- Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity
"A heightened and widespread awareness of religious pluralism," according to Catherine Cornille, "has presently left the religious person with the choice not only of which religion, but also how many religions she or he might belong to" (p. 1). What Cornille calls "multiple religious belonging," therefore, merits our theological attention. I agree, even though I am not convinced that the phenomenon is very widespread and certainly not a trend. In any event, Cornille does us a great service in raising the issue of multiple religious belonging. The book should be widely read and discussed.
Lest there be any confusion, Cornille is skeptical of bourgeois Westerners making facile claims about being Buddhists or Taoists and does not consider this "belonging." She argues (following Raymundo Panikkar) that religious belonging entails a twofold movement: first, a conscious (not "anonymous") identification with a religious community, and second, being recognized by that community as a member. Promoters of New Age spirituality therefore do not practice multiple religious belonging as defined by Cornille. In fact, New Age religiosity is not a form of belonging at all to the extent that it rejects the normativity of any religious claim. Furthermore, belonging is more than admiration for another religion and acceptance of selected beliefs from that religion. In this case, Christians such as myself, who have dedicated themselves to the study of Buddhism, cultivated Buddhist friends, studied with Buddhist teachers and who practice forms of Buddhist meditation within a Christian liturgical context, but do not self-identify as Buddhists, should not be considered examples of multiple religious belonging. All this seems very sensible to me. Oddly, none of the contributors actually endorse multiple religious belonging as defined by Cornille. There is, however, much discussion regarding possible theological foundations for it.
At the beginning of his essay, Jacques Dupuis recognizes that multiple religious belonging poses serious theological problems for Christian believers. Clearly this is [End Page 167] the case. A Christian professing to be a Buddhist is theologically unintelligible. Dupuis, however, goes on to caution theologians such as myself to go slow in coming to any conclusions about the propriety of multiple religious belonging. In this, I also am in agreement. The church should be patient with multiple religious belongers in the hope of learning from them. If this means putting theological concerns on hold for the time being, so be it. This would not be the first time that theology would be playing catch-up ball with new forms of Christian spiritual practice. Multiple religious belonging may prove to be a genuine possibility for Christian spiritual practice. Theology will have a legitimate voice in making such a determination. Dupuis is right to counsel caution.
Not all of the contributors take the theological problems posed by multiple religious belonging as seriously as Dupuis does. Raymundo Panikkar, for example, deals with the problem by dismissing the importance of doctrine to religious identity. Apparently, one is free to believe anything one wants and still call oneself a Christian, a Sikh, or a Muslim, provided that one is accepted by these communities as a member. In minimizing the importance of doctrine, Panikkar takes pains to separate faith from mere belief, as if making this strict distinction between the two were the only alternative to fundamentalism. Once faith transcends the institutional boundaries that distinguish religions, the test for religious belonging is sociological, not theological. Conflicting doctrinal claims distinguishing religious communities from one another are not a problem for multiple religious belonging because doctrinal consistency has little to do with one's multiple religious identities.
Even more than Panikkar, Francis X. Clooney is untroubled by the theological problems attending multiple religious belonging. Starting with Hindu texts (primarily the Mutal Tiruvantati), Clooney builds bridges to a Christian text (Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola) and concludes that God will be with us in whatever way suits us. "However someone takes refuge in me," Vishnu assures us in the Gita, "in that way I do favor them." The devotee supplies the imagination. God never fails...