In its January 25, 2011 issue, The Christian Century, the banner publication of liberal Protestantism, carried an interesting cover story (subscription required) by Amy Frykholm with the title “Double Belonging”. Not only did the cover contain a graphic illustration for the article—a pair of differently colored glasses—but an editorial by John Buchanan enthusiastically endorsed the argument that an individual could hold allegiance to two faith traditions. The article reports on three cases of this kind of religious double citizenship—respectively, Buddhist-Christian, Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Christian.
The subject of the first case is much better known than the other two, and is the only one of the three that I have read. Paul Knitter, a former Roman Catholic priest, is a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He has long been a proponent of the so-called pluralist school of inter-religious dialogue, which maintains that all religious traditions contain, and only contain, partial perspectives on the ultimate reality. The most prominent representative of the school, the British Protestant theologian John Hick, has called for a Copernican revolution in theology—seeing one’s own tradition as only one of several planets circling the sun, never totally visible, of the ultimate reality. Knitter and Hick have been collaborators and friends. While this is a general position in a “theology of religions”, Knitter has been most actively influenced by dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. Not all proponents of this school go as far as to claim equal allegiance to specifically two traditions; as far as I know, Hick does not. Knitter’s own position is succinctly summed up in the title of his book published in 2009: Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian.
Knitter was attracted to Buddhism, not so much because of its ideas, but by way of Zen meditational practices, later expanding to other forms of Buddhist meditation. He found that his immersion into this type of Buddhist practice in no way undermined his Christian, indeed his Catholic identity, but rather reinforced it. He also found that both faiths strengthened his moral commitment to various political causes, though he admits that he had some difficulty reconciling political activism with the Buddhist ideal of “non-action”. The kind of politics that Knitter has in mind is clearly indicated by a previous book published in 2002 in collaboration with Chandra Muzaffar. The book is an ethical approach to problems of the global economy. I have not read that book, but I have met Muzaffar and am the recipient of a newsletter he publishes from Malaysia. Muzaffar is a mild-mannered individual, a pious Muslim with no sympathy for Jihadist violence. His political views are an expression of vintage 1960s Third Worldism of the more pacific sort, though his anti-American and anti-Zionist rhetoric is virulent enough. I don’t know to what extent Knitter shares all or most of these views, but he is associated with a center identified with “progressive Christianity”.
Deborah Risa Mrantz represents a different synthesis, this one between Christianity and Judaism. Born of Jewish parents from eastern Europe, she grew up in Hawaii, undoubtedly the most pluralistic American state, and went to a school with a strongly Christian flavor (the Punahou School, which is also Barack Obama’s alma mater). Like Knitter, Mrantz finds her particular double citizenship supported by Jewish and Christian mystical traditions. She practices prayer and attends liturgies of both faiths. A designer by profession, she tries to find artistic expressions drawing from both faiths. She considers herself to be an “intertestamental” figure, supposedly in the footsteps of the apostle Paul, who, she asserts, remained a Jew even though he became a disciple of Jesus. I think that most New Testament scholars would have a problem with her assertion, since Paul, more than anyone else in the early Christian community, took the message of Jesus beyond the confines of Judaism.
The third case is that of Ann Holmes Redding, who identifies herself as both a Christian and a Muslim. As the article points out, of the three cases she paid the heaviest price for this double self-identification. An African-American (I don’t know how relevant race has been in her religious biography), she served as an Episcopal priest for twenty years. She first came into contact with Islam because she was asked to organize an adult education class on the topic. She describes her religious trajectory as one of “convergence”, not “conversion”—that is, she remained a Christian while also becoming a Muslim. Like Knitter and Mrantz, she was attracted by practice rather than ideas—in her case, regular Muslim prayer, but also Sufi forms of meditation. She was drawn above all to Islam as complete submission to God, especially in moments of personal crisis or suffering—the Arabic name of the faith means, precisely, submission: A Muslim is one who submits. She became ready to recite the shahada, the assertion that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is His messenger. In Islamic law, anyone who recites the shahada before witnesses thereby becomes a Muslim, with all the ensuing religious and (no small thing) legal implications. As her double religious identity became open, she was expelled from the Episcopal priesthood and as a result lost her livelihood. The article does not tell how Redding makes her living now. She considers her mission to be one of reconciliation between the two faiths that are so often in conflict with each other.
What is one to make of all this? Let me first, in the interest of full disclosure, make three observations. As a sociologist, I am not surprised by any of it. I have long been convinced that plurality—the co-existence of different worldviews and value systems in the same society—is an almost inevitable consequence of modernity. I have endlessly written about this. Pluralism—most easily defined as the ideological embrace of plurality—is the most benign response to plurality (as against Balkanization and civil war). As a citizen, I am very much in favor of it. Moreover, as a Christian who likes to dabble in theology, I too believe that religious traditions should be in dialogue with each other and that each can learn from such activity. Thus I am predisposed to be sympathetic with the overall impetus behind the notion of religious double citizenship. However, I am skeptical regarding the syntheses described in Frykholm’s article.
