Buddhist-Christian Studies 25 (2005) 9-14
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Religious Identity and Openness in a Pluralistic World
David W. Chappell
How do I understand my own identity as a religious person in light of the fact that I am open to the validity of the beliefs held by other traditions?
Has my understanding of my own religious tradition been transformed, purified, and enriched by the ways in which I have come to understand the other traditions?
Have I been changed by the dialogue, or do I remain the same? What difference has the dialogue made in my life, personally or theologically?
How would I respond to this topic from the point of view that I am a religious person engaged in a specific area of expertise (environment, philosophy, etc.)?
The increased mobility and diversity of relationships in the contemporary world has often made religious identity a complex issue, hardening it for some people and diffusing it for others. But in either case, I wish to challenge the view that highlights beliefs as a key to defining identity and instead propose that many other factors might be more important, and that in religious life identity is a secondary issue.
I was born, baptized, and raised in the Christian tradition. My father was a United Church of Canada minister and I became a United Church of Canada minister, while my mother was a Baptist and my brother became a Baptist minister. Religious values were important in my upbringing and throughout my adult life. While I have maintained a concern for ultimate values, however, my own beliefs have undergone radical changes. I am sure that many in the Christian community would say that I am no longer a Christian, but I have never taken that view and have never taken the step to renounce my ordination as a Christian minister. Instead, I question the assumption that beliefs are the best way to define a religious life or religious identity. [End Page 9]
In 1961 I had the good fortune to go to McGill University to study with Wilfred Smith, and from him I have learned not to focus on the "beliefs" of others—namely, intellectual constructs—but on the "faith" of others as much more encompassing and important. Some religious communities—like the Jain and the Confucian—do not care about one's beliefs, only about one's practice, both ritually and morally. Wilfred Smith called it orthopraxy, rather than orthodoxy, and it provides an alternative means of marking religious identity.
Why should I feel bound by the efforts of Emperor Constantine when he convened a church council in 325 CE to define Christian identity or by subsequent efforts of church institutions to do the same? Today, my Christian identity is nurtured and expressed by a constellation of moral values and cosmic trust, of faith and actions, that are connected to the early Jesus movement, especially as articulated by John Dominic Crossan. Living as we do in the modern era, we have very different beliefs about history and cosmology from these early Christians, as John Robinson discussed forty years ago in his book Honest to God. My affection for Christian church life and the early Jesus movement involves other factors than the concerns of those who formed Christian creeds. The Trinitarian doctrine makes sense as a conglomeration made from the conceptualization of several historical experiences important in the early Christian community, but the Trinitarian concept does not clarify or enhance my contemporary experience.
In spite of the Trinitarian formulation, I still honor and value the powerful and enduring influence of my Christian upbringing. As a result, I have not renounced the name "Christian" or my ordination as a Christian minister, even though I have grown increasingly away from them. I am still the second son of Lynsin and Mary Chappell. Even though my parents may seem to be dead and gone, they are still alive for me. I treasure them and I still live my life in their embrace, as well as in the embrace of the fellowship of...