SU’s Niebuhr recieves prestigious book award

staff reports 04/08/09
R. Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University, is the recipient of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s prestigious Frederic G. Melcher Book Award. Niebuhr, a former religion reporter for The New York Times, is receiving the award for his critically acclaimed book Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America (Viking Penguin, 2008). He will be recognized June 29 at the UUA General Assembly in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Phyllis O'Connell, chair of the award committee, says Niebuhr’s book is significant because it captures interfaith work going on “beneath the public radar,” to borrow a phrase from “Beyond Tolerance.”

"This book tells a post Sept. 11, 2001 story that has been ignored by the media, a story about the profound interfaith work happening in neighborhoods throughout America,” she says. “This spiritual work is going on all around us.”

Niebuhr spent four years researching and writing Beyond Tolerance. Drawing on his experiences as a journalist, he explored communities where inter-religious cooperation exceeded mere tolerance: Hindus and Quakers in Queens; Catholics and Jews in Baltimore; Baptists and Catholics in Louisville, Ky.; and Catholics and Buddhists in Los Angeles, to name a few examples.

Prior to The Times, Niebuhr covered religion for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has published extensively in anthologies and magazines, and is a frequent religious commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Niebuhr comes by the subject well; his great-uncle was renowned religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, and his grandfather was the preeminent theologian H. Richard Niebuhr.

“I am thrilled to be a recipient of the Melcher Award,” says Neibuhr, who at SU directs the Religion and Society Program; the Carnegie Religion and Media Minor; and the Luce Project in Religion, Media, and International Relations.

“This award honors the vital tradition of liberal religion, a profoundly formative current in American thought and culture. Also, it comes from the Unitarian Universalist Association, with which I feel an enduring family connection,” he says, referencing his father, Richard R. Niebuhr, who trained many future UUA ministers during his 43-year tenure as a theology professor at Harvard Divinity School.

Established in 1964, the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award is named for the late American bookseller, editor and publisher. The award is given annually to a work published in the United States during the past calendar year judged to be the most significant contribution to religious liberalism. Previous recipients include Joseph Campbell, James Carroll, Dorothy Day, Toni Morrison and Richard Rodriguez.

To learn more, visit the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award information page uua.org/giving/awardsscholarships/fredericg./index.shtml.

Excerpt from Beyond Tolerance
By Gustav Niebuhr

Gandhi is the gold standard when it comes to talking about interreligious respect. On the night that India became independent from Britain, the goal for which he had worked so hard, Gandhi avoided the ceremonies in Delhi and stayed in Calcutta with members of India’s Muslim minority. He had wrestled much of his life with the question of how to relate to a plurality of faiths. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, he told of growing up with almost daily experience of encounters that defied caste and faith boundaries, as a result of his father’s openness to speaking with people across Hinduism’s internal lines as well as with those of other religions.

The senior Gandhi served as a minister to one of India’s princes. Jain monks visited the family, accepted gifts of food, and had friendly discussions with Gandhi’s father. The elder Gandhi also had Muslim and Zoroastrian friends who, the son reported, would talk to him about their religions, to which he listened with respect. Gandhi at first felt, he said, tolerant of other faiths. But later in life, he found that insufficient as a basis for dealing with non-Hindus. Instead, he adopted a position he described as respecting all religions as equals. He described the world’s major religions as being like branches of a tree, in which the trunk contained a dedication to truth and nonviolence.

“Tolerance may imply a gratuitous assumption of the inferiority of other faiths to one’s own,” he wrote, “and respect suggests a sense of patronizing, whereas ahimsa”—that is, nonviolence—“teaches us to entertain the same respect for the religious faiths of others as we accord to our own, thus admitting the imperfection to the latter.”

CATEGORY: Religion and Spirituality
TAGS: Frederic G. Melcher Book Award,Joseph Campbell, James Carroll, Dorothy Day,theology professor,Carnegie Religion,Hindus,Quakers,Queens,Harvard Divinity School,Toni Morrison,Richard Rodriguez,Unitarian Universalist Association,Syracuse University,Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America,Viking Penguin,Phyllis O'Connell.
EDITION: The Eagle

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