There are two important themes that frequently occur in pluralistic approaches to religious diversity. They also occur here. One is the notion that one can relate to other religious traditions by way of common moral principles and of joint political actions. The other is the notion that commonality can be perceived as a result of comparable mystical experiences. Both notions underemphasize the cognitive aspect of religion. Both notions, I think, are problematic. It is doubtful that most traditions share moral principles. One can reduce morality to some practical recommendations. Buddhists and Christians can agree that one should not kick little old ladies into the gutter. But behind this shared recommendation lie vastly different definitions of reality. It is even possible to argue that Buddhist “compassion for all sentient beings” is almost the opposite of Christian caritas. Buddhists and Christians can cooperate in a political project to benefit old people, as indeed they can cooperate in such a project with agnostics and atheists, or even with self-interested businesses marketing walking sticks and sturdy walking shoes to old ladies. Leave aside here the fact that Third Worldist and “progressive” projects are unlikely to do much for the intended beneficiaries. Any joint political projects, whatever their ideological coloration, can only bring together the adherents of different faiths in a temporary, ad hoc manner. As to mystical experiences—yes indeed, there are important mystical streams in all major traditions. They do indeed resemble each other, as was brilliantly shown in the classical work by Rudolf Otto, Mysticism East and West, with a point-by-point comparison of the medieval Christian Meister Eckhart with the classical Hindu teacher Shankara. The two men could not possibly have known each other’s works, yet the former’s Middle German reads like a translation of the latter’s Sanskrit. There is something like a mystical internationale, popping up again and again throughout religious history. It is very important to understand that this mystical undercurrent has always been in tension with the major developments in the three Abrahamic traditions, whose representatives quite correctly suspected mysticism of undermining the core of the respective faiths. Let me put it this way: It is very difficult to imagine Moses, or Jesus, or Muhammad proclaiming their message while sitting in the lotus position!
Political activists and mystics share an aversion to what they view as arid dogmatism. They are right up to a point. One can brush aside theoretical reflection in the midst of practical activity or of mystical contemplation. But sooner or later there will be questions: Why should one practice compassion? How does this mystical ecstasy relate to the prophetic teaching? As soon as one tries to answer such questions, one confronts the fact that there are vast differences between the definitions of reality of different traditions—cognitive differences. In this connection I like to recall a wonderful sentence by al-Ghazali, who attempted to integrate Sufi mysticism with mainstream Islamic philosophy. After asserting that the mystical experience is beyond language and beyond rational comprehension, he nevertheless insisted that one must use reason to reflect about it—“for reason is God’s scale on earth”. Knitter is the only professional theologian of our three cases, and he did indeed articulate his version of pluralism in a theoretical way. He is also the only one of the three who sees his interfaith synthesis as supporting political engagement (unless Redding’s mission of reconciliation may also have a political dimension). But it seems that the cognitive dimension of religion did not play a major role in the three biographical trajectories.
I cannot here go into detail concerning the sharp cognitive differences between the four traditions synthesized in our cases. The cognitive discrepancy between Buddhism and all three Abrahamic traditions is very sharp indeed. In its long history (some five hundred years longer than Christianity’s) there developed very different forms of Buddhism, notably between the Theravada and Mahayana schools. But, as far as I know, all schools of Buddhism teach the Noble Truths that form the cognitive presuppositions of the Eightfold Path toward Enlightenment: All reality is impermanence. All reality is suffering. All reality is non-self. I would propose that Christian faith rejects every one of these putative truths: God is ultimately permanent, eternal being as against the ever-changing flux of mundane realities. God’s work of redemption (the Jewish tikun olam, “repair of the universe”) aims at the end of all suffering. The human self is real, because and as long as God addresses it. (This last sentence is a paraphrase of one by Luther.) I do believe that the dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism is important and productive—cognitively so. But it is not an easy undertaking.
Dialogue between the three Abrahamic traditions may seem relatively easier, since they do worship the same God and share a lot of common (though rarely happy) history. But, as we know well, disputes between relatives tend to be particularly acrimonious.
The Jewish-Christian synthesis: It is not just that Christians believe in the Messianic status of Jesus of Nazareth, while Jews refuse to accept it. Ever since Paul (whom Mrantz takes as her role model, dubiously so) radically redefined the new faith, with Jesus’ death and resurrection having cut history into two. It became increasingly clear, on both sides, that Christianity and Judaism perceived and experienced reality in very different ways. Abraham Heschel, the great American rabbi, put it very well when he said that Judaism understands that the world is still unredeemed, while Christianity believes that redemption has already begun with Jesus. Both sides ratified the difference—the Christian side by the Jerusalem council of apostles reported in Acts 15, which agreed with Paul that Gentile converts were not to be subjected to the great bulk of Jewish law—the Jewish side, when the rabbinical school of Yavne came to decide that the Nazarenes (aka Christians) had placed themselves outside Judaism. (There had been the idea that there had been something like a single Yavne council, but I understand that recent scholarship has dismissed this as a myth.)
The Muslim-Christian synthesis: It is not just that the person of Jesus is described in the Koran in a manner incompatible with his status in Christian faith. It has been suggested by some scholars that, in effect, the Koran has a status similar to that of Christ in Christianity—both understood as existing prior to the creation (one could perhaps Islamize the prologue to the Gospel of John by substituting “the Koran” for every mention of “the Logos”). Here too there is a very different definition of reality. I can see how theologically liberal Christians might give assent to the shahada (though they will balk at the legal consequences, ranging from the obligations of prayer and pilgrimage to the death penalty for apostasy). I think that even the most liberal ones would have a problem with the view that the revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammad imposed a “seal of prophecy”—making Jesus a forerunner, a sort of John the Baptist, to Muhammad.
The literature on inter-religious dialogue distinguishes between three general approaches: exclusivism, which affirms the uniqueness and superiority of one’s own faith.; inclusivism, which takes its stand within one tradition, while conceding that truth may also be found outside it; and pluralism, as ably represented by Knitter and Hick. I am of the opinion that inclusivism has the best chance of avoiding both closed-minded fanaticism and self-liquidating relativism.