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Many Masters?

Multiple Religious Belonging in Practice and in Principle Catherine Cornille Boston College

In less than a decade, the notion of multiple religious belonging or religious hybridity has become firmly established in scholarly and popular discourse. As growing numbers of individuals attest to belonging to more than one religious tradition, giving way to new nomenclatures (Jubu), scholars are starting to reflect on its meaning and implications for the study of religion and for theology. Since religious identity has been understood (at least in the West) as shaped in relation to one religious tradition, or to one religion at a time, the very notion of multiple religious belonging seems to fundamentally challenge traditional conceptions of religious identity. One may approach the phenomenon of multiple belonging in a descriptive mode as a practice which, though relatively new in the modern West, has been part of the history of religions since antiquity and remains firmly ingrained in the religious life of the Japanese, to name but one obvious example. In the first part of the paper, we will focus on the variety of contexts in which multiple religious belonging manifests itself in the contemporary world. It will become clear that experiences of multiple belonging differ widely, based not only on the particular individuals and religions involved, but also on the broader religious and cultural context shaping the experience. Whereas the phenomenon of multiple belonging is often approached from the perspective of the subject, or the individual engaged with different religions, one might also reflect upon it from the point of view of the religions to which individuals claim to

belong. After all, religious belonging involves a dynamic interplay between the subjective experience of belonging to a particular religious tradition and the objective or religious recognition of that experience.1 Standards of belonging and definitions of religious identity may change from age to age. But most religious communities maintain more or less clear criteria of who does and who does not belong. While I may claim to be a Hindu or a Buddhist, such claim is empty or meaningless unless confirmed by a community of Hindus or supported by their self-definition of Buddhism. Conversely, whereas a tradition may officially recognize someone as a member, that recognition means little unless it is affirmed or embraced by the individual. In the second half of the paper, we shall thus reflect on the implications of multiple belonging for the religions themselves, or on the religious perceptions of multiple religious belonging. Even though different religions may have radically differing criteria of belonging, one may point to certain general principles which appear recurrent across religious traditions and across time.

Forms of Multiple Religious Belonging Experience of multiple religious belonging may be classified in a number of ways: according to the historical period, cultural context, specific combinations of religions, intensity of identification, etc. Here, we focus mainly on the various social, cultural and religious contexts in which multiple belonging expresses itself in different forms and to various degrees in the contemporary world.

See also Raimundo Panikkars insistence on this point in On Christian Identity: Who Is a Christian? in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity. (C. Cornille, ed.) Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002, pp. 121-144.

Cultural Identity Even though the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging may seem relatively new in the West, it has been practiced for centuries as a matter of cultural identity in China and Japan. It is a well-known fact that the religious life of the Chinese has traditionally been shaped by a combination of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. And since the entry of Buddhism in Japan in the seventh century, the Japanese have practiced various forms of syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto, often without a clear awareness of the difference between the two traditions.2 The rise of hundreds of New Religions, and the reemergence of Christianity during the twentieth century have only further multiplied the possibilities for belonging in Japan. Individuals thus tend to visit a Shinto shrine at auspicious times and ages, marry in a Christian Church, visit any number of new Japanese religions in times of illness or crisis, and undergo funeral rituals in a Buddhist temple. Each religion thus serves a particular function in the lives of individuals, based on what is regarded as its particular ritual efficacy and esthetic appeal. Rather than as a personal choice, multiple belonging thus presents itself here as a cultural habit, with every religion occupying a circumscribed role within the overall national or cultural identity. Part of that identity, as many students of Asian religion have observed, is a more functionalistic or a vitalistic conception of religion, oriented toward immediate and this-worldly effect and reward. It is difficult to determine, however, whether the tendency to rely on the services of different religions and to compartmentalize them responds to an innate religious tendency, or whether such tendency is itself the result of a long tradition of religious coexistence and division of labor.

Cf. the Shingon Buddhist notion of Ryobu Shinto, or two-aspects Sinto which viewed the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu as a manifestation of the esoteric Buddhist Dainichi.

