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  • Religious Dualism and the Problem of Dual Religious Identity
  • Jonathan A. Seitz

The word “dualism” is used in many senses. It can refer to the separation of mind and body in classical Western philosophy or to the separation of divine and human in some religious traditions, but religious dualism is also used in the social sciences to describe how two religious systems may relate to each other. Personally, I am interested in this topic because I teach at a Taiwanese seminary, where students draw deeply on Taiwanese culture even as they assert a very clear Christian identity that often challenges or clashes with the broader culture. Like many Protestants, my students generally reject an idea of syncretism while simultaneously affirming Taiwanese culture and many popular beliefs. This dual identity fascinates me.

“Dualism” in anthropological research is sometimes used to describe the attachment to two discrete religious or cultural traditions, such as Buddhism and Christianity. An important early theorist was anthropologist June Nash, whose work grew out of ethnographic research in Bolivia and Mexico. Nash looked at Bolivian miners and studied their popular devotion. She wrote that “this technique of syncretizing elements as developed by the Spaniards in the early years of conquest seems alien to the Bolivian way of thinking. It relates to a mode of thinking that accepts only a single, hierarchically defined system of ideas. Indigenous thought is capable of entertaining coexistant and apparently contradictory world views.” Nash says that she “hope[d] to clarify this point of the segmentation in time and space of the two systems, since it defies the model of acculturation as a homogenous blend.”1

In this understanding, “dualism” better describes the reality with which many people live than do more general terms like “indigenization” or “acculturation,” and it also resists an understanding that religious traditions simply blend together—rather, they are segmented and retain elements of coherence even when held simultaneously.

languages of dual belonging

“Dualism” has been helpful because it allows for the recognition that people may belong to two or more distinct traditions. More recently, “dual religious belonging” has been used by theologians such Paul Knitter and Rose Drew. In the past, Buddhist-Christian [End Page 49] Studies has devoted considerable space to the topic.2 The theological step is a step further beyond anthropological dualism, but it is also interested in affirming the “both-ness” of holding to two traditions simultaneously.

In this essay I want to grapple with the ways in which dualism can be understood. I believe this systemic language holds some real benefits over other approaches, particularly over more general process terms like “contextualization,” “accommodation,” “indigenization,” “acculturation,” “vernacularization,” and so on. These “-ation” words are helpful in pointing to how conversion or Christianization occurs over time, but they also assume a sort of final synthesis or resolution, and for most people this is probably not how it works. This paper briefly treats two approaches to dual belonging, Nicole Constable’s study of Hakka Protestants in Hong Kong and Jon Kirby’s analysis of northern Ghanaian Catholic communities, and then contrasts these with the more theological language of dual religious belonging found in papers by scholars like Paul Knitter.

Essentially, dualism proposes a “both/and” understanding, a type of personal or religious emulsion where two systems are mixed together but resist a full integration. For some scholars, this is fundamentally a positive thing, since it allows for the integrity of the different systems. In others, it is seen as a type of failure to arrive at a reconciled identity, or the bifurcation of an indigenous tradition because of the arrival of Christianity (or another religion).

Part of the reason I am interested in this topic is precisely because it gets at a tension—a real ambivalence (i.e., two valences)—that other approaches may not reach. For instance, there is a wide range of uses of contextualization, appropriation, enculturation, vernacularization, indigenization, and so on. My hunch is that scholars use these terms in part because they reduce the cognitive dissonance involved in simultaneously living or working in multiple cultures. Contextualization is a process that may assume a type of full integration, while with dualism the tension is...


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