presumes a clearly demarcated boundary between “us” and “them” – or even “us” and “you.” And it is a kind of cross-cultural respect that is not taught through discourses but through interactions. John and I never talked about interreligious encounters in any abstract terms, and yet being in his classroom and his advisee was the most meaningful encounter I have ever had with a Christian. Whether coming from a monotheistic background like John did, or coming from a “three teachings” background like I did, we both understand that perceived boundaries are artificial and ever-changing, and if due to historical and cultural circumstances they do exist, they are meant to be crossed by means of being willing to reach out to “the other” and learn.


[1] By “East Asian cultures,” I am referring to the cultures that are either Chinese or have had strong, long-standing cultural ties with the Chinese culture, such as Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, ethnic Chinese communities in Malaysia and Indonesia, and pre-Cultural-Revolution China.

[2] See my “Pluralistic Pedagogy for Pluralism,” in Teaching Interreligious Encounters, edited by Marc. A. Pugliese and Alexander Y. Hwang (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 53-54.

[3] For some of his activism, see,, and

[4] Rey Chow, Ethics After Idealism: Theory—Culture—Ethnicity—Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 117.

[5] Steven W. Ramey, “Critiquing Borders: Teaching About Religions in a Postcolonial World,” Teaching Theology and Religion 9, no. 4 (2006): 211–20.

[6] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1242.

[7] Nelly van Doorn-Harder, “Teaching Religion in the USA: Bridging the Gaps,” British Journal of Religious Education 29, no. 1 (2007): 101–13.

[8] See this tribute written by Achmad Munjid, my classmate in another course with John:

[9] For more, see “Pluralistic Pedagogy for Pluralism,” 51, 55-63.