Thirst for Miracles A second type and context of multiple religious belonging which is related to the first, but differently attuned, consisting of individuals belonging to one religion, but occasionally worshipping gods or saints of another believed to possess particular powers. As such, Hindu temples dedicated to fertility-granting goddesses are visited not only by Hindus, but also by Muslim and Christian women, while the tombs of Muslim saints or the pilgrimage sights of the virgin Mary may in turn become the destination of devotees from any number of religions. In the heart of Bangalore, next to a large Catholic Church, there is an Infant Jesus shrine which is visited daily by thousands of non-Christians who come to offer devotion and pray for healing. In these cases, it is not the particular religious affiliation of the god, goddess or saint, but his or her power to answer immediate existential needs and desires (for health, a husband, children, etc.) which is the cause of appeal. For the individual involved, this is not so much experienced as multiple belonging, but rather as an attempt to tap into religious power in whatever form or religion it presents itself. In the West, this form of multiple belonging also takes the form of individuals who belong to one religion and follow a spiritual master of a different religious tradition. Even though this form of multiple belonging is generally oriented to personal spiritual growth, rather than to the hope of miraculous healings, it is ultimately based on the desire for change and transformation, and the pursuit of religious power in whatever form or religion it presents itself.

Esotericism In the contemporary West, multiple religious belonging is generally associated with the phenomenon of New Age. Though the term itself has at times been rejected, and the phenomenon variously defined, it refers in general to the personal and autonomous assimilation of teachings and practices derived from various religious traditions. In addition to religious eclecticism, some of the characteristics of New Age have been designated as this-worldliness, evolutionism, holism, psychologizing of religion and spiritualizing of psychology, and utopianism.3 Rather than regarding it as a radically new phenomenon, scholars such as Wouter Haenegraaf situate New Age within the long tradition of Western esotericism, which may be traced back to late antiquity and which finds its immediate precursor in the Theosophical tradition, founded in the late nineteenth century by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott. Characteristic of esotericism is the search for inner knowledge or illumination and for this-worldly transformation and change. Throughout history, esotericism has drawn from the teachings and practices of various religious traditions with little concern for religious hierarchy and orthodoxy. Unlike in the East, where it became part of ones cultural identity, multiple religious belonging has been regarded in the West as essentially counter-cultural. It is based on a rejection of religious dogmatism and authority and of narrow conceptions of religious identity and belonging. This may lead to a questioning of the usefulness of the category multiple religious belonging in the context of New Age. In so far as individuals here draw inspiration from a variety of different religions, they may be seen to belong to all. However, in so far as it rejects established religious conceptions of

New Age Religion and Western Culture. Leiden: Brill, 1996, p. 522.

belonging, or else defines such belonging in strictly personal terms, New Age may also be seen in terms of a complete absence of religious belonging, or as a form of believing without belonging.4

Interreligious Marriages As increasing numbers of individuals are born into families with parents from different faith traditions, multiple religious belonging is also becoming a widespread domestic reality. Couples who remain within their own respective religions may come to integrate elements of the others faith or join to some degree in the religious life of the other. For children born in such families, however, multiple religious belonging seems to become a real option. Often, parents decide to raise the child predominantly within one or the other tradition. But the direct exposure to a second religious tradition often creates a sense of double or divided loyalty. In many cases, children born from inter-religious marriages celebrate the main religious holidays and rituals of both parents traditions, whether or not with a clear sense of whether and how these different rituals and the beliefs underlying them might be reconciled. Here, multiple religious belonging presents itself as a necessity rather than a choice. At times, children may be raised within both religions and left to find their own religious path between the two traditions. This may lead to a strong sense of belonging to two traditions. But for many, it results in a stronger identification with one or the other religion, while maintaining a certain loyalty toward the other.

