Multiple Religious Belonging – September 2013

Question: How do people of multi-religious belonging engage in interreligious or trans-religious work?

Publication Month: September 2013

The only answer in which I have any confidence is: Time will tell.

Some who describe themselves in this way, I still describe differently. For example, there are a good many people who have been deeply influenced by both Buddhism and Christianity. I would describe most of them as Buddhized Christians or Christianized Buddhists.

There are a good many people deeply committed to a historical consciousness informed by Christian values. They see Buddhist meditation and thought as contributing to the realization of their goals. I consider them to be Buddhized Christians. Their deepest commitment is working toward the Commonwealth of God, however they name it. They appropriate Buddhist meditation toward that end.

On the other side there are a good many Buddhists who are troubled by the limitations of Buddhist involvement in issues of justice or of ecological sustainability. They see that Christians more readily move into these fields. They find that they can join Christians in these endeavors and be supported in doing so by revaluing elements in the Buddhist tradition. Indeed, they feel that the compassion prized by Buddhists calls for deeper involvement in the critique of systems of exploitation. But the deeper goal remains the realization of the emptiness of all things, especially themselves. I consider them Christianized Buddhists.

Both of these groups can be leaders in interreligious dialogue and work. They are rooted in one tradition but deeply appreciate another and understand it from within. They can help both their colleagues in their home tradition and members of the other tradition to understand both.

I realize there are an increasing number of people who do not fit this model. Some of them are syncretists. They aim to develop a new understanding that draws on multiple traditions, favoring no one of them over the others. If one really does this, then one can enter the interreligious dialogue from a definite position, namely, the one that draws on many without identifying with any. The Bahai have actualized something of this sort. They can certainly enter creatively into the dialogue in much the way that the others do. They may well understand themselves to do so from a more advanced standpoint.

But the questioner probably presupposes something different. Some people prefer to deal with several traditions in their fullness. When they engage in Buddhist practice, they may act fully as Buddhists. Yet they may also be observant Jews, acting in that community also wholeheartedly. This is a kind of multiple belonging that I do not really understand. That, I realize, is my problem, not that of those who identify themselves in this way. I have a need to integrate the various aspects of my experience and belief as much as possible.  Others do not feel such a need. My further comments may, therefore, prove mistaken over time.

I see two ways in which a plural belonger can enter the dialog. One would be by defending the desirability of plural belonging. One might argue, for example, that practices are separable from beliefs. One could then urge that the practices of several traditions have their own values, and that wholehearted practice of several is more beneficial than the practice of only one. In this case, the issue of inconsistencies does not arise. The members of traditions that connect practice closely with beliefs can engage this view that such connections are not needed and are, perhaps, detrimental. This can be an enrichment of the interreligious dialogue.

Another form of this first way to enter dialogue would be to allow some importance to beliefs but to disconnect them from any notion of a given objective reality to which they might refer rightly or wrongly. A pragmatic theory of truth could be used to affirm multiple truths without concern for their coherence. The many difficulties with the correspondence theory of truth open the door to this kind of position. That I do not favor it only says that my role in the dialog will be a different one.

The second way a multiple belonger can participate in the ongoing dialogue is to speak out of one tradition at a time. In one context she can speak as a Hindu, in others, as a Muslim. When speaking as a Hindu, the fact that she can also speak as a Muslim, taking quite different positions, is not relevant. In that place, and at that time, she speaks out of deep commitment to Hinduism.

Practically speaking, there are people who can represent more than one tradition in dialogue. Thus far, most of them do so out of their appreciation attained through study and interaction. They are not actually multiple belongers. But it may be that multiple belongers will be able to function this way still better.

Although I have confessed to my difficulty with multiple belonging, I should make clear that I have great respect for its practitioners. They are to be contrasted with the “spiritual, but not religious” position that is increasingly prominent. The “not religious” usually means free from any long-term commitment and not belonging to any community. In some cases, there may be an authentic spiritual quest involved. I do not want to be personally judgmental. As the old saying goes, some of my best friends are spiritual but not religious. And it may turn out that out of this climate will emerge something that does call on individuals for some responsibility to one another and to the larger whole. But I fear that the affirmation of spirituality over against religion is an expression of the individualism that undermines existing communities without replacing them.  

In this historical situation, multiple belonging may be the most promising move for those who rightly repudiate the kinds of communities that uphold fixed traditions against one another. It may well be that multiple belonging will be the way forward that I seek along other paths.