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  • Practicing the Religious Self: Buddhist-Christian Identity as Social Artifact
  • Duane R. Bidwell

It is somewhat paradoxical to write or speak about identity formation in two religious traditions that ultimately deny the reality of any identity that we might claim or fashion for ourselves. In the Christian traditions, a person’s true (or ultimate) identity is received through God’s action and grace in baptism; to foreground any other facet of the self, or to anchor identity in anything but baptism, could be considered a form of idolatry. In the Buddhist traditions human identity is empty, woven not from an inherent or externally granted essence but through the interdependent arising of all things; 1 to cling to self and to identity as independent, enduring, immutable, or autonomous signals a mistaken understanding of reality.2 Indeed, as religious scholar Alice Keefe has written, “belief in the self as independent and self-existent is our fundamental delusion and root poison.” 3

Yet day by day most of us experience our identities, including our religious, cultural, and social identities, as neither empty nor erased. On the contrary: they seem to be inscribed with enduring meaning. Knowledge has been chiseled into them through our participation in the rituals and relationships of the world. At times the very fullness of our identities can feel on the verge of overflowing. This sense of dynamic presence and fullness causes our identities to serve as important (and perhaps essential) tools for negotiating the hurly-burly of experience and relationship in the mundane, finite, material world.4 From this perspective, our religious identities are social artifacts, entities and meanings formed in between, or on the margins of, biological selves that are related to one another through communities of practice.5 These communal artifacts may then be interiorized by individuals as resources that can be employed in or offered back to the world—performed, if you will—through particular (and sometimes disciplined) practices.6

The primacy of social process in creating and maintaining religious identity implies that community remains central to the process of fashioning the religious self in contemporary Buddhist and Christian practice. If this is true, it raises, of course, important questions about our understandings of ecclesiology and the nature of the sangha, theological anthropology and Buddhist understandings of the person. These questions [End Page 3] deserve to be answered, but they are too broad to be addressed here. My more modest intention is to contribute to generative conversation about religious identity formation by illustrating how my own religious identities as Buddhist and Christian have been practiced and performed as social artifacts in two particular instances. In a secondary sense, this essay serves as a reflection on pastoral work in a multifaith context, something “much needed in the Buddhist-Christian studies milieu.” 7

Given the diverse academic approaches to Buddhist-Christian studies, it seems wise to begin by describing my own background and approach. By training I am a pastoral theologian, someone who seeks to understand critically the richness and complexity of human experiences and then to respond with appropriate, faithful, and effective acts of care. The psychological meta-theory of social constructionism serves as a primary conversation partner for my work; it invites me to ask “not what goes on ‘inside’ people, but what people go on inside of.” 8 For pragmatic reasons I tend to utilize David Tracy’s mutual critical (or revised) correlational method,9 and in the dialectic between understanding human experience and responding to it, I privilege liberationist theologies and religio-ethical norms of justice, love, and wisdom. My practice as a spiritual director and pastoral counselor seeks to promote practices of freedom for all people.10

As a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) I am accountable to the Reformed tradition of Christian theology. My formal theological education occurred in the ecumenical context of a divinity school affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and at a diocesan seminary affiliated with the contemplative Anglican tradition. My informal training in Buddhist philosophy and practice occurred in the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia, primarily through five years of participation in an immigrant congregation and weekly study with Thich Phap Nhan, a Vietnamese monk...