This expression was coined by the British sociologist Gracie Davie in her book Religion in Britain since 1945. Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Interreligious Dialogue Even though the dialogue between religions generally presupposes a firm commitment to a particular religious tradition, profound engagement with another religion may also at times lead to a sense of multiple religious belonging. All dialogue indeed involves an attempt to enter deeply into the religious life and practice of the other in order to learn not only about but also from the other. This attempt to understand the other from within may result in some degree of conversion to the religious tradition of the other, and to a sense of double belonging. The Indian Jesuit Michael Amaladoss thus famously claims to be both a Christian and a Hindu, and the Christian Zen master Ruben Habito refuses to identify uniquely with either Christianity or Buddhism. In most cases, interreligious dialogue involves a primary identification with one religious tradition which remains dominant or normative in ones engagement with the other. Such religious belonging may still allow for a powerful identification with certain beliefs and practices of the other religion. But this identification is still circumscribed by ones primary sense of belonging. This may be the case, for example, with Christians who practice Zen meditation, or with Jews who are also followers of a particular Hindu guru. Individuals belonging to one religion here appropriate teachings and practices of other religions which do not (appear to) conflict with their basic religion of identification. The primary religious tradition provides the criteria and norms according to which the truth of the other religion is discerned and integrated. Here, one religious tradition remains the primary focus of religious belonging, determining the form and degree to which one may also be seen to belong to another religion. In some cases dialogue may also lead, wittingly or unwittingly to a conversion to the other religion, or to a shift in

ones primary sense of belonging. Whereas conversion often leads to a complete rejection of ones former tradition, some may remain nostalgically attached to its symbols and rituals, or genuinely convinced of the truth of some of its teachings. However, these are now viewed and interpreted in light of ones new sense of religious belonging. In either case, one religion remains the main object of belonging, while one may only be said to belong to a second religion in a derived or analogical sense of the term. Multiple religious belonging here thus involves an unequal sense of belonging to two or more traditions. While dialogue generally involves a stronger sense of belonging to one particular religion, engagement with another may also in some few cases lead to a weakening of the normative hold of one religion over the other and to a genuinely divided sense of belonging. One religion may then play a dominant role in some areas of religious life and the other religion in others. This may manifest itself in recourse to different religions for different ritual functions. But it may also express itself in a greater pendant toward the teachings of one religion on some fundamental religious questions and to the teachings of the other religion on others. As such, individuals may come to feel a greater affinity for the Buddhist understanding of life after death, while allowing Christian teachings to take precedence in the realm of ethical issues. In a different form, this divided loyalty may also express itself in a tendency to sometimes view Christianity in the light of a Buddhist worldview and at other times view Buddhism in the light of Christianity. Here, one may speak of multiple religious belonging in the full sense of the

term. It must be noted, however, that relatively few people are able or willing to live with the personal and religious tensions and turmoil which this involves.5 A special case of multiple religious belonging, which is becoming more prevalent, is that of identification with the worldview and hermeneutical context of one religion and the symbolic framework of another. I am thinking here of the attempts of certain Christian theologians to reinterpret some of the central beliefs of Christianity (incarnation, trinity) in categories and terms derived from Buddhism and Hinduism.6 It is certainly open to debate whether or not one can speak here of multiple belonging. For those involved it is considered merely as a form of inculturation, of rendering the faith genuinely universal by reformulating the Christian message in the categories and worldviews of different cultural traditions. However, the fundamental question here is whether these philosophies can be divested from the religious traditions with which they have traditionally been identified, and to which extent Christianity itself may be divested from its own Greek philosophical background. This is too fundamental a question to further develop in this paper. But its implications for the question of multiple religious belonging are clear.

Religious Responses to Multiple Religious Belonging

The difficulty of living in such state of multiple belonging is nowhere more evident than in the journal of the French Benedictine monk Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda) who spent his life in search of a synthesis between his Advaitic experience of saccidananda and his Christian faith. Others are less concerned with logical compatibility between religious traditions, remaining in stead solely focused on the experience. Such is the case, for example, with the Trappist monk Kevin Hurt, who has recently also been ordained as a Roshi in the Zen tradition. 6 Some notable examples of this are: John Keenan, The Meaning of Christ. A Mahayana Theology. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989; and Joseph OLeary, Religious Pluralism and Christian Faith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

