Multiple Religious Belonging -- Possible?

by Rev. Dr. Jesse F. Tanner

This article was originally published on July 7, 2011 in Rev. Tanner’s blog Embracing Plurality, Engaging the Other, Living the Questions.

by Rev. Dr. Jesse F. Tanner

This article was originally published on July 7, 2011 in Rev. Tanner’s blog Embracing Plurality, Engaging the Other, Living the Questions.

In our current world of increasing globalization and religious plurality, there has been one particular issue that often goes un/under-treated:  multiple religious belonging. Investigations into people's expressions of what they've learned from other religious traditions and how other religions have influenced their self-understanding as a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc., show that many have described themselves as having been so impacted that they "belong" not only to one tradition but, to some extent, the other tradition as well.

This raises a number of questions: What is meant by "belonging? Is it even possible to truly or honestly claim to be both Christian and Buddhist or some other combination? And how could a situation like this not lead to a kind of misappropriation or misuse of one or more religions or lead to a dispelling of the distinct uniqueness of each tradition? In the face of these issues, I want to suggest a different linguistic universe we might use for conversation. It is possible to genuinely and authentically make these kinds of multi-religious claims while also not denigrating the richness and uniqueness of any particular religion or heritage.

There is a growing amount of literature on this very theme. See Many Mansions: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity (Wipf & Stock, 2002), which is edited by Catherine Cornille and offers a number of Christian perspectives on the complexities of the problems that come with this topic. Also see the academic articles Peter C. Phan, "Multiple Religious Belonging: Opportunities and Challenges for Theology and Church," Theological Studies (2003), which argues for the possibility for multiple religious belonging through an "inclusive pluralism," andGideon Goosen, "An Empirical Study of Dual Religious Belonging," Journal for Empirical Theology (2007), which presents a rather convincing case that such a phenomenon does, in fact, exist in the world.

My own understanding has been influenced significantly by German theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel. His work sets out the possibility of multiple religious belonging grounded in an interpretation of religion and religious experience as fundamentally and primarily (though not exclusively) individual. This means that, while we are definitely social beings, our "religiosity" or "spirituality" is basically a personal, individual issue. Along with this claim, he offers a re-conceptualization of the language used to speak of this issue. Rather than speaking of "multiple religious belonging," which suggests that religions are these static, unchanging institutions to which we adhere and are either "in" or "out," we ought to speak of "multiple religious identity." This conveys a clear concern for the individual's subjective experience and expression of religiosity that is grounded in engagement with the continually developing and dynamically evolving social networks of meaning we call "religions."

With this framework we can speak of one's individual religious identity being composed of religious and spiritual elements encountered from more than one tradition or heritage. I'll use myself as an example. I'm not only a husband to my wife and a father to my son, but also a brother to my sister, a son to my parents, a friend to my friends and a colleague to co-workers. My individual identity is made up of a plurality of relational ingredients. 

This is also the case concerning individual religious identity. My identity is primarily shaped by the Christian tradition, and also more than one denomination within the Christianity, but my identity is also shaped and influenced by my interactions and exchanges with especially Buddhists, Muslims, Jews , New Age practitioners, and Atheists with whom I've come into contact about religious-spiritual truth. I have found religious elements within these traditions that I experience as good, true and beautiful. One is able to integrate and incorporate elements from the religious other into one's individual religious identity so that one might truthfully and authentically speak of having a multiple religious identity as an individual human person.

This multifaceted process is a type of transformation by integration of religious otherness and difference. One's religious worldview is enhanced, expanded and illuminated by these blesssed exchanges during interfaith encounter. such that multiple religious identity is not only possible but actual in the lives of people all over the world.

Published with the author’s permission.

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