Monday, December 28, 2015

Multiple Religious Belonging: Sites of Divine Encounter

In Bentonville, Arkansas, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities are planning to build a shared tri-faith house of worship.

I have good friends who are Hindu who also consider themselves Christian.

I have other friends who believe they have become more committed Christians because they are also Buddhist.

Most Christians I know, myself included, are so deeply wedded to the liturgies of capitalism and nationalism that our Christianity is seriously hybridized with these religions.

All the while, in spite of these stories, most of the people I know, myself included, tend to act and operate as if we worship just one thing, as if we have just one religious belonging. Not only that, we assume that belonging to just one religion is the "right" thing. One of our tacit ideas is that religiousness requires exclusiveness in the same way marriage does in monogamous societies.

It might be a uniquely western and modern mental framework that prides itself on holding to a single, pure worldview. Quite a bit of the anxiety around relativism, globalization, secularism, seems to mistakenly believe there was once, or can be, a single, monolithic, sufficient and self-contained world one call one's very own--and that this worldview would win in a competition with other similarly self-contained worldviews.

More recently, news headlines have focused on Larycia Hawkins, a Wheaton College tenured professor suspended from teaching for wearing a hijab as an Advent discipline and stating on Facebook that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and increasing numbers of Christians, as the world watches the tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis, wonder about the deeper relationship between the two world faiths.

Much of the conversation, once it gets beyond gut reactions frustrated with Wheaton for their action or supportive, begins to discuss things like the dos-and-donts of cultural appropriation. And that conversation is indeed more complicated and interesting.

So the new book by a group of authors from the World Council of Churches, on multiple religious belonging and participation (MRP), is an excellent resource. John Thatamanil, in the opening essay, asks: How might North American thinking about religious diversity be reconfigured by contributions from a global theological community of conversation that has long had to deal with religious multiplicity? 

That's an important question, which the rest of the book takes up in greater detail. It takes the reader to places in the world where MRP is normative, India in particular. I'll come back around to that in a bit. The world's population is frequently MRP. The West is kind of unique in that westerners "select" the practices to which they are drawn.

In addition to this book's reminder that global religion has a different texture than western religion, Thatamanil also writes, "Given the omnipresence of cultural flow, the primary normative question cannot be about whether or not persons should engage in MRP. Our traditions, and we ourselves, are always already multiple" (15). 

I find this shifting of the normative question essential. Although the idea that we are all already engaging in MRP will deeply disturb anyone who believes in the purity of their "one" religion, for the rest of us, open to the idea that cultures influence one another and our histories and context shape us, the reminder that we are all already MRP can help us understand much better people who are more public about their MRP in more than one recognized religion.

Thatamanil in the remainder of his essay makes the convincing case that we shouldn't ask whether MRP should happen, but rather how to assess specific instances of MRP.

We can ask: Does this instance of MRP misappropriate the religions of others? 
We can ask: Do these two or more religions contra-indicate? Is it like taking conflicting prescription medications?
We can ask: Does this form of MRP cause existential uncertainty? This is an especially important question when evaluating those (mostly mystics) who have gone all the way to double belonging).

Thatamanil's key final thesis is worth quoting in full:
Our era requires a new kind of wisdom: the capacity to see the world through more than one set of religious lenses and to integrate into one life, insofar as possible, what is disclosed through those lenses... For lack of a better phrase, I call his binocular wisdom, an extension from binocular vision, vision generated by both eyes, the only kind that yields depth perspective.
So many emerging faith communities of which I'm aware are at the cutting edge of this. Growing congregations in our denomination are increasingly multi-denominational, representing Lutheran-Presbyterian together, or Methodist-Lutheran. Or they are intentionally multi-ethnic. Or they have binocular vision that enables them to engage urbanites, or spiritual atheists.

The next two essays in the volume consider multiple religious participation in Trinitarian, and then confessional, perspective. Mark Heim makes a compelling case that Trinitarian theology guards against exclusivism--implying that Jesus Christ cannot be an exhaustive or exclusive source for the knowledge of God--while simultaneously guarding against thoroughgoing pluralism, in that the particular confession of Christ in the Trinity maintains a non-exclusivist center.

Similarly, confessional theology, inasmuch as in Lutheran theology it remembers the mere passivus of faith in Christ, can be deepened by the conversation between MRP and confessional faith. We receive faith as a gift. We can receive the faith of others as a gift that deepens our own, even if it also makes it multiple.

Many of the remaining essays are difficult to summarize, because they inquire into specific global phenomena in MRP and religious hybridity. At least two focus on mystics in particular who have transcended single religions to belong doubly. And/or they outline the shape of specific interacts between Hindu and Christian faith in places like India and Asia. 

I found one ethical insight especially worth quoting:
If hybridity talk is to to be prevented from running into the danger of becoming just such another marketable commodity--that is, without an ethical orientation--then those articulations need to be examined critical across the various disciplines, including theology. Such critical examination needs to employ marginality as the rudder. Only then will hybridity give rise to hospitality. Inattention to margins and preventing (however inadvertent) marginality from being a rudder to reorganize hybrid identities will make us not only inhospitable but also create moral amnesia, resulting in the erasure of marginal identities. Paying attention to religious ritual sources from the margins will help theological articulations to draw from unconventional sources and engender unconventional (that is, hybrid) but hospitable multiple religious belonging (146).
Marginality as rudder.  The preceding essay had shared the tragic story of the brothels of Matthama. The religious perspective of that community ends up commodifying the bodies of young girls. It calls for a Dalit feminist theology that recognizes the oppression present not only in that religious system, but also in the church-imposed moral agenda that further banishes the sex worker's body to the margins of society, labelling her a "whore" and a "harlot," she whose sexuality needs marrying off and controlling (134).

Not all is good in any religious practice, and it is this marginality rudder in the context of religious hybridity that can move the conversation forward in the 21st century, so that "modes of religious belonging can be embraced not as problems to be solved, but as proliferating sites of divine encounter" (2).

1 comment:

  1. There isn't anything good about syncretism in the bible.