If religious belonging involves an interplay between subjective experience and objective or official religious recognition of that experience, then theoretical reflection on the practice of multiple religious belonging cannot but include the perspective of the religions themselves. For most religious traditions, the parameters of belonging are clearly defined. One is Jewish or Hindu by birth from a Jewish or a Hindu mother. One becomes Christian through baptism, Muslim through sincere confession of the Shahada, or Buddhist by seeking refuge in the three jewels. Some religions thus mark belonging through birth, others through rituals of initiation. The precise execution of these rituals of initiation may change through time, and differ somewhat among the different schools or traditions within a particular religion. Practical and theological pressures may also at times stretch the limits of who is said to belong. But religions do seem to accord some importance to delineating the boundaries of who does and who does not belong. Characteristic of these rituals of initiation is their claim to loyalty and commitment. A central part in religious initiation rituals is the confession of faith. This involves both a testimony and a promise to commit ones life to the fundamental principles of a particular faith tradition. This leads immediately to the question of the possibility of multiple religious belonging. Initiation as such does not necessarily imply exclusive commitment. Time permitting, one may belong to a soccer team, an orchestra ensemble, and a college sorority, without necessary conflict. However, when it comes to religious belonging, most religious traditions seem to regard full and exclusive membership if not always as a reality, at least as the ideal. Some religions may in circumstances of historical or cultural necessity concede to fulfilling a relatively confined ritual role among other religions. And most religions allow for varying degrees of

belonging, ranging from mere nominal identification with the religion of ones ancestors to full and active membership and participation. But the ultimate ideal of religious belonging is generally conceived in terms of an unreserved and undivided commitment. It thus involves not merely the signing of papers or the unreflective adopting of the family faith, but rather a sincere embrace of the truth of the teachings and an attempt to conform ones actions to the principles and precepts of the tradition. This ideal of exclusive commitment is usually associated with monotheistic religions, based as they are on belief in one God, and on claims to a privileged or unique understanding of the will of God. However, full commitment and single belonging also represents the ideal within religions which tend to be regarded as more open and tolerant than the Semitic religions. While Buddhism may not require exclusive belonging from its lay practitioners in Japan, it does demand a complete and single focus from its monks, nuns and priests. And even though most religions in Japan have come to recognize the reality of multiple belonging, some (such as the Nichiren Buddhist schools) have come to reject the truth of all other religions and forbid participation in them.7 This emphasis on full and unique belonging may be attributed to religious jealousy or institutional possessiveness. But I wish to suggest that there may also be deeper religious or spiritual reasons underlying this ideal. As demonstrated above, multiple religious belonging often involves an emphasis on the ritual or functional dimension of religion at the expense of the theoretical or theological dimension. One may thus develop a sense of belonging to various religions in so far as they fulfill a particular role in ones life without much concern for the logical

See Jan Van Bragt, Multiple Religious Belonging of the Japanese People in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity. (C. Cornille, ed.) Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002, pp. 7-19.

or philosophical coherence of the beliefs underlying those practices. However, for the religions themselves, faith and practice are usually considered inseparable and mutually reinforcing. Rituals tend to derive their meaning and power from their particular place within a larger worldview and ritual structure, and the idea of divorcing a ritual from its conception context thus runs against the principle of religious logic and accountability. In accounting for the religious beliefs of different tradition, an immediate obstacle to multiple religious belonging lies in the reality of conflicting claims to truth. If one religion affirms the existence of a personal God and another religion denies it, one cannot logically claim to equally belong to the two religious traditions at the same time. Even though many of the beliefs and practices of the two religions may overlap, ascendancy to the truth of one would necessarily exclude simultaneous belonging to the other. In contemporary theology of religions, this problem of conflicting truth claims has been addressed in various ways, some of which may be seen to open the way to multiple religious belonging. Pluralist approaches to religious diversity, for example, emphasize the relativity of all religious conceptions of ultimate reality as historical and cultural expressions of a radically transcendent reality which is only partially grasped within different religions.8 From this perspective, multiple religious belonging may be regarded as a necessity, since every religious tradition contains only a part of the truth which is more fully grasped through a combination of religious conceptions of the absolute. We cannot here rehearse the many arguments for and against this position which have shaped

The father and main representative of this position in Christian theology is John Hick. See, for example, God Has Many Names (London: Macmillan, 1980); Problems of Religious Pluaralism (London: Macmillan, 1985) and (ed., with Paul Knitter) The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987.

the Christian theology of religions.9 Suffice it only to say that few, if any religious traditions have themselves come to embrace this pluralist conception of truth. Even though most religions may acknowledge the transcendent and ineffable nature of ultimate reality itself, each insists on the sufficiency and the truth of their own conception of it. From this perspective, multiple religious belonging muddles the waters of religious conviction. Some allowance for the possibility of multiple religious belonging may be found in the work of more traditional theologians such as Jacques Dupuis. In his theology of religions, Dupuis advances the notion of a complementarity of religions in which each religious conception of the divine supplements the other.10 This would also seem to open the way to multiple religious belonging. However, in later work, he speaks of an assymetrical complementarity in which the truth of his own faith in Jesus Christ forms the norm and guiding principle for the form and degree of complementarity between religions.11 This latter qualification would seem to suggest an unequal belonging to different religions, or the possibility of belonging to other religions only in so far as their teachings complement ones primary sense of belonging. Here, one cannot speak of multiple religious belonging in the full sense of the term, since one religion delimits the way and degree in which one is able to belong to another. Most religions may recognize the possibility of belonging to another religion in so far as that religion is reinterpreted in ones own terms. Islam, for example, may recognize the possibility of Muslims also

Gavin DCosta and Mark Heim are only some of the staunchest critics of John Hick, whose own theology of religions has developed partly against his position. 10 Jacques Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997, p. 278-279, 326. 11 Christianity and the Religions: Complementarity and Convergence in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002, pp. 61-75.

belonging to Christianity in so far Christ is viewed as a prophet, while Christianity may recognize the possibility of Christians also belonging to the Hindu tradition in so far as that tradition is seen to be fulfilled within Christianity. It goes without saying that this conception of belonging to the other tradition departs significantly from the selfunderstanding of the tradition itself, and cannot thus be regarded as religious belonging in the full sense of the term. While religious resistance to multiple religious belonging is often attributed to doctrinal pretenses or institutional jealousy, one may also attempt to understand it in terms of the internal dynamics of religious faith. The problem with multiple religious belonging is then not merely one of conflicting truth claims or theological incompatibility, but rather one of arrested spiritual development and growth. Most religious traditions insist on the importance of complete surrender of self or assent to the teachings of the tradition as a condition for spiritual growth.12 This is particularly clear in the spiritual and monastic traditions of the religions, where complete surrender and obedience to one particular spiritual master or guru forms an integral part of spiritual life and discipline. This emphasis on total surrender is based on the common religious belief that it is pride or the ego which forms the greatest obstacle to spiritual growth. Surrender to one particular teacher or teaching thus facilitates abandonment of ones own will and desire. Even in Hinduism, where individuals are encouraged to explore the teachings of different spiritual masters or gurus, complete surrender to one particular guru is ultimately regarded as the way to spiritual realization. Single religious belonging may


I may be accused of an ideal-typical approach to religious belonging and identity. However, such approach is at times necessary in order to shed light on the problem.

then be considered as necessary to attain to the highest religious or spiritual goals of a religion. From this perspective, multiple religious belonging may be seen to involve a process of selective engagement with more than one religion in which one holds back from complete surrender to any. This may save one from the risks of religious manipulation or exploitation by corrupt teachers or teachings. But it may also prevent one from experiencing the fullness and depth of any particular teaching.

Conclusion The expression multiple religious belonging has come to be applied to a wide variety of different forms of engagement with more than one religion. It may be used for longtime cultural integration of different religious traditions, or for counter-cultural religious developments. It may be a matter of cultural habit or of personal choice, of social circumstance or of religious proclivity. It may be regarded as a burden and/or as an opportunity. In many cases, multiple religious belonging involves an unequal identification with more than one tradition, or a complete absence of belonging. There are thus weaker and stronger forms of multiple religious belonging, or cases where the term is used in a literal or in a more analogical sense. Common to these various forms of multiple belonging is a focus on the ritual or practical, rather than the more theoretical or philosophical dimensions of religion.13 This is evident in the more vitalistic orientation

Evidence of this functionalistic approach to religion in conjunction with multiple religious belonging may also be found in the cultic context of antiquity, where individuals could seek the services of different Gods (Mithra, Dionysius, etc.) for different occasions and purposes without any sense of compulsion to devote oneself uniquely to the service of one. Interesting for our purpose is the fact that whereas the cults thus allowed for ancient forms of multiple religious belonging, the philosophical schools (Platonism, Epicurianism, etc.) demanded total and unique adherence, since assent to one logically implied partial or total rejection of the other.

of Japanese religiosity, focused as it is on ritual efficacy, rather than on logical coherence. Devotion to miracle-working saints and gods of different religious traditions also answers very obviously to immediate worldly needs. And the esoteric strands from antiquity to the present day have played a clear therapeutic function, oriented toward the direct transformation of the individual and the world. In the cases of interreligious dialogue and interreligious marriage, this functionalistic or utilitarian approach to religion is less in evidence, although one may also find elements of it in so far as individuals may practice the rituals of two traditions with little or no concern for theological or philosophical consistency. This only partly explains the resistance to multiple religious belonging on the part of the religions themselves. The phenomenon of multiple religious belonging may be likened to following many masters, selectively appropriating different aspects of their teachings and profiting from each of their particular charismatic gifts and/or miraculous powers. Multiple belonging may thus be regarded as a chance to take the best from every religious tradition and to enjoy the fruits of all. It may be seen to bypass the risk of being manipulated, exploited or brainwashed by any one particular master or religious institution. As such, multiple religious belonging may be regarded as the epitome of religious freedom and responsibility. Every individual is here faced with the chance and the challenge to develop their own personal synthesis of the teachings which he or she derives from various religious sources. While multiple belonging may thus seem perfectly legitimate and even advisable, it also raises critical questions. These questions arise from the clash between the subjective and the objective (or religious) conceptions of religious belonging. First,

multiple religious belonging tends toward a commodification or an instrumentalization of religious traditions. Not only do individuals pick from different religious whatever suits their own personal convictions and taste (often ignoring the more challenging aspects of the tradition), but multiple belonging tends to focus mainly on the immediate practical effects of particular teachings and practices. Even though religions do lend themselves to being used for various worldly purposes, and even though some religions may become associated with particular ritual functions, the reduction of a religion to a limited ritual role does not accord with the self-understanding of most religious traditions. Native American religions are not only about sweat-hut ceremonies, and Buddhism is not only about providing funeral rituals. While religions may at times concede to fulfilling such limited ritual functions, this always entails a certain degree of compromise, or in some cases a distortion of the tradition. Secondly, multiple religious belonging often involves a complete ignorance of or indifference toward the conception of belonging as defined from within the tradition to which one claims to belong. Most religions conceive of belonging as a complete surrender to the ultimate truth of the teachings and practices of the tradition. While this may be regarded as self-serving, I have tried to argue that it may also correspond to a profound spiritual logic on evidence in all spiritual traditions: attainment of the highest spiritual realization presupposes total self-surrender, or it takes a lifetime to follow one master. Multiple religious belonging, on the other hand, is only possible through a less than complete commitment to any single tradition. It is only by withholding full commitment, or by ignoring the religious conceptions of belonging, that one is able to belong to different religions at once. In many cases, multiple religious belonging in fact

involves an unequal belonging to more than one religion, or a primary belonging to one, and a partial belonging to another. In these cases, however, the latter religion is unlikely to recognize such partial identification with certain selective teachings as genuine belonging. Multiple religious belonging thus runs against the grain of religious selfunderstanding. This may go some way in explaining why the cases of genuine multiple belonging are relatively rare, and why the experience of being torn between two religions often comes with considerable personal and spiritual turmoil. In the end, the problem of multiple religious belonging may be a linguistic, rather than a religious one. Multiple religious belonging generally involves less than a fully equal belonging to different religions. For many, it is a matter of belonging to one religion and being inspired by particular teachings or practices of another, or of interreligious dialogue. The term might thus be reserved for those few cases in which individuals are genuinely torn between two traditions, while in other cases one might develop a greater reticence and respect for the tradition, before claiming